This time last year Saif al-Islam Gaddafi hosted a group of journalists in the courtyard of the presidential palace in Bab al-Aziziyah, located in the Libyan capital. He appeared in front of his audience from inside his four wheel drive car, with a broad smile across his face, claiming that news of the Libyan rebels occupying the capital was nothing but lies, and offering to accompany the journalists on a tour of Tripoli’s neighborhoods. When someone asked him about the statement issued by a prosecutor in the International Criminal Court, claiming that he would face trial, Saif Gaddafi turned to him mockingly and said “to hell with the International Criminal Court”, and left without taking the reporters on the promised tour.
What happened next is well known. A day afterwards Tripoli fell, Muammar Gaddafi fled and was eventually found hiding in a drainage pipe, whilst Saif al-Islam was arrested trying to flee to Niger. Since his arrest last November, he has pleaded the International Criminal Court to prosecute him, rather than be tried in his own country, Libya, where he faces the death penalty.
Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President besieged in his capital Damascus, is a lot like Saif Gaddafi, ridiculing the mission of the new UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and working hard to thwart it, despite the fact that it is his only lifeline today. The day will come when al-Assad pleads for Brahimi’s intervention and an international solution to save him. In the past, the Syrian President has engineered the failure of several missions, including those of the notorious Arab League chief observer Mustafa al-Dabi and the former UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. In the latter case, despite the inclinations of the Syrian-Iranian position, al-Assad did not respond to any of the six points outlined to begin negotiations for a peaceful solution. Like Saif Gaddafi before him, al-Assad is probably declaring today: “To hell with Brahimi and the United Nations”. In fact, Brahimi already pre-empted al-Assad’s recklessness by revealing his fear that his mission will fail, recognizing it as a near-impossible task. He advised the Syrian President, whom he intends to meet next Saturday, that he has a significant responsibility to stop the violence of his forces in order to provide the opportunity for talks on a peaceful solution.
Brahimi can only succeed if the rebels succeed in advancing towards the capital and striking its vital centers. Then al-Assad will feel that his days are numbered and his only lifeline to escape from the presidential palace is this international envoy who is accepted by all international parties involved in the conflict. Currently, Bashar al-Assad feels he is protected by Russia and Iran, and able to mobilize about a quarter of a million troops and Shabiha forces to indiscriminately strike all regions without mercy. Yet this is his great illusion, for his forces are crumbling and the Russians will abandon him just as they abandoned Gaddafi.
When the moment of truth comes, al-Assad’s only source of help will be Brahimi, but it will already be too late. The rebels and the Syrian people will not accept one of the worst criminals in modern Arab history escaping without being held to account. Al-Assad will find that no exit strategy or solution is acceptable to the the orphans, widows and the displaced. He will be left with the possibility of ending his life himself, as Hitler did, who caused the destruction of Germany and decided in the last days of World War II to kill himself and ordered his body to be burned. Al-Assad does not have the courage to shoot himself in the head or swallow a cyanide pill, thereby ending his life and the Syrian tragedy at the same time, so he will be doomed to the fate of Saif Gaddafi but will not find al-Dabi, Annan or Brahimi to save him.