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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After months of bloody conflict in Yemen, then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh left the country and fled to Saudi Arabia. His vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi became acting president, with the Saudis largely shepherding the transition and Yemeni state institutions remaining intact.Skip to next paragraph
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Elections were held in February 2012, which were won decisively by Mr. al-Hadi, who is supervising the creation of a new constitution and will supposedly serve for only two years until truly free elections can take place.
International and regional interventionism in the Middle East is here to stay. Annan’s latest plan for political transition in Syria illustrates this commitment. Yet if intervention must be practiced, a very light touch and a broad consensus are essential for success.
Annan proposes trying to incentivize Iran, China, and Russia to participate in forging an international consensus on how to stop the violence in Syria. But this consensus would likely call for more sanctions against the Assad regime, as most agree that outside military intervention would be difficult and even counter-productive.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has recently accused Russia of sending attack helicopters to the Assad regime. If true, these charges do not bespeak a lessening in Russian support for Assad.
A few tweaks to Annan’s proposals would improve its chances of success. First, the path to peace in Syria requires an “imposed non-military solution.” This would be a political transition driven by outside powers with broad international support.
Such a nonmilitary plan is in keeping with Annan’s most recent proposal for Assad to be granted exile, but one key shift is needed: The diplomacy must be led by regional actors, not the UN or the West. The solution for Syria should have Yemen-like features and would presumably be led by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, buttressed by the UN and Western nations, while enjoying Russian and Chinese acquiescence. Crucially, Iranian intransigence should not be permitted to derail it.
Regional actors would have the best shot of coercing Assad to step down. A Yemen-style transition would then preserve the existing Syrian state structure – even including many of its corrupt and murderous elites during the transition period – in the interests of continuity and stability. His replacement – an interim figure, possibly from within the former regime – would be subject to intense outside scrutiny and external controls to assure good behavior.
With Assad out, international and regional support, and relative stability in place, Syria could move toward reforms and hopefully, one day, a form of representative democracy.
Readers may find this solution – especially its partial continuation of the current Syrian regime – horribly distasteful. So do we. But such a negotiated departure and replacement for Assad, driven by regional actors, is Syria’s best hope for stability and an eventual peaceful political transition. All other outcomes seem far worse.
Jason Pack is a researcher of Middle Eastern History at Cambridge University and author of “In War’s Wake: The Struggle for Post-Qadhafi Libya.” Fred Pack is vice president of Libya-Analysis.com. Over the last decade, the Packs’ research interests have made them frequent visitors to Syria, Iraq, and Libya.