Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bashar Assad Has One Choice: How To Exit

By Rami G. Khouri 

President Bashar Assad of Syria has painted himself into a corner from which he has options to determine only one thing: How does he leave office and start a democratic transition in the country?

The past week saw simultaneous and heightened American, Turkish, Arab and United Nations pressure on him to stop using military force against his demonstrating citizens who have challenged his regime across the entire country for five months. Thursday’s demand by leading Western powers that Assad step down immediately seals the imminent collapse of the Damascus regime that was initiated by Syrian citizens and hastened by Arab and Turkish pressure.
Having proved totally insincere in grasping the opportunity to reform in the past 10 years, and incompetent in responding to the domestic challenge he has faced since April, Assad now can only choose the manner of his departure – if he is lucky and is not forced out of office or killed trying to remain there. He might find some instruction in the manners in which three former Soviet-bloc leaders responded when they too faced demands from their people for more rights, dignity and prosperity: Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, Wojciech Jaruzelski in Poland and Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania.

Assad can try to change the system by radically reforming it quickly from the top by his own unilateral decisions and then try to ride out the transformation, as Gorbachev did before he was voted out of office democratically (and is now largely remembered positively around the world). Assad can gradually negotiate a democratic transition with the opposition who have demonstrated against him for months or years, as Jaruzelski realized he had to do in Poland before he ultimately stepped aside in 1990 to allow Solidarity and Lech Walesa to lead the country. Or, he can use brute force to try and stay in power, only to find his regime overthrown by popular demand, and he and his colleagues subjected to severe reprisals. This is what happened to Ceausescu after his government was overthrown in December 1989, and he and his wife were executed following a speedy trial.
The performance of Assad to date suggests that his words and promises have very limited credibility in Syria and around the world. That is why key regional and Western powers finally lost patience with him in the past week and demanded that he change course. Assad’s telling U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Wednesday that military and police operations against demonstrators had ended was probably too little, too late. If Assad really does stop military operations, the subsequent rising tide of demonstrators will drive him from office. And if he continues applying force against his own citizens, the combination of a persistent revolt and rising regional and international pressures will also drive him from office.

Assad’s problem is that nobody believes him anymore, and his support base will quickly thin out and probably collapse soon, given the dramatically heightened diplomatic isolation he has experienced in the past 48 hours. Even if the Syrian president stops using force and explores a political transition to a more open, democratic system, very few credible Syrians will engage him in such an exercise. They see him as politically discredited for having acted so viciously against his own people when they demonstrated peacefully. Assad’s one chance to mobilize significant domestic support to engineer a peaceful transition to power-sharing probably ended last May 24.
That was the day when the horribly mutilated body of 13-year-old Hamza Khateeb was returned to his family near Deraa in south Syria, nearly a month after he had been arrested during a protest. That one incident, more than any other, captured for many Syrians and others around the world the gruesome deeds that the Syrian regime was prepared to carry out against its own people, including the torture of children. The demonstrations grew all across the country after that day, and people’s outrage was heightened to the point where it was greater than the fear of the retributions of the security services.

Assad’s opponents refrained from calling for his removal for a long time, and asked for the reforms that they thought he also wanted to implement. He and his aides proved to be totally incompetent in grasping how strong was the popular demand for real change towards a more open and humane governance system.
Assad’s brutal reply to the populist demonstrations was similar to the Soviet use of tanks, guns, torture chambers and prison camps in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania. So one of the few things the Syrian president can do now – after 40 years of rule by his family – is to study those countries’ histories and decide whether he wants to go down as a Gorbachev, a Jaruzelski or a Ceausescu, because the Assad era in Syria is at its end.

The implications of that for the entire Middle East will be enormous, indeed incalculable, as the consequences of a democratic Syria wash across the parched Arab region like a mighty river in the desert.
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 20/08/2011

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