Bernd Debusmann

Will Syria’s Assad get away with murder?

June 18, 2012
Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

Will Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad be allowed to get away with mass murder, like his father 30 years ago? Some of the ideas now under discussion could mean precisely that — a golden parachute into exile. No war crimes charges, no prosecution, no trial.

Unlike Egypt’s ousted dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who was sentenced to life in prison on June 2, and unlike Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi, who was killed at the hand of anti-government rebels, Assad would “transfer power and depart Syria.” That’s how U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it after a meeting of foreign ministers of Arab and Western nations in Istanbul.

That idea is known as the Yemeni Solution and was floated by U.S. President Barack Obama at a meeting of the Group of Eight in May. It refers to a deal under which Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was granted immunity from prosecution for the killing of protesters. In return, he handed power over to his deputy and announced he planned to go into exile in Ethiopia.

No such deal would be possible in Syria without the involvement of Russia, the Assad regime’s chief armorer, and the two other pillars of his support – China and Iran. This is why Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary General who is now peace envoy on behalf of the U.N. and the Arab League, has come up with the idea of a “contact group” to work out an end to a conflict that has claimed at least 10,000 lives so far.

The group would include the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — where Russia and China have blocked tough measures against Syria — as well as “countries with real influence on the situation, countries that can influence either side — the government of Syria and the opposition,” Annan said at the United Nations. “Iran, as an important country in the region, I hope will be part of the solution.”

Clinton has poured cold water on that idea, saying Iran was helping to keep the Assad regime in power and therefore part of the problem. That, of course, also goes for Russia and China but involving Iran would take Washington on a collision course with its close ally Israel and open Obama to charges of being “weak on Iran,” a damaging label in his campaign for re-election.

If the contact group idea would eventually lead to Assad’s departure — and that is a very big if — where would he go? According to David Ignatius, a well-connected columnist for the Washington Post, Russia has offered him exile and there are rumors that Assad has already transferred $6 billion in Syrian reserves to Moscow.

Russia holds the key
Russia, not the U.S., holds the key here. As Middle East expert Volker Perthes, head of the German Institute for International Security in Berlin, put it: “Until such time as Assad is told by Moscow that the game is up and only a negotiated exit will guarantee him and his supporters safety, he is unlikely to feel genuinely isolated.”

The idea that the Syrian leader would leave with impunity is hard to swallow after 15 months of brutal crackdown on dissidents and a series of massacres that prompted outrage and a chorus of condemnation in terms that ranged from “despicable” and “vile” to “unspeakable barbarity.” But verbal outrage doesn’t topple dictators, economic sanctions have limited behavior-changing impact as the case of Iran shows, and there is no appetite in Washington and elsewhere for military intervention.

If Bashar did get away with murder, he would complete a family tradition. His father Hafez, from whom he inherited his power, enforced his rule with mass murder on a much larger scale. Even in a Middle East dotted with massacre sites, the way Hafez al-Assad dealt with Moslem Brotherhood dissidents in the city of Hama stands out.

On February 2, 1982, an army raid on a hide-out of the outlawed Brotherhood sparked fighting throughout the city. The government responded by surrounding Hama with tanks and artillery and blasted the densely-populated centre in a 27-day assault that killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people, depending whose estimate you believe.

The carnage went largely unnoticed, out of sight in an era before cell phone videos uploaded to the internet provide shocking evidence for all the world to see. In 1982, Syria’s Arab neighbors remained silent, reaction from the West was muted. His country pacified and cowed, Hafez ruled for another 18 years. He died peacefully in bed, of pulmonary disease. His brother Rifaat, who ran the Hama operation, lives in comfortable retirement in London.

By contrast a flurry of statements this week on two massacres in Syria as many weeks included calls for those responsible to be held to account. Their wording suggested punishment for the men who went from house-to-house, shooting and stabbing entire families, not the leadership in Damascus on whose behalf they committed murder.

Bashar al-Assad has many things to fear in a country steadily sliding towards all-out sectarian war but it seems the International Criminal Court in the Hague is not one of them.

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Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist.

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