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Opinion

Look to Yemen as model for Syria's transition after Bashar al-Assad

Recent history in Iraq and Libya shows that the departure of a tyrant can lead to a deterioration in stability and an increase in human suffering. In Syria, a Yemen-style transition (dictator forced into exile to be replaced by a transition figure) may be the best possible outcome.

By Jason Pack and Fred Pack / June 14, 2012

Russian Mi-24 helicopter gunships kick up dust near the Chechen capital Grozny Dec. 7, 1999 file photo. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has accused Russia of continuing to supply attack helicopters to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Op-ed contributors Jason and Fred Pack say: 'If true, these charges do not bespeak a lessening in Russian support for Assad.'

Maxim Marmur/AP/File

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Cambridge, Britain and New York

As Syria devolves into what the UN peacekeeping chief calls a full-out civil war, observers worry that the fall of Bashar al-Assad could precipitate even greater chaos. Such concerns are well founded. Recent history shows that the departure of even the most gruesome tyrant can lead to a further deterioration in stability and an increase in human suffering.

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The rationale for this paradox is that since the European empires have been decolonized, brutal tyrants have arisen to hold together the most volatile remnants of empire – states that are not really nations. Iraq, Syria, and Libya are just a few examples of colonial amalgamations of different sectarian, ethnic, or regional groups.

In the 20th century, the colonial overlords and then their post-colonial strongmen replacements kept their internal fissures in check by force. Understanding this history, UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan is right to be wary of military intervention in Syria and to seek regional support for a political transition there. An ill-conceived international intervention to remove Assad – especially if it lacked regional support – could easily unleash a war of all against all.

Mr. Annan’s latest plan depends on buy-in from a “contact group” including Russia, China, and Iran to help move Mr. Assad into exile. Russian and Chinese support (or acquiescence) is critical, but Annan’s plan must go one step further. A Yemen-style transition is the best path forward for Syria, but it must be primarily driven by regional actors like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, not the West and the United Nations as the French have advocated.

The greater North Africa and Middle East region – both before and after the Arab Spring – has seen different paths for overthrowing a dictator. As the international community looks warily at Syria’s future, it must learn from this past.

In Iraq – whose statehood was an ill-conceived construction of Britain’s empire in the wake of World War I – the US removal of Saddam Hussein from power immediately led to a protracted conflict resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, massive migration, and sectarian terrorism. An almost 10-year war still sputters on, leaving a wounded society with many fissures. The integrity of the Iraqi state remains in doubt, with the Northern Kurdish region having achieved semi-autonomy and Sunni/Shiite tensions defining Baghdad’s politics.

Deposing dictators like Hussein – and Assad – whether by external force or internal rebellion, removes the tyrant but also destroys the only mechanisms that have held the state together.

On the other hand, countries like Tunisia and Egypt have grappled with disunity and even violence in their post-revolution uncertainty, but are better unified by their longstanding historical basis for nationhood. And unlike in Iraq, the Arab Spring revolutions in these two countries came from the people themselves.

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