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.

Maxim Marmur/AP/File
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.'

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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