With the death toll in the Syrian civil war reaching over a United Nations estimated 70,000 deaths and over 700,000 in refuge in neighboring countries, many in the international realm are calling for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to either resign or come to the negotiating table in order to prevent more casualties and to put to an end his reign of terror. Moreover, many foreign leaders are pressuring al-Assad to negotiate because they believe that he will fall in the near term. Despite pressures to negotiate, it appears that al-Assad will ultimately try to hang onto his power for as long as he can, for he knows he is not likely to fall near term.
John Kerry is one of the many to ask al-Assad to negotiate. He has recently made plans to visit Damascus, and there is speculation that he may meet with al-Assad in order to get him to step down. The former Massachusetts senator has dined with Syria’s leader as recently as 2009, and has made several visits to the capital since then. The likely outcome of this visit, however, a direct about face from al-Assad notwithstanding, is a legitimization of the al-Assad regime. While he will never again regain true legitimacy in minds of other foreign leaders, the amount of photos that would likely be taken by the Syrian government of Kerry and al-Assad would likely be very well publicized amongst the Syrian media, making al-Assad appear to appear more legitimate.
And al-Assad is not likely to step down from power no matter how convincing Kerry is. Al-Assad has made quite a few enemies both within and outside of Syria over the past few years. If he were to succumb to Western and Middle Eastern cries for him to democratize Syria, he would likely be voted out of power in favor of Sunni leadership. That would not end well for him; since he began to show a willingness to kill civilians, millions have been calling for his head. This is assuming that the Syrian National Coalition is even willing to cooperate with al-Assad at all. Leader Moaz al Khatib has recently said he is not willing to negotiate with anyone affiliated with the Syrian president. The Free Syrian Army’s chief of staff Selim Idriss is similarly not willing come to negotiating table unless al-Assad is out of power. This is significant for two reasons. First, it virtually ensures that negotiations will not occur in the near future. Secondly, it also takes pressure off of al-Assad to negotiate; he has no incentive to extend his hand if the opposition isn’t willing to even meet with him.
Nor would pure abdication followed by exile be advantageous for al-Assad, as the International Criminal Court would likely attempt to arrest and try him for war crimes against humanity. Ironically, al-Assad himself was in full support of ICC, even signing its Rome Statue, which would be used to permit his prosecution. Now, he could seek exile in countries that did not sign on with the ICC, such as the US and Saudi Arabia who refuse to give jurisdiction to international organizations. Of course, many of these countries are hostile to al-Assad, and would thus not likely let him seek refuge within their borders. The other countries that he could seek exile in include the likes of Sudan and Zimbabwe, countries neither pleasant nor stable enough for al-Assad to stay safe.
Al-Assad currently is showing no signs of a wanting to back down. Syria’s state news ministry SANA reported on February 7 that al-Assad has named seven new ministers, including public works and petroleum, amongst others. These appointments are assertions of al-Assad’s power, his attempt to seem in control. Also of note is his appointment of new finance and labor ministers, showing that al-Assad is not taking lightly Syria’s struggling economy. What his new social affairs minister will do about civilian deaths remains to be seen.
The big question mark is how long al-Assad can last before being toppled. Longtime ally Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in an interview with CNN in late January believes that al-Assad’s power is “slipping away.” However, Jordanian King Abdullah, who did correctly predict the fighting that went on between Hamas and Israel late last year, says “Anyone who says that Bashar’s regime has got weeks to live really doesn’t know the reality on the ground”, giving al-Assad at least through the first half of 2013.
And it isn’t likely al-Assad will fall in the near term. He still is receiving significant monetary and military aid from both Iran and Hezbollah. He still has support from the Syrian Army and still has Syria’s vaunted air power at his control. Moreover, major powers like the United States are extremely hesitant to aid opposition forces. The combination of American failures in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as its already enormous budgetary deficit, makes new foreign military involvement, however small, very unpopular. Nor is a victorious opposition necessarily better for Syria. As illustrated by the new governments in Egypt and Libya, new governments do not always mean smoother ones. Furthermore, the opposition’s involvement with the al-Qaeda linked Mujahedeen makes it unlikely that the U.S. will support the opposition with anything more than lip service.
This lack of support is important because the longer the war prolongs the more difficult it will be for al-Assad to lose. The Syrian National Coalition can only keep up their current progress for so long before succumbing to demoralization or a sheer lack of funds. What differentiates Syria from the other Middle Eastern progressions of power is the length of time which violence has lasted. None of the severe violence in these other countries’ continuing transitional processes lasted even a year; the Syrian Civil War is nearing two. If al-Assad can hold out for another ten months, it is hard to imagine him ever leaving his position of president.
Ultimately, where Syria will be in six months is extremely uncertain. But this much is known: al-Assad is not going to negotiate and will likely keep fighting for as long as possible.
Zane Larwood is a FCRH 2016 International Political Economy major and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.