x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Opposition songs threaten Assad's language of force

Brutal regimes hate and fear peaceful protest, because it disproves their narrative about protecting the people from violence and turmoil.

At the end of last week, as mourners in Homs carried their dead to be buried, security forces opened fire on those grieving. This tactic of using live fire against people singing and chanting is now well-established: Libya's forces under Muammar Qaddafi did the same, as did Ali Abdullah Saleh's army in Yemen during that uprising, and Israel's troops against Palestinians.

Indeed, the more powerful a state, the more disparate the power of the combatants, the more fearful it becomes of non-violent resistance. It suits a militarily strong state - such as the United States, which maintains a military edge over every other country - to exaggerate the military danger it faces from another country, because that creates the perception of a conventional threat, and allows it the claim of moral legitimacy to attack.

This is what happened with Iraq where, in the lead-up to war, bloodcurdling facts were put forward about how dangerous the Iraqi army was. In point of fact, after a decade of sanctions, that army - as well as the population - had been severely weakened.

The same is going on today with Iran. As much as Iran represents a formidable military foe, its military reach is nothing like the United States, which maintains dozens of military bases in countries surrounding Iran and has more aircraft carriers in service than the rest of the world combined.

This is why the Syrian government is so keen to paint the uprising as composed of infiltrators, foreign stooges and Al Qaeda bogeymen: if opposition to its rule is armed, then, morally, it can respond with arms.

But what it fears more than anything is non-violent resistance, because that exposes the lack of any moral force to its response. Non-violent resistance - which includes the cultural dissent of chants and songs - is being brutally suppressed by the Al Assad regime.

The Syrian uprising began after the detention of children who had scrawled anti-regime graffiti on walls. Later, after a catchy anti-regime song was penned by Ibrahim Qashoush, he was murdered and thrown in a river. When the cartoonist Ali Farzat began to attack the person of the president in his work, his arms were broken by regime thugs. The slightest non-violent resistance is brutally punished, because it undermines the narrative that the government is defending the people against armed resistance.

Undermining the narrative is precisely why Israel's continued detention without trial of Khader Adnan, and his on-going hunger strike, is seen as so dangerous by the government. It is why non-violent protests by Palestinians and international activists are met with such brutality, or why the "freedom rides" by Palestinians to highlight settlers-only buses are met with such consternation. Such non-violent protests expose the moral bankruptcy of those practices. By taking a stand through peaceful means, the outside world, and even the Israeli public, are forced to recognise the reality being committed.

Syria has been more affected by non-violent resistance for two reasons: the daily protests are pushing the regime to show its true colours, and that, combined with the resonance of the wider Arab Spring, means the world is watching more carefully.

Do either of these countries east and west of the Golan Heights care about their moral standing in the world? To a large degree, the answer is yes. The reason why Israel spends so much time, money and effort to counteract and delegitimise Palestinian non-violent resistance is because it recognises that losing its moral authority could lead to a loss of political support, particularly from the United States. Until then it won't face political isolation and external pressure to change.

Syria also expends resources to counteract non-violent resistance. As well as operating a sophisticated online pro-regime operation, the government also utilises artists to spread its version of events. President Al Assad's interview on US television was also part of this attempt to control the message.

Yet the difference in Syria is that the regime has bet there will be no outside intervention, no boots on the ground nor planes in the air. So while the Assad government engages in attempts to attack the message of non-violent activists, it is ultimately less worried about its moral standing in the world because it does not fear outside involvement in its affairs.

Non-violent resistance is ultimately an appeal to a greater morality, an appeal over the heads of an oppressive system to a watching world. It requires an audience. And if the world is not watching or is not willing to intervene, non-violent resistance can fail. States that are willing to inflict violence on unarmed people will always have the advantage: protestors on the moral high ground make easy targets.

The protestors in Syria, like Khader Adnan in Israel and the millions of Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and Yemenis across the Middle East, require us to see their suffering, see the provocation against them, in order to admire their courage. And they require us to act.



Follow on Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai