Opinion

Bernd Debusmann

Will Syria’s Assad get away with murder?

Bernd Debusmann
Jun 8, 2012 15:24 UTC

Will Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad be allowed to get away with mass murder, like his father 30 years ago? Some of the ideas now under discussion could mean precisely that — a golden parachute into exile. No war crimes charges, no prosecution, no trial.

Unlike Egypt’s ousted dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who was sentenced to life in prison on June 2, and unlike Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi, who was killed at the hand of anti-government rebels, Assad would “transfer power and depart Syria.” That’s how U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it after a meeting of foreign ministers of Arab and Western nations in Istanbul.

That idea is known as the Yemeni Solution and was floated by U.S. President Barack Obama at a meeting of the Group of Eight in May. It refers to a deal under which Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was granted immunity from prosecution for the killing of protesters. In return, he handed power over to his deputy and announced he planned to go into exile in Ethiopia.

No such deal would be possible in Syria without the involvement of Russia, the Assad regime’s chief armorer, and the two other pillars of his support – China and Iran. This is why Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary General who is now peace envoy on behalf of the U.N. and the Arab League, has come up with the idea of a “contact group” to work out an end to a conflict that has claimed at least 10,000 lives so far.

The group would include the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — where Russia and China have blocked tough measures against Syria — as well as “countries with real influence on the situation, countries that can influence either side — the government of Syria and the opposition,” Annan said at the United Nations. “Iran, as an important country in the region, I hope will be part of the solution.”

America and Syria’s ‘dead man walking’

Bernd Debusmann
May 22, 2012 13:06 UTC

When U.S. President Barack Obama and the leaders of  Germany, France, Britain, Canada and the European Union first issued public calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, the death toll in Syria stood at 2,000. That was in August 18 last year.

When Obama repeated the call on May 19, as host of a summit meeting of the Group of Eight, the body count had reached 10,000, according to United Nations estimates. The two figures highlight the lack of success of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure on a ruthless leader who learned lessons in unrestrained brutality from his father, Hafez al-Assad, whom he succeeded in office.

A peaceful solution to Syria’s protracted crisis now looks remote enough to wonder whether Bashar al-Assad might outlast Obama in power. The U.S. president is not assured of winning another term in office next November. But the odds of the Assad regime surviving into 2013 look better with every passing day, even though one of the U.S. government’s top experts on Syria has labeled the Syrian president a “dead man walking.”

The UN Security Council shows its weakness (again)

Bernd Debusmann
Mar 2, 2012 16:02 UTC

For decade after decade, diplomats at the United Nations have had on-again, off-again talks on how to reform the Security Council, the supreme decision-making panel on international security. The crisis in Syria shows that progress has been minimal and that power politics often trump human rights.

At issue is the composition of a body “frozen in amber since the end of World War II,” in the words of Stewart Patrick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based foreign policy think tank. The biggest difficulty in unfreezing it is the veto power wielded by the five permanent members of the 15-nation council – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.

A veto by one permanent member is enough to sink a resolution. On February 4, two veto-wielders, Russia and China, banded together to vote against a resolution that provided for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to step aside, halt a ruthless crackdown on dissidents, and begin a transition to democracy. Assad saw the veto as a green light to crack down even harder. A week before the vetoes, the U.N. estimated the death toll at 5,400.

The downside of arming Syrian rebels

Bernd Debusmann
Feb 23, 2012 15:42 UTC

As Syrian government forces bombard Homs and other cities with merciless brutality, day after day, calls for arming the opposition are becoming louder. But there is a powerful case for caution, and for thinking twice before good intentions pave the road to even worse hell in Syria.

Most importantly, potential armourers of the opposition need to find answers to a number of key questions. The following exchange at a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee in mid-February helps explain what is at stake.

Question: “What is the nature of the Syrian opposition? Who are they? How much of this is domestic? How much of it is foreign? What is the regional dynamic? Is al Qaeda involved?”

Betting on Syria’s Assad staying in power

Bernd Debusmann
Feb 11, 2012 17:39 UTC

In mid-December, the U.S. State Department’s point man on Syria, Frederic Hof, described the government of President Bashar al-Assad as ‘the equivalent of a dead man walking.” On February 6, President Barack Obama followed up by saying the fall of the regime was not a matter of if but of when.

He gave no timeline, unlike Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak who predicted months ago that the Assad regime would fall “within weeks.” Since that wishful thought, hundreds have died in ruthless government crackdowns on dissidents and the death toll in the 11-month uprising climbed past 5,000, according to the United Nations. Politicians now shy away from the risky business of predicting dates for an end to the widening conflict.

Not all bets are off, though. There are punters wagering money on the fall of the house of Assad on Intrade.com, a Dublin-based online exchange that allows traders to bet on politics and other current events. Like other markets, the exchange’s odds are based on the collective opinion of traders. On February 9, Intrade gave a 31% chance to Assad being out of office by the end of June and a 58% chance that he would be out by December 31, 2012.

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