Syria's Cycle of Retribution

By Di Giovanni, Janine | Newsweek, March 8, 2013 | Go to article overview

Syria's Cycle of Retribution


Di Giovanni, Janine, Newsweek


Byline: Janine di Giovanni

When nonviolent revolutions spin into bloodshed.

Srdja Popovic goes around the world teaching nonviolent techniques to activists to overthrow autocrats. Whenever he talks about the Arab Spring, he says: "2011 was the worst year ever for bad guys."

Meaning, goodbye Hosni Mubarak, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Muammar Gaddafi. Two years ago, it looked like even Bashar al-Assad was going to fall into that losers' club.

But judging from last Sunday's exclusive interview with Bashar--as he is called inside Syria by his detractors--by The Sunday Times, it doesn't look like this bad guy is going anywhere.

Delusional? Bashar doesn't think so. He thinks the British and American governments are bullies for aiding the Syrian opposition. John Kerry and his recent comments about Syria only fueled Bashar's determination that he is not leaving Damascus without force. The murder of innocents; the aerial raids in Aleppo; the targeting of journalists--all exaggeration, according to Bashar. All lies told by the pro-rebel press, and by the West, who have no right to pry into Syria's internal business.

Last Sunday I got woken up with the news that my fixer, Abdullah Alyasin--who helped Western reporters who venture into Aleppo work--was killed. Details of his death are appalling. Abdullah was not killed by shrapnel or rockets but was assassinated.

His killers are not yet named--though most people who knew him know who they are. His killing will either fall into that awful category of nontruth that cynics call "the fog of war," or there will be some kind of vengeance rebuttal, and the cycle of violence continues. The point to me is not who did it, but that one more human being is dead in Syria. One more young life has been halted.

The increasingly spinning cycle of violence in Syria, not just between Bashar and the rebels, but within various factions of the rebels, reminds me of the Yeats poem, Easter, 1916: "A terrible beauty is born."

Could nonviolent methods have eventually worked to overthrow Bashar? It worked in Serbia. Popovic was one of the leaders of the Serbian resistance, OTPOR, which overthrew Slobodan Milosevic back in 2000. Nothing impressed me more than his and his colleagues' dogged persistence to get rid of a murderer who brought his country into five bloody wars.

Eleven years on, to see some of the Tunisian, Georgian, and Egyptian activists use nonviolence as a method of regime change--some of them trained early on by Popovic--was equally impressive.

Then came Syria. What happened when the opposition decided, at a pivotal moment, to throw away a mantle of nonviolence and take up arms? Was it desperation? Some activists, who were in the early opposition in Homs but fled when it became bloodier, felt that they had been cheated out of trying to save their country. "I did not want a gun," one told me. "I thought we could overthrow Bashar by uniting the people. Surely enough people do not like him. We could have banded together."

Jasmine Revolution activists in Tunisia did something else. They used the Internet as a way of shutting down Ben Ali's regime, by hacking into his ministries and closing them down. Egypt's April 6 activists planned in advance how they would bring down Mubarak by using some of Popovic's techniques.

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