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What Syria Can Teach The U.S. About Violence Against Civilians

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone

Hundreds gather at the JJ Hill Montesorri School Thursday, July 7, 2016, in St. Paul, Minn. for a vigil following the shooting death by police of Philando Castile Wednesday night in Falcon Heights, Minn.

In light of recent police violence against black men in the United States and the attack against police officers in Dallas on Thursday, there are lessons that the American public — and particularly American lawmakers and security officials — can take from a country currently entrenched in a bloody civil war: Syria.

To be clear, conditions in the United States are not similar to pre-war Syria. The United States is a democracy — not a dictatorship run by one family where nepotism and clientelism are the norm. The economy is stronger, the standard of living and social mobility (as difficult as it is getting) is still much better, and there are a number of other obvious differences. But there are still lessons to be learned in what could happen when state-inflicted violence on a group of people is not addressed.

Just months before the start of the Syrian revolution, the country was considered one of the safest places on Earth. But for the country’s Sunni population — which had limited access to power — things were a bit different. Despite being the majority of the population, about 74 percent, they also made up the majority of the country’s impoverished and were often the primary targets of state-inflicted violence.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was an Alawite — as were many in his close circle. And despite the support of certain powerful Sunni Muslim families, state-sanctioned violence against the country’s majority Sunni population was much the norm in Syria. Many Syrians had experienced arbitrary detention, seen relatives disappear, or faced brutal torture in state prisons. In many cases, citizens who had done nothing wrong were subjected to violent actions perpetrated by state security officials.

This violence continued throughout Assad’s rule, and eventually the fear became so palpable and real to many Syrians that they felt their only choice was to take up arms and fight back.

“Syria’s revolutionaries didn’t make a formal collective decision to pick up arms—quite the opposite; rather, a million individual decisions were made under fire,” Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami, a pair of Syrian-British journalists and activists, wrote in Burning Country. “It wasn’t a choice,” Yassin Swehat, a Syrian civilian, told the authors. “Look at Homs. When thousands are praying in a square, peaceful, unarmed, and they are shot at, murdered—What do you expect to happen next?”

In March 2011, protests inspired by largely peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, packed the streets of major cities throughout Syria. Some members of the upper class, who lived well and often in isolated bubbles, were confused by the protests against what they viewed as a forward-looking leader. Those who had benefited from the pre-war status quo didn’t understand the anger and blamed the victims. But more than five years on, many on both sides have expressed regret over how the revolution unfolded.

Of course, this is not to say that the latest incidents of police brutality on black men — and the attack on cops in Dallas — mean a revolution is coming in the United States. Black Lives Matter has condemned the attack in Dallas.

But the parallels in state-inflicted violence are clear. In the United States, innocent black men are repeatedly falling victim to an over-militarized police force poorly trained in deescalation tactics, operating in a society where black people are feared. Police officers who fail to protect and serve, and instead are negligent with human life, fail to face criminal charges, time and time again.

The roots are based in the country’s centuries-old disenfranchisement of black people. Even though there are fundamental differences between the United States and Syria, there are parallels between the continued oppression of these communities.

Of course, this is not to say that the latest incidents of police brutality on black men — and the attack on cops in Dallas — mean a revolution is coming in the United States. Civil society is much stronger here and the Black Lives Matter movement, which has always emphasized peaceful tactics, strongly condemned the attack in Dallas.

But as Thursday night’s attack in Dallas goes to show — violence without justice certainly runs the risk of begetting more violence.

And this is something that’s been well-documented in Syria. In a 2014 Princeton case study on Syria, entitled “The Effect of State Killing of Civilians on Anti-State Violence,” author Valerie T. Bryant wrote that her findings “support the theory that government killing of civilians causes anti-government sentiment, leading civilians to support insurgents with membership, funding, or information.”

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