The course of the “Arab Spring” events so far makes former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali seem relatively wise when compared to his peers, who were either overthrown by the winds of this spring or are close to being toppled. When pressure intensified both on the street and behind the scenes, Ben Ali uttered his famous phrase “I understand you”, gathered up his family and left. The others either did not understand as quickly or did not understand at all, and matters became too complicated and the bloodshed became too abundant before they were forced to leave. Mubarak went to prison and then to trial, Gaddafi went into hiding in a sewer and then suffered the most horrific murder, and Ali Abdullah Saleh went to hospital for treatment following an assassination attempt that nearly cost him his life, before he accepted the Gulf initiative to hand over power to his deputy. As for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he is still clinging on to power while the hourglass counts down the chances for his departure before the window of a “safe exit” closes, or a “civilized way out” as described by his Russian allies.
Syria is currently fluctuating between the Yemeni scenario and the Libyan model in its latest chapter. While the regime increases its military operations, despite signs that it is losing control, some leaks and indicators suggest that there are rapid moves behind the scenes to find an “acceptable formula” to persuade al-Assad to leave. These moves have been necessitated by military and security pressure as the battle moves to the center of power in Damascus, and to its second center of gravity in Aleppo, and likewise after the assassination of senior leaders in the regime’s “crisis management” cell, as a result of an earth-shattering operation that targeted the regime’s nervous system.
In this regard we can consider the surprising statement made by the Russian Ambassador to Paris, Alexander Orlov, who said that the Syrian President was ready to step down but in a “civilized manner”, adding that it was hard to imagine al-Assad remaining in power, and the President was aware of that. Although the Russian Foreign Ministry rushed to mitigate the impact of its ambassador’s remarks by saying that they had been modified, this does not amount to an outright denial, and leaves matters open to interpretation. Many have paused for contemplation in front of this Russian turnaround, especially as the ambassador didn’t just say these words once, but repeated them on two separate occasions, once to Radio France Internationale and another time to the newspaper “Le Parisien”. Even President Putin’s remarks the day before yesterday failed to put an end to interpretations about a “civilized way out”, when he warned that if the current leadership was ousted “unconstitutionally”, Syria may face a long term civil war because of what he described as the opposition and the regime simply “swapping places”. Putin did not seem to be entirely rejecting the possibility of the fall of the current leadership, but only warned against this happening unconstitutionally. Hence, he left the door ajar for the possibility of the president “constitutionally stepping down”, and there are several formulas that could come under this title, ranging from his resignation to a dialogue within the formula of a “safe exit”.
In this framework we can also interpret the comments from Jordan’s King Abdullah II a few days ago, who called on al-Assad and his regime to seize the last opportunity available to them now, exit from the scene, and arrange for the transfer of power to spare Syria the risk of a civil war. The Jordanian King spoke of “the window for a political solution”, which is almost shut given the recent escalation of violence, warning that this opportunity is about to pass, if it has not already done so. When he warns not to let this opportunity pass, the King of Jordan should remember that al-Assad has ignored such calls in the past, and proceeded along the lines of a military and security solution, refusing to bow to what he described as “terrorist operations supported from abroad” and betting that his forces could control the situation militarily, whilst his allies abroad challenged international diplomatic efforts that were stifling the Syrian regime and enabling the opposition to overthrow it. However, the situation today looks different to how it did eight months ago, when the Jordanian King first called for the Syrian President to step down in the interest of his people. The regime today seems weaker, and its security and military grip is loosening under the pressure of the siege and military operations launched by opposition forces who are receiving increased support and appear more organized, numerous and better equipped. Their maneuvers now benefit from intelligence reports providing them with accurate information about the locations of Syrian troops and the movements of their leaders.
So it seems that the call issued by the Arab Ministerial Council meeting on Sunday, for the Syrian President to step down in exchange for a safe exit for him and his family, did not come out of the blue. Rather it was based on the rapid developments on the ground, and on the Russian revelations that al-Assad may now be ready to accept a “civilized way out”. The Arab initiative talks about the president stepping down rather than the removal of the regime with all its pillars, points to the peaceful transfer of power rather than uprooting the regime entirely, and likewise calls for the formation of a transitional government incorporating the opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the “de facto authority” on the ground. This initiative seems closer to the Yemeni model, although it would no longer be possible for the president to transfer power to his deputy as happened in Yemen a few months ago, because of the acts committed by those such as Farouk al-Sharaa, whom it does not seem the Syrian opposition would accept like the Yemenis accepted Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi.
The Syrian crisis has entered a critical juncture that will determine the features of the solution; either it will be military along the lines of “kill or be killed”, or it will be democratic using a modified form of the Yemeni model, but the opportunities for the latter option are decreasing rapidly with every day of the escalating violence that risks pushing Syria towards a civil war that would overshadow even the tragic events in Iraq. The Syrian structure is more complicated than that of Iraq, the regional and international equations there are more serious, and the political and military implications are larger.
All those who pity Syria and wish for a quick end to its peoples’ suffering must hope that al-Assad has finally understood the message, albeit belatedly, that power is not worth sacrificing the country and the people for, and the chances of his regime’s survival are diminishing by the day in light of the new facts on the ground, inside and outside Syria’s borders. This makes the “safe exit” his last chance to avoid the worst of scenarios.