Fifteen months after the outbreak of the popular uprising in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has not decided to flee the country like Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or relinquish power like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Assad’s regime remains adamant that it stay in power through the use of violent force. The regime has succeeded in instilling despair in the hearts of those who were hoping to reach an outcome similar to what happened in Tunisia and Egypt.
The fact that Assad’s regime maintains power means that the international community has two options to resolve the Syria crisis. The first option is inspired by the Yemeni model, in which international pressure forced Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down and transfer power to his vice president. The second option is derived from the Libyan model, in which local and international forces cooperated to eradicate the regime of Moammar Gaddafi.
Saleh’s regime adopted the strategy of delaying international diplomatic efforts to avoid relinquishing its power. Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s regime resorted to armed violence against its people in order to preserve its dominance. Assad’s regime is utilizing both the Saleh and Gaddafi strategies. Assad’s use of procrastination in resolving the crisis is rendering any international diplomatic efforts useless. At the same time, he is trying to destroy the popular revolution and break the will of the opposition through military means. The Syrian regime has lost most of its political legitimacy, but in reality it continues to exercise political authority. Unfortunately, this is possible because of the clear success of these two strategies. The regime has so far been able exhaust both the will of the Syrian opposition domestically and the anti-regime forces abroad.
Those who sympathize with the Syrian people are despairing over the probability of Assad’s regime being toppled. In theory, at least, the chances of this happening depend on if the Yemeni model can be implemented or if a military intervention takes place — if either would even be successful. Surrounding this despair is the prevailing realization that the Syrian crisis and its surrounding circumstances might make it difficult for either option to succeed on the ground.
One might expect that the continuous international efforts might prompt Assad to step down. However, the Syrian government will not accept anyone inside or outside Syria, who enjoys the support of the international community, to replace Assad. This is unlike what happened in Yemen, where Saleh approved of a temporary substitute who would assume his responsibilities. Moreover, the international community has not reached a consensus on deciding on a leader to replace the president in Syria. This is due to Assad’s support from Russia and China, despite the statements made by Russian and Chinese officials that announced that they are not clinging to the Assad regime. These are meaningless statements that should not fool anyone. To add insult to injury, Assad’s regime has committed heinous crimes against the Syrian people, amounting to tens of thousands of casualties and detainees. This is in addition to the atrocious massacres that have been committed in different Syrian cities. It is difficult to imagine that any international initiative that seeks a Yemeni-model power transfer in Damascus could dare to promise any person in the Syrian regime immunity from criminal prosecution in return for Assad’s abdication.
On the other hand, the grave circumstances brought on by the suppression and killings committed by Assad’s regime since the start of the Syrian crisis could prompt the international community to further investigate the viability of a military intervention. In fact, Paris has openly declared that it is seriously considering adopting this option, despite its risks. Contrary to the Libyan case, any form of foreign military intervention against Assad’s regime might drag the entire region into war. Certainly, the risks of military intervention are what make us accept the ongoing and violent situation in Syria so far. It is more rational to accept the current situation than to be reckless and accept a regional war, which would be more dangerous and promise even more violence. Such a war could result from any international military intervention in Syria, unlike what happened during the Libyan crisis.
Also, the situation differs from Libya in that any action made by an international military alliance against Damascus would be considered a direct attack on both Russia and China. These are two countries that have constantly announced their absolute rejection of any international intervention in Syria. If there are real concerns over the reactions of both Moscow and Beijing to an international military intervention in Syria, then the problems with implementing such an intervention are very serious, given the grave security complications that go along with it.
The Arab Gulf countries are given credit for actively contributing to the resolution of the Yemeni crisis through diplomacy. Likewise, the Western countries are attributed credit for their decisive contributions in solving the Libyan crisis through military means. The Syrian crisis is far from having any expected end. Successful contributions to address the crisis are lost somewhere between weak diplomatic efforts and the risks of military options. The seriousness of the Syrian crisis goes far beyond the Syrian people’s demands for freedom and democracy. It is now an issue that will enable some countries to reach greater influence in the international arena, and how the Syrian crisis is resolved will determine important factors in the relationship between the different international forces. It can also influence the structure of the future international system. This is an opportunity that Russia, China and their allies do not want to waste. These countries will continue to play their roles in managing the crisis and framing an end that will pave the way for attaining those countries’ desired positions in the context of their international competition with the United States and its allies.