Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, once a popular leader, should be pressured into stepping down [GALLO/GETTY]
To say that Bashar al-Assad is in trouble is an understatement.
His security forces, roaming paramilitary thugs and now his army – which [at the time this was first posted] today entered the southern town of Deraa – have turned their guns and tanks on to the Syrian people.
This is the response to an unprecedented uprising across the country against the stale, corrupt and repressive Baathist security regime that Assad heads.
Assad’s tumultuous eleven-year rule – and the political experiment of modernization that it entailed – has proven a total failure.
With the cycle of ever increasing protests met by regime violence and then more funerals intensifying in all areas of the country, it is time for Assad, the “Hamlet” of the Arab world, to consider his future.
It is time for him and those who have influence on him abroad to search for a swift and orderly exit from the stage.
The likelihood is that the departure of the regime’s figurehead would lead to a collapse of the entire system, though the behaviour of a few key constituencies – particularly the long co-opted Sunni merchant elites of Aleppo and Damascus, and the entrenched militias and security agencies associated with Bashar’s brother, Maher, his brother-in-law, Assaf Shawkat and others – will determine how quick and how bloody that collapse is.
What is certain is that we are reaching the tipping point for a regime propped up by Assad, but which otherwise had lost its legitimacy decades ago.
Members of an Islamic human rights group protest the killings of people in Syria, outside the Syrian embassy in Turkey [AFP]
It did not have to be this way. At the start of his presidency in June 2000, there were high hopes that Assad would be instrumental in the modernization and democratic transition of his country.
In the following months that became known as the “Damascus Spring”, the dialogue clubs of Damascus and Aleppo, as well as salons in other smaller towns, were humming with the talk of intellectuals, civil society leaders and political notables, discussing the future Syria under Assad.
With Baathist regime figures also taking part in the dialogue, there was hope that the Baathist system would evolve peacefully after twenty-nine years of stifling rule under Hafez.
But then came the crackdown as Assad, pressured by his family and the regime, decided to shelve thoughts of ending Emergency rule and the political monopoly of the Baath party.
Having looked into a future where the people would end the privileges and absolute power of the ruling regime, Assad and the Baathists did not like what they saw and decided to pull back hard. The regime imprisoned the leaders of the Damascus Spring and closed any space for change through a national dialogue.
Cracking down on dissent
Then, in October 2005, came the Damascus Declaration. In assembling a broad coalition of Syrians around an agenda of transition to an Assad-less future, this movement gave a lie to the regime’s argument that in its absence, chaos would reign.
The Declaration was an unprecedented expression of a democratic future for Syria that upheld the citizen’s human rights and the rights of its minorities.
What distinguished the initiative and scared the regime was that it effectively brought together, in a National Committee, the main opposition trends and parties inside and outside Syria. These included over 250 opposition figures as well as political parties and trends that were both secular and religious, Arab and Kurdish.
By 2007, however, Assad moved to arrest forty of the leading figures behind the Declaration that had formed a National Committee to promote its aims.
Although over half of these were subsequently released, the regime had reduced the movement to a state of disarray.
Facing a choice between engaging in serious dialogue with those advocating a democratic transition or siding with the Baathist security regime and his family, Assad – by then firmly in place at the top of the regime – once again chose the latter.
Faced with adversity, he and they chose to stand firm in defiance and budge not more than an inch. In doing so, he was following a path that had served him well before, even after the dark days following Syria’s humiliating withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon in 2005 and when faced with accusations that Syria had been the mastermind of the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
False hope in ‘the reformer’
As late as the past week, many have speculated that Assad faces a stark choice: “reform or die.”
In fact the Assad of today has left himself with no choice at all other than to counter the protestors with force. For the majority of Syrians, especially the youth that make up 60 per cent of the country, it is time to seek their “freedom or die”.
As external debate rages about whether the young President is capable of providing genuine reform, observers are in danger of missing a key message – that an important bloc of their own people have already given up on “Assad the reformer”.
Faced with such existential choices, we are likely to see a bloodbath in Syria, the likes of which have not yet featured in the Arab spring, excepting Libya. Syria is fast becoming the next major test of the international community’s resolve to protect citizens from their rulers.
In fact, Assad’s own record belies the belief of some in the international community – including secretary of state Clinton – who have held out the hope that he is a “reformer”.
Her characterization of Assad may go down as being as full of wishful thinking as the characterization of Mubarak’s regime as being “stable”.
A desire to maintain the status quo – partly to preserve vital interests and at times out of fear of what may come next – has until recently obviated any genuine scrutiny of Assad’s past and his ability to reform his regime.
Such thinking has at least until very recently, led to a striking alliance of states, including the US, Iran, Israel, France, Russia, Turkey and Qatar that believed Assad was the best man for Syria.
Faced with mounting evidence that Assad and his Baathists have no choice but to suppress the protests, it is precisely this international alliance minus Iran and Israel, which now has to persuade Assad to quit Syria.
It is notable that after the killings of over 100 protestors last Friday, both the US and Turkey have stepped up their condemnation of the regime’s actions.
The US, which already designates Syria as a “state sponsor of terrorism”, is reportedly examining placing further targeted sanctions on regime figures. Europe, the leading trading partner of Syria needs to follow suit and slap targeted sanctions on leading regime figures.
‘Too late for reform’
However, these measures will likely not be enough.
Both Turkey and the US as well as Qatar and France need to work quietly and purposefully to convince Assad that his efforts to reform the Baathist regime have failed and that he should exit the stage.
If Assad were to leave, he could be offered the prospect of escaping prosecution for the egregious violations of international law and international humanitarian law being committed by his security forces.
He should be told that were he to stay, he would likely join Gaddafi in the dock of the International Criminal Court.
In parallel, the UN Human Rights Council should invoke its Special Procedures and urgently start an investigation in to the situation in Syria.
The UN Security Council, currently engaged in discussions on how to respond the regime’s crack down, needs to go further than issue press statements condemning the violence.
In echoing the language that it issued regarding Libya, it needs to send a clear reminder to Assad that it is his and his regime’s primary responsibility to protect civilians and civilian populated areas or to face the consequences.
In a now infamous interview to the Wall Street Journal on January 31, Assad confidently predicted: “If you didn’t see the need for reform before what happened in Tunisia or Egypt, then it is too late for reform.”
It was a perceptive statement from a young, intelligent and largely popular leader. However, the tragedy for him and his people is that in saying so, Assad was overlooking his own deeply disappointing record in modernizing the stagnant, repressive and corrupt Baathist security regime, which he inherited in 2000.
As more and more of Syria’s people revolt against his rule and that of his regime, Assad’s words have likely written his own political obituary.
Salman Shaikh is the director of the Brookings Doha Centre and Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Shaikh previously served as the Special Assistant to the UN Special Envoy for the Middle East Peace Process and Political Adviser to the UN Envoy for Lebanon.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
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