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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.

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Tunisia was the first of the Arab Spring countries to successfully depose its president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled for 23 years. Though the Islamist victories at Tunisia’s first free parliamentary elections have worried Western observers, all factions have honored the election results. In many ways, Tunisia serves as a model for a successful transition from Arab nationalist tyranny to Islamic democracy. Furthermore, Tunisia’s long-term viability as one state is well-grounded in its history.

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Shortly after Mr. Ben Ali’s fall, Egyptians successfully ousted Hosni Mubarak from his more than 30-year-reign. Now doubts surround Egypt’s democratic future as voters head into presidential elections June 16 and 17. And while tensions have risen to the point of violence on occasion, and Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, is likely to prevail, few worry that Egypt’s future as one nation is in question.

The same cannot be said for Libya. Libya is a colonial creation comprised of three Ottoman provinces loosely grafted together, first by Italy in the early 1930s and later reluctantly by Britain in the late '40s and early '50s. Given this history it should not come as a surprise that the decapitation of the Qaddafi regime has left behind a political and security vacuum. Post-Qaddafi, Libyans are undoubtedly freer, but many live in uncertainty and fear.  

Whether a solid, unified country can emerge from the current wrangling among the many militias and weak central authority in Libya remains to be seen. And Libya represents the best-case scenario for outside intervention: Muammar Qaddafi was widely hated, the uprising against him was enormously popular, and external intervention was legitimized by the Arab League and conducted without outside ground troops.

The Syrian situation is far more complicated than Libya’s. Syria’s multi-sectarian makeup and the legacy of French colonialism that privileged Syria’s minorities – including the ruling Alawites– still shape the modern state.

Assad’s elite Army remains loyal, and its ranks are becoming almost exclusively Alawite, as other groups defect. This further contributes to the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict. Beyond the Army, a significant chunk of the population – particularly minority groups like Christians, Druze, and Ismailis – remain passively loyal to Assad. A fair amount of the population remain equally indifferent to the opposition movement and the Assad government.

Critically, the opposition movement within Syria still has no cohesive internal organization. No specific group has demonstrated that it can take power if Assad were to be removed. The Syrian opposition does little to even attempt the charade of unity – which was essential for the Libyan National Transitional Council to successfully elicit foreign support and gain diplomatic recognition.

Given these realities, and looking at the ongoing transitions in Libya, Iraq, Egypt, and Tunisia, the best example for transition in Syria appears to be the Yemen model.

Looking to Yemen – which many have called a failed state – as a model for anything may seem counterintuitive. The country is fraught with internal strife, high rates of poverty, drought, drug abuse, and Islamist terrorism. But Annan and others have hinted that the recent process for political transition in Yemen is the one they hope to largely duplicate in Syria.

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