By Bilal Y. Saab – A little less than a year ago, I argued in the pages of the National Interest that one way out of the Syrian crisis (again, that was a year ago) was to try to strike a deal with Assad, keep him in power but in return he would dismantle his regime. I thought at the time that maybe the Syrian president still had some popularity among young people. Bashar could redefine himself and initiate the necessary reforms in the country in return for a fresh new start for him, a break with the past, and a peaceful resolution of the crisis. I never said it was easy or without challenges and uncertainties, after all, the regime is his family, so removing the regime means essentially breaking with members of his family. But I also thought it would be a good deal for the United States. Washington would secure its security interests because Assad is predictable in foreign policy and ensure a democratic transition in the country if Assad played ball. I even was called upon by personnel at the State Department to further discuss my idea (those people shall remain nameless of course). Today, of course, it is too late for that proposal. Assad has too much blood on his hands, and as far as we know, his popularity is rock bottom.
A few weeks ago, we all heard this idea of a “Yemeni model” for Syria being floated around by Washington and Moscow. It is essentially the reverse of what I proposed a year ago. Instead of telling the regime to go, this model asks Assad to step down in return for keeping the regime. If my idea at the time was not practical or smart (I still think it was an opportunity that Bashar should have taken), this Yemeni model is ten times dumber and more dangerous. I rip it apart in this roundtable that appeared in Foreign Policy. Here it is below.
In an attempt to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, the United States and Russia appear to be discussing a diplomatic option, modeled on the U.S.-led political transition in Yemen, that ensures the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his family, and perhaps a few of his close associates but keeps his regime intact. Let us save Washington and Moscow the trouble of having to think through this latest proposal, known in diplomatic circles as “the Yemenskii Variant”: It is a very bad idea that will make things worse.
First, while this proposal, albeit with major modifications and conditions that guarantee a democratic future for Syria, could have been entertained during the first weeks of the uprising, 14 months and more than 13,000 deaths later is simply too late. The bloodshed is too extreme, and Assad must be held accountable. And any theory of him not being in charge or not having ordered this brutal crackdown is utter nonsense. Assad is the head of the Syrian government and — as far as we know — all major decisions, including management of the uprising, are made by him and members of his family.
Second, the Syrian people should be consulted first and foremost. It is one thing to try to stop the carnage and save lives in Syria, but quite another to do it without respecting the long-term aspirations of the Syrian people. Who said that the Syrian people would be on board with keeping a murderous regime that has massacred them on a daily basis? Of course, it is a challenge to know precisely how the Syrian people wish to achieve their goals of freedom, security, and prosperity. Those who speak for the people — the Syrian opposition — are hardly coherent or united. There may not be consensus or unanimity among Syrians on how to move forward. Nevertheless, there is something terribly wrong about the notion of foreign powers planning the future of a people they wish to rescue without their endorsement.
Third, the plan is highly immoral. Diplomacy should seek to end the violence in Syria, but certainly not at the expense of justice. History shows that diplomacy is most effective when it is just and rooted in morality. The Syrian people, like their Egyptian counterparts, deserve to see their tyrannical ruler stand before them and face punishment for his crimes. Without justice, there is no reconciliation, and thus any post-Assad political order that preserves the outgoing president’s regime is a recipe for continued conflict. For Syrian society to be given a chance to heal, all sects and communal groups must come together and collectively build a better future.
Preserving an oppressive and minority-led regime means that the Alawites will retain their political dominance over others, a condition that is guaranteed to cause more sectarian violence and further alienate the Sunnis, who represent the majority of Syrian society. While former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh personified the state in his country, Assad is not the only problem in Syria. It is the fascist and security-oriented regime that the Baathists built in 1963 and Hafez al-Assad — Bashar’s father — remodeled in 1970. Syria needs new leaders, but it also needs a new system and a new identity and role in international society.
Fourth, has anybody called Bashar and asked him if he is willing to play ball? Given the alliance between Damascus and Moscow, one would assume that Russian President Vladimir Putin has phoned his Syrian counterpart and asked him how he would feel about packing his and his family’s bags in return for his life. Even if he did, there is reason to believe that Assad will reject this offer for one simple reason: He thinks he is winning. His regime has yet to face a significant security or political threat and the balance of power, despite the rebels’ receipt of more modern weapons recently from neighboring countries, still tilts heavily in the government’s favor.
One can understand why Russia would favor the Yemeni model for Syria. Moscow does not really need Assad to preserve its strategic interests in Syria and the Middle East. All it wants is a Syrian government that allows it to use the port of Tartous for access to the Mediterranean Sea, that purchases Russian arms, and that maintains trade relations. Assad is expendable as long as his successors stay the course on relations with Russia.
How could the United States even be thinking about this exit strategy, which does nothing to address the roots of the uprising or hold anyone accountable for the crackdown? The stakes in Syria are too high to resort to solutions on the cheap, especially when such solutions are more likely to make things worse and lead to the same unintended consequences that top U.S. officials have been warning about: a full-blown civil war that engulfs parts of the Middle East, further Islamist radicalization of Syrian society that could open new doors for al Qaeda, and a generally chaotic and violent environment in which chemical weapons — suspected to be held in large quantities by the regime — are either lost, used or both.
Kofi Annan’s U.N.-backed plan has served its goal of exposing the Syrian regime before the world. But that was all anyone could realistically hope of Annan’s mission. Now, the United States should pursue tough talks and bargain with Russia to find a solution that respects the hopes and interests of the Syrian people — not a short-term solution that betrays the Syrian people and undermines U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East.
It’s time for real and serious negotiations with Russia over not just Syria but a range of Middle Eastern issues of concern to both countries. But the Yemenskii Variant is not it.
Photo: Al Arabiya File Photo.