Finding Hope During a Grim Summer: a Nonviolent Solution to Terrorism? by Shawn Patterson

by tuftsigl
Aug 05

Every week, the interns at the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) write a report that summarizes recent world news. Between a new outburst of global terror attacks and the draconian responses of governments, it has been a grim effort. Social media feeds and 24-hour news networks highlight tragedy, following the mantra: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Working at a humanitarian, pro-democracy NGO is an exercise in finding positivity and purpose amidst doubt and fear diffused by politicians and pundits. After finishing my report on the difficult situation in Eritrea, I found new hope in the work of human rights activists and scholars to fight terrorism and reduce the violence of the Syrian civil war.

The Syrian civil war dominated news headlines since the 2011 Arab Spring protests which called for the end of the Assad regime. Syrian activists were hopeful that diligent protests would bring the regime changes present in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. Political analysts predicted that protesters would topple the Assad regime by 2012. The Assad regime used brutal force against protesters and civilian sympathizers, including chemical weapons. Nonviolent protesters changed tactics, took up arms against the government, and began the slow, bloody war. Civilian infrastructure was desperately targeted by both rebel and government forces seeking victory. The Islamic State filled the Syrian power vacuum with a massive propaganda push and promise to provide the basic needs of people caught in the crossfire of the civil war. Northern Kurdish forces succeeded in fighting the Islamic State, but added a new dimension of complication to the war. International backers turned a civil war into a proxy war for regional and international politics interests.

The only thing the international community can agree upon is their disdain for the Islamic State, who ruthlessly sponsors terrorism and trains fighter to attack civilians in the Middle East and abroad. Their international propaganda campaigns inspire lone wolf attacks across from North America to South Asia. Russia and the United States, often polarized enemies, respond by launching airstrikes and considering ground intervention in Syria. While the aggressive Russian military campaign rolled back Islamic State advances in 2015, the leaders of IS know that they can outlast foreign intervention. The Islamic State regained lost territory in 2016 after Russia drew down their support. As a result of this failing pattern, policymakers are searching for a new solution.

At CANVAS and elsewhere, nonviolent activists are proposing new methods to defeat the Islamic State. These common sense solutions include supporting civil society and economic development, countering propaganda campaigns with satire and spreading positive messages, and passively resisting authoritarian regimes when protests are stifled. The first point addresses the socioeconomic support of terrorism: young people are looking for economic survival and purpose. International aid organizations are supporting domestic Syrian activists in providing basic necessities and community building. This steers civilians away from supporting the Islamic State out of necessity. Second, the serious and apocalyptic propaganda of the Islamic State is turned on its head by comedians who mock the simple, chauvinistic messages. Furthermore, activists in IS-controlled territory fight propaganda by releasing videos that reveal the squalid conditions of cities like Raqqa. The Islamic State cannot be neutralized until their opposition wins the media war. Lastly, resistance to the Islamic State can start within their territory through sabotage and work slowdowns. Boisterous protests and heroic stands against the IS have been met with immense brutality. Activists can gain momentum by winning small battles against authoritarians until the civil war reaches ceasefire. IS is only as strong as the population it governs, and the Syrian population can be turned against it through the work of committed activists and strategic action.

Working on these research projects is challenging and ultimately rewarding. As an student of international security, the Syrian quagmire seemed like a military problem with a military solution. As Tufts professor Kelly Greenhill puts it, “When you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” My work at CANVAS adds a new layer to my perspective, and I am hopeful that soft power can be a new solution in Syria.