Qadri Jamil, Syria’s deputy prime minister, recently stated that Bashar Assad’s resignation from office was potentially on the table as part of a peace deal with the armed opposition. While some governments, such as the Obama administration, are understandably skeptical over the sincerity of this offer, they should counter by providing the Syrian president with a credible offer of exile and clemency in order to bring the ongoing civil war in Syria to an end. As long as Assad’s personal fate is tied to that of his regime, he has every incentive to roll the dice and keep “gambling for resurrection” by prosecuting an increasingly brutal civil war.
Unlike democratic leaders who, upon losing office, collect tens of thousands of dollars in speakers’ fees, go on book tours or join the celebrity golf circuit, for many autocrats losing office is literally a matter of life and death. This is because removal from power often results in additional punishments, namely imprisonment (e.g., Mubarak) or execution (e.g., Ceausescu and Gaddafi). When the likelihood of suffering severe punishments after leaving office is high, leaders are more likely to (continue to) undertake risky policies such as war, hoping that such gambles will bring about a reversal of their dismal fortunes, and allow desperate leaders to hold onto power.
Many argue that regime change in Damascus would be hastened if Syria’s remaining backers, Iran and Russia, were to join the rest of the international community in demanding Assad’s ouster. This is unlikely. As threats of sanctions and isolation from the rest of the international community grow in credibility, their likelihood of effectiveness decreases. By reducing Assad’s room for maneuver, rather than compelling him to give up power, they will only make Assad and his shrinking entourage more desperate for — and more ruthless in pursuit of — victory over his domestic opponents, regardless of how elusive such a goal may be.
Some, such as Vali Nasr, the former advisor to the first US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, have argued that the growing unrest in Syria may prove to be a greater threat than the Iranian nuclear program. A credible promise of exile from the international community is more likely to bring about a cessation of violence in Syria than any of the proposals floated thus far, such as arming the loosely formed opposition. Such a commitment would have to include pledges to not prosecute Assad as a war criminal, to allow his family and a few “hangers on” safe passage to the country of their choice, and to enable them to leave Damascus with a share of the wealth they have plundered from Syria over the past several decades.
An offer of exile is the best chance the international community has to begin containing both the violence and potential sectarian conflict fostered by the ongoing war in Syria. First of all, exile is attractive for many dictators in that it allows them to live in luxury after their careers come to an end. For example, Haiti’s Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who, like Assad, inherited his office from his father, went into exile in France as his rule fell apart. Mohammed Zahir Shah lived in exile in Italy after the coup that brought down Afghanistan’s monarchy. Exile also holds out a glimmer of hope for politicians hoping to make a comeback. After the US invasion of Afghanistan — although he did not reclaim his crown — Zahir Shah did manage to become the “father of the nation.” And Duvalier returned to Haiti after the earthquake
There is no question that Bashar Assad is a war criminal and has committed unpardonable atrocities against his own people. However, the US and other states face a double bind: to pursue justice against Assad for the crimes he has already committed would entail the pursuit of sanctions targeting him and his entourage personally (including, but not limited to, indictments at international tribunals). This would leave him with incentives to keep fighting in order to maintain his regime. On the other hand, providing Assad with an exit option may bring an end to the fighting, but to be effective it would have to provide him with a credible amnesty for the crimes that he has already committed. Neither choice is welcome. However, the best hope the international community has of containing the violence and beginning the work of reconstruction is to allow Assad to go into exile.