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Syria Has a Four Percent Chance of Lasting Democratic Change

It might be a bit higher if they quit shooting at each other.

I'm sure you're all well aware by now that the weather forecast in Syria over the last 20 months has been largely sunny with sporadic showers of mortars and death. But – according to Srdja Popović, head of CANVAS (Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies) – apparently all that bloodshed is completely avoidable and is a potentially doomed route towards change.

Back in the 90s, when the Western take on youthful rebellion relied heavily on listening to Rage Against the Machine loudly in public and wearing sweatshop-made Che Guevara t-shirts, Srdja was spending his adolescence orchestrating the downfall of former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic with the civil resistance movement Otpor!, whose unshakable commitment to nonviolence succeeded where NATO bombs failed.


These days, he jets around the globe staging workshops that teach peaceful revolutionaries the art of the bloodless coup, leading some to label him the "architect" of the Arab Spring because of his involvement with Tunisian and Egyptian rebels. An accolade he vehemently rejects. I called him up to get his thoughts on Syria's future.

Srdja giving a TED Talk on how to topple a dictator.

VICE: Hi Srdja. I hear you know a thing or two about staging a revolution – what’s your prediction for the future of Syria?
Srdja Popović: Not good. There was a fantastic study published in 2008 by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan called “Why Civil Resistance Works” that tells you some figures about 323 different uprisings between 1900 and 2006. You'll find only 26 percent of guerrilla movements were successful compared to 53 percent of nonviolent struggles. Even if you add foreign military intervention to your domestic uprising, your chances to win are 35 percent.

Wow. I imagine there’ll be one or 40,000 dead Syrian’s pretty pissed off to hear that.
Right. The second thing is, when you look at these countries five years after the change, do you get stability, do you get democracy or do you get civil war? Your chances to end up in democracy with the Libyan scenario are 4 percent and your chances to end up with democracy in the Egyptian scenario are 42 percent.

Why do you think nonviolent struggle is so much more effective?
Popular nonviolent movements are a way for big numbers of people to participate in change, and once change is achieved, all the people consider themselves shareholders in this change. They tend to stick with their victory because they personally achieved something. Can you imagine somebody trying to take free and fair elections from the Egyptians? Whoever tries that will be faced with another mass response from the people. When you look at the coup or a guerrilla movement, you’re looking at a small number of what are basically elites, so one elite uses a coup to replace another elite – this doesn’t include hundreds of thousands of people.


And fighting a war doesn’t necessarily mean you can run a country.
Exactly. Look at Burma: in 20 years their generals didn’t give up an inch of ground in military terms, but they were absolutely incapable of running an efficient state. The country was falling apart, it was isolated, no commerce, no roads, no infrastructure whatsoever.

Bleak. Thanks, Srdja.

Follow Aleks on Twitter: @slandr

More from Syria:

The Magic Kingdom of Syria

Thousands Are Losing Their Limbs in Assad's War

Gunrunning with the Free Syrian Army

Beats, Rhymes and Death