No easy exit for Assad

2 Nov

What is Assad to do? The question is not posed out of any sympathy for his plight. He has heaped his woes upon himself, and there are tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen and women more deserving of sympathy.

The question is asked instead to try to scope out possible ways of ending Syria’s civil war, or more precisely Assad’s rule. The options open to other rulers simply are not open to Assad. The system he has created (and again this is his fault) does not allow for Presidents to stand down. His rule rests on a tight clique of kin and co-religionists. By standing down, he would imperil this clique, existentially, materially and symbolically. The nature of Assad’s despotic dynasty, just like many neo-patrimonial regimes in Africa, means that holding power is everything. Conversely, opposition (if tolerated) is nothing; opposition means exclusion from resources, legitimacy and even security. The Syrian political system does not allow space for former-Presidents to end their days writing memoirs, convening think-tanks, and serving on the board of major corporations. The John Major option of writing about cricket is simply inconceivable.

This zero-sum or all or nothing nature of political power explains why Assad is fighting. Quite literally he is fighting for his political life, and very possibly his life. The alternatives are unappealing, especially if you are used to total power. Gaddafi was killed by the mob in inglorious circumstances. Mubarak has been humiliated. Saddam’s trial and execution strayed into farce. Asylum in Saudi Arabia (availed of by Idi Amin, and currently home to former Tunisian President Ben Ali) is unlikely to be available in this case given Riyadh’s antipathy towards Assad. The International Criminal Court looks like an exhausting route. An amicable outcome following talks with the Syrian opposition seems unlikely given that they have made Assad’s departure the first precondition of any talks.

There was a proposal some years ago from a US university to establish a prestigious fellowship scheme for retired African Presidents. It was simply a way to incentivise retirement. But it’s hard to imagine Assad as the visiting professor of …. Butchery.

So that leaves clinging to power as his regime becomes weakened by international sanctions and an increasingly sophisticated insurgency. Beyond a fight to the finish, there really seem to be only two realistic options. The first is assassination (and the Syrian opposition have been quite successful in getting bombs into the heart of the Damascus regime) and asylum in one of the few ‘friendly’ states out there (presumably Russia or Iran). The former is out of Assad’s hands, and the latter would be humiliating and not in the script. So, Syria is condemned to a long-running descent into more conflict.

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