30 July 2012
With events in Syria nearing what seems to be a climax, many people are asking the usual question: how will this end for the man at the top?
The recent examples of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi suggest it may not be pretty for Bashar al-Assad and those closest to him. There are, however, the less gruesome cases of ben Ali in Tunisia and Saleh in Yemen. Or the rather macabre one of Hosni Mubarak. This year has seen one regime change after another; but each one is not quite like the last.
For all that Assad may find himself at the center—or on the margins, it’s hard to tell sometimes—of a much bigger and more complex struggle, and for all that his departure may come to mean the beginning of an even bigger struggle, the man still has a choice. To him, though, it probably seems more like a dilemma.
It brings to mind a story that was popular in Latin America in the 1990s. A Chilean politician brought his ill son to Cuba for medical care. In the middle of his first night on the island, an uninvited guest walked into the man’s guest room. It was Fidel Castro. The first words out of his mouth were not, welcome to Cuba, or any other kind of greeting, but instead, “tell me, how did Pinochet do it?”
In other words, how do you give up power and hold on to it at the same time? This is the perennial question of the powerful. It was said that Castro was also a keen student of Francisco Franco’s rule in Spain. It ended peacefully and Franco died in his bed. It helped that he had an important agent of transition in King Juan Carlos.
Syria is probably too far gone now for a similar fate. There is no king and the army has cast its lot firmly with the regime. Barring some major outside intervention, it is unlikely that the Syrian army will play a transitory role as, for example, the Egyptian army has done, albeit with difficulty.
Assad’s ultimate fate therefore may no longer matter as much as other factors in Syria. But surely it still matters to him. It is difficult to picture so buttoned down a man hiding in a hole in the desert or as a bed-ridden invalid. At the same time, if he meant to flee to a luxurious exile, he probably would have done so by now. The problem has been that his reputation and that of his fellow Alawites militates against the latter choice. Not only is their power, and possibly their survival, at stake; so too is their honor. According to many of them, at least.
There may be a third option for Assad besides fighting it out to the death or fleeing out the back door. He could throw himself on the mercy of the international community and ask to be given a fair trial outside Syria. As far-fetched as this may sound, it may be the best of a dwindling menu of options for him. He would almost certainly lose his case but he would save his life and some tiny residue of his reputation in court. But this now seems like the least likely of outcomes.
There is no perfect calculus for compelling rulers to step down. Each case is different. We can never predict whether or when one will choose exile over resistance, and nearly every one faces that choice. The task for the rest of us is to work to attach greater prestige to the act of ceding power so that it appeals to even the most hardened rulers. They should be judged as much for what they do as for what they don’t do, namely holding on until the bitter end. Otherwise giving up may be just too difficult, even for someone like Assad who probably never sought the job in the first place.