In Syria, Assad Must Exit the Stage

Salman Shaikh
Salman Shaikh Former Brookings Expert

April 27, 2011

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

To say that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is in trouble is an understatement. His security forces, roaming paramilitary thugs and now his army –which on Monday entered the southern town of Daraa — have turned their guns and tanks on to the Syrian people. This is the response to an unprecedented uprising against the stale, corrupt and repressive Baathist security regime that Assad heads.

Assad’s tumultuous, 11-year rule — and the political experiment of modernization that it entailed — has proved to be a total failure. With the cycle of ever-increasing protests met by regime violence and then more funerals intensifying in all areas of the country, it is time for Assad, the “Hamlet” of the Arab world, to consider his future. It is time for him and those who influence him abroad to search for a swift and orderly exit.

The likelihood is that the departure of the regime’s figurehead would topple the entire system. The behavior of a few key constituencies — particularly the long-co-opted Sunni merchant elites of Aleppo and Damascus, and the entrenched militias and security agencies associated with Bashar’s brother, Maher, his brother-in-law, Assaf Shawkat, and others — will determine how quick and how bloody that collapse is.

What is certain is that we are reaching the tipping point for a regime that lost its legitimacy decades ago.

It did not have to be this way. At the start of his presidency in June 2000, there were high hopes that Assad would be instrumental in the modernization and democratic transition of his country.

In the months that became known as the “Damascus Spring,” intellectuals, civil society leaders and political notables in Damascus, Aleppo and smaller towns were discussing the future under Assad. With Baathist regime figures also taking part in the dialogue, there was hope that the Baathist system would evolve peacefully after 29 stifling years.

But then came the crackdown. Assad and the Baathists decided to pull back hard. The regime imprisoned the leaders of the Damascus Spring and closed any space for change through national dialogue.

In October 2005 came the Damascus Declaration, an unprecedented expression of a democratic future for Syria that upheld human rights and the rights of minorities. In assembling a broad coalition of Syrians around a transition to an Assad-less future, this movement gave the lie to the regime’s argument that in its absence, chaos would reign.

What distinguished the initiative and scared the regime was that it effectively united the main opposition trends and parties inside and outside Syria. These included more than 250 opposition figures as well as political parties and trends that were both secular and religious, Arab and Kurdish.

By 2007, however, Assad moved to arrest 40 of the leading figures behind the Declaration. Although more than half of these were released, the regime had forced the movement into disarray. Facing a choice between serious dialogue with those advocating a democratic transition or siding with the Baathist security regime and his family, Assad once again chose the latter. Faced with adversity, he and they budged not an inch.

As late as the past week, many have speculated that Assad faces a stark choice: “reform or die.” In fact the Assad of today has left himself with no choice at all other than brutal force. For the majority of Syrians, especially the youth who make up 60% of the country, it is time to seek freedom or death.

As external debate rages about whether the young president is capable of genuine reform, observers are in danger of missing a key message — that an important bloc of Assad’s own people have already given up on “Assad the reformer.” Faced with such existential choices, we are likely to see a bloodbath in Syria. Syria is fast becoming the next major test of the international community’s resolve to protect citizens from their rulers.

Until recently, a striking alliance including the United States, Iran, Israel, France, Russia, Turkey and Qatar believed Assad was the best man for Syria. Faced with mounting evidence that Assad and his Baathists have no choice but to suppress the protests, it is precisely this international alliance, minus Iran and Israel, that now has to persuade Assad to quit Syria.

It is notable that after the killings of more than 100 protesters on Friday, both the United States and Turkey have stepped up their condemnation of the regime. The United States, which already designates Syria as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” is reportedly examining placing further targeted sanctions on regime figures. Europe, the leading trading partner of Syria, needs to follow suit and slap targeted sanctions on leading regime figures.

However, these measures will likely not be enough. Turkey and the United States, as well as Qatar and France, need to work quietly and purposefully to convince Assad that his efforts to reform the Baathist regime have failed and that he should exit the stage.

If Assad were to leave, he could be offered the prospect of escaping prosecution for egregious violations of international law and international humanitarian law being committed by his security forces. He should be told that were he to stay, he would likely join Libya’s Col. Moammar Qaddafi in the dock of the International Criminal Court.

In parallel, the UN Human Rights Council should invoke its special procedures and urgently start an investigation into the situation in Syria. The UN Security Council needs to go beyond issuing statements condemning the violence. It needs to send a clear reminder to Assad that he and his regime must protect civilians or to face the consequences.

In a now-infamous interview with The Wall Street Journal in January, Assad confidently predicted, “If you didn’t see the need for reform before what happened in Tunisia or Egypt, then it is too late for reform.” It was a perceptive statement from a young, intelligent and largely popular leader.

However, the tragedy for him and his people is that in saying so, Assad was overlooking his own deeply disappointing record in modernizing the stagnant, repressive and corrupt Baathist security regime he inherited in 2000. As more and more of Syria’s people revolt against his rule and that of his regime, Assad’s words have likely become his political obituary.