An exit strategy for Syria's Assad


August 24, 2011

As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the podium to announce the increased political censure and economic sanctions to be levied against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last week, she aptly noted that it was up to the Syrian people to determine their own political fate.

As the regime's brutality has continued to intensify over the past five months and the international pressure has ratcheted up its condemnation of the regime, we are left with the puzzle of what to do next. Can the Syrian regime craft its own exit strategy?

The suggestions here are not about what is an ideal or a just response. It is about stopping the bloodshed from here on. It is about avoiding all the worst-case scenarios of Iraq, Iran, and Sudan; and most importantly, it is about the welfare of the Syrian opposition, protesters, and even the Assad supporters who will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

Assad needs to stop the violence on Syrian streets by both pulling out his army and controlling the notorious shabiha gangs acting in his name. This is a request that has continued to fall on deaf ears because there has been no incentive for the Assad family to stop the violence. We need to end the regime's zero sum calculation. So, in exchange for the Assad regime's order to cease and desist the campaign of repression, the international community needs to offer the Assad regime complete immunity from past actions.

Assad needs to be made to understand that he would be better to take Haiti's Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier or Chile's Augusto Pinochet option than the one not given to Egypt's Hosni Mubarak or worse yet to Iraq's Saddam Hussein. The Assad family has allies and close friendships with elite political circles in Iran, Russia, and Spain. Moreover, in the interest of ending political stalemates, the Gulf has traditionally been welcoming of exiled leaders: Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the probable fate of Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh. It has been reported that the United Arab Emirates may already be planning an exit strategy for Assad, while others argue that the US's pressure and the inevitable EU pressure will make those very countries hesitant to support him. That said, the Gulf may not be so welcoming, as Syria's Alawite-sect regime has never had warm relations with any Gulf country. Iran and Russia may still be the Assad family's best bet. At the end of the day, the international community needs to find a place for the family's immunity and to secure their international assets and wealth for their disposal. The regime includes the Assad siblings' families and a number of other families that are in the inner circle of the regime.

While it may be difficult for the families of Hama, Homs, Deraa, and Latakia to forget the loss of their loved ones, in the interest of moving forward, soldiers and the shabiha also need to be given complete immunity for their crimes. There needs to be a process of national reconciliation among the people and regions of Syria. Minority rights need to be protected to ensure that there is no retribution against Alawites, Christians, Druze, Kurds and other groups that have made Syria the beautiful tapestry that is emblematic of the Middle East that once was.

At the same time, the new Syria cannot enshrine sectarian divisions in its new constitution. We need to avoid the Iraqi scenario of a constitution that resurfaced and then politicized lost identities. Syria, after all, is mostly a cosmopolitan society that has lived in a secular environment that was generally free of inter-sectarian violence.

Syria's future could be a bright one. But the Assad regime needs to understand that it has passed the point of no return as its already feeble international reputation will never be redeemed and the international economic and political squeeze on its regime will not let up. The elite business class of Damascus and Aleppo will soon realize that there will be no "business as usual." Their profits will continue to decline, their international business contracts will be compromised, and their ability to trade and invest abroad will be drastically circumscribed.

Assad's regime had once relished the support of the business class, but soon the Syrian government will feel the pressure to remove the international gaze on Syria. Indeed, the rumours of what to do in Damascus after Assad have already begun. This should be a warning for Assad.

As Syria's inner economic and political circles lose faith in Assad's ability to get Syria out of this diplomatic quagmire, we will see them slowly turn against Assad. It would be wise for Assad to negotiate his exit sooner rather than later. For the interest of stopping the continued bloodshed and making this a zero sum game, the international community needs to offer the Assad regime immunity and help the Syrian people determine their own fate.

Canada's highly respected jurists and international legal experts could help devise the exit strategy. This would require the Canadian government involvement, but the payoff for the Syrian people and the region would be invaluable.

Bessma Momani is a senior fellow with the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

CIGI Senior Fellow Bessma Momani has a Ph.D. in political science with a focus on international political economy and is full professor and interim assistant viceā€‘president of international relations at the University of Waterloo.