It was strongly suggested by close top officials in the Syrian government that I spoke with more than a decade ago that when Syria's President, Bashar Assad, first assumed power he was determined to introduce some significant political reforms. Why then has he failed to implement at least some of what he had intended to do and failed to meet the public's expectations for change following his father's 30 year reign? The reason is that Mr. Assad inherited from his father more than merely the office of the Presidency. He inherited a system of governing: an entrenched ruling apparatus consisting of the Baath party leadership, the high military brass, a massive Intelligence (Mukhabarat) community, internal security and top business elites; all dominated by Bashar's own Alawite minority group which had heavily-vested interests in maintaining the system at all costs. Mr. Assad was able to assert his rule based only on the tacit condition that he would preserve the status quo, which in the end turned out to be his albatross.
At the onset of the upheaval nearly ten months ago, Mr. Assad was again inclined to make some concessions to pacify the people but was immediately overruled by the same clique of powerful individuals that surround him today, including his powerful brother, Maher, the commander of the Republican Guard. The same inter-play is currently taking place as elements of the ruling apparatus have tied their fates together with the knowledge that meaningful reforms would inevitably usurp many of their powers which they are unwilling to relinquish, regardless of the public's suffering. For this reason, any practical solution to Syria's crisis must take into account the nature of its intra-group relations and the choices that can be made within such relations.
The failure of the Arab League (AL) observers' mission was predictable as they did not have the mandate or the ability to move freely anywhere and anytime within the country, being| instead directed by the Syrian authorities to visit and report about places and incidents of the government's own choice. From the start of the observers' mission a month ago, government forces have killed more than five hundred Syrians. Following the extension of the mission by an additional month only a few days ago, the Arab league decided to suspend the observers' mission as the indiscriminate killing of civilians continued. Neither the continuation of such a mission (which was already thwarted after all of the Gulf states' observers quit in Syria) nor the call by the AL for Assad to step down and for new assembly elections within two months to draft a new constitution would bring about any serious change. The AL decision to turn to the UN with the support of the US and the EU at the time of this writing may produce a watered down resolution at best that will neither call for Assad to step down nor impose any meaningful sanctions. Russia has already made it abundantly clear that it will veto any such resolution.
Considering the fact that whatever happens in Syria will have serious regional repercussions, any outside interference will have to be carefully weighed against the internal conditions and how they are evolving. One thing, however, remains clear: significant and permanent changes will not occur in Syria through any kind of give and take with the current government as the problem is not Assad himself as much as the clique surrounding him which will remain even if he steps down. In this regard, the AL, with the support of other major players including Turkey, should develop a strategy that will squeeze out Assad and his cohorts even though this may still take the better part of 2012. The strategy should consist of four distinct yet interconnected components, which should be pursued simultaneously.
First, fearing that he may meet Qaddafi's fate and concerned that he may never regain the legitimacy needed to lead, an offer to negotiate a safe exit and immunity from prosecution for himself, family, Alawite leaders and several dozens of his lieutenants should be placed on the table. This is particularly urgent as it would need to occur before Assad and his clique are indicted by the International Criminal Court, which can happen as soon as charges of en-mass killing are brought against them. Once Assad is indicted, he will be discouraged from opting for this course. For this reason, instead of asking Assad to hand over power to one deputy (a plan already rejected and dubbed a "plot" by Syria's Foreign Minister, Walid al-Muallem), the AL, in consultation with the Obama Administration and Turkey, should fully and aggressively explore the "safe exit" option where Assad is offered a safe haven, sparing his country from racing further toward the abyss. The "safe exit" option has already worked in Yemen, and the Saudi Royal family would not object to allowing Assad and his clique sanctuary, as it did earlier with Uganda's Idi Amin and more recently with Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Second, since Assad may not opt for the first option, hoping that Iran and Russia will keep him well-equipped and well-financed, he hopes of crushing the uprising. Therefore a joint effort should be made by the AL, the United States, the European Union, and Turkey to impose crippling sanctions. These sanctions should include: cutting off all civilian flights, ending trade with several Arab State trading partners (including Jordan and Saudi Arabia), threatening to intervene militarily through no-fly zones, and enlisting the use of cyber warfare. Unlike Iraq, an almost completely self-sustained country, Syria desperately depends on imports. Sanctions like these would be very painful and might pressure the entire ruling apparatus to gradually collapse. The UN Security Council is currently considering an Arab-European draft resolution reflecting the demands of the AL initiative, which calls for Assad to hand power over to his deputy but mentions no use of sanctions as a consequence of non-compliance. Despite Russian objections to the draft, Moscow may eventually relent with some US inducement. As a senior Russian envoy has been quoted saying this week, "Russia can do no more for Assad"-- something that should serve as a serious signal to Assad.
Third, as the first two prongs of the strategy are initiated, the high military command should be encouraged to mount a military coup. Such a coup could gather momentum as the military high brass could conclude that, given the rising defections and the state's failure to repress the year-long protests so far, even undertaking massacres on the scale of Hama in February of 1982 would not turn the tide. The military command may then seriously consider the Egyptian model where the military high brass, motivated by its own survival, opted for abandoning Mubarak and his immediate associates, while promising and implementing real reforms. The Syrian military remains the strongest institution within the country and possesses the capability to impose its will. For its high command, the option of sacrificing Assad and some two dozen of his cohorts as the symbol of tyranny would maintain the unity of the army and, above all, save the lives and interests of the bulk of the ruling apparatus. This scenario may have been unlikely only a few months ago partly because of the military's loyalty to Assad's Alawite community and partly because of the regime's security firewalls, which have prevented a military coup in Syria for the last four decades. But now the conditions on the ground have changed in a dramatic way and only a dramatic move will stop the carnage in a situation which is steadily leading towards a civil war.
Finally, for all intents and purposes the sectarian conflict has already begun and will likely, if unimpeded, turn into a full-scale civil war. Should this scenario unfold, it will eventually bring down the Assad regime, and no one in his current power structure will survive. The initially limited defections are now in the hundreds every single day, which has allowed for the emergence of the Syrian Free Army (FSA), as an organized/armed opposition practically working as the military wing of the Syrian National Council. The FSA is in control of two key cities, Douma (on the north-east edge of Damascus) and Zabadani (close to the Lebanese border), which has forced the regime into indirect negotiations to stop the fighting. Should this scenario unfold it will likely follow the Libyan model of capturing one city after another, resulting in slaughter, especially given the recent reports that the regime has already started distributing weapons in the country's Alawite areas with the double aim of denying the FSA further gains and targeting the silent majority's fear of sectarian divides "a la post"-Saddam Iraq.
Time has run out for President Assad. Following the mass killings, suffering and deprivation of basic human rights that the Assad regime has perpetrated on his people, under no circumstances will Assad be able to restore his legitimacy as a ruler either externally or domestically, even if some calm is re-established. Ironically, Assad, who might have been the first leader in Syria who actually wanted to institute some political reforms, might very well end up being the first to be sacrificed because of the governing apparatus he inherited but failed to upend. The Assad dynasty as we know it will most definitely be a thing of the past, regardless of how long that may take.