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A demonstrator holds a picture of a missing relative during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Baba Amro, near Homs, in this handout picture received on Jan. 22, 2012. (Reuters/Reuters)
A demonstrator holds a picture of a missing relative during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Baba Amro, near Homs, in this handout picture received on Jan. 22, 2012. (Reuters/Reuters)

Arab League ponders what will replace Syrian President's crumbling regime Add to ...

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may not be in any immediate danger of defeat or collapse, but his regime is finished. That’s the message gleaned from interviews with several Syrians and Syria-watchers in Lebanon over the past two weeks, and the surprisingly blunt message delivered Sunday by the Arab League in a chaotic meeting in Cairo.

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“There’s no doubt Assad has to go,” said Selim al-Hoss, a three-time prime minister of Lebanon whose government once was saved by the Syrian military during the country’s civil war. “The problem is: Who would take his place?”

The question encapsulates the dilemma facing the Arab League and the outside world as they try to wrest changes in behaviour from Mr. al-Assad, if not a complete change in the regime.

“Until the people know that, the majority will continue to support him,” said the ailing Mr. al-Hoss, who received a personal visit from the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon on Friday. “At least he’s the devil they know.”

In Cairo, the Arab League has now changed gears dramatically. Meeting to decide on an extension of its mission to monitor Syria’s adherence to a peace plan, the group ended up urging the Syrian President to “delegate powers to [his]vice-president to liaise with a government of national unity,” to be formed in two months.

The urging came in a statement delivered by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, who is chairing the Arab League meetings, and whose royal ruler had been at the forefront of Arab leaders opposing the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and now President al-Assad in Syria.

The idea resembles an initiative by Saudi Arabia to ease power from Yemen’s embattled long-time ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, by way of his vice-president and a transitional government. Earlier, Saudi Arabia, which has maintained a public stance of neutrality toward the al-Assad regime, announced it was withdrawing its monitors from Syria because the regime had not lived up to any of its commitments. “We are not going to accept being used as witnesses to crimes or to hide their crimes,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in a statement, referring to the Arab League mission.

Under the peace plan, Syrian authorities were supposed to stop attacking peaceful protests, withdraw troops and tanks from the streets, free detainees and open a political dialogue. It is that “political dialogue” that the League now is emphasizing.

There are some leading Syrians who believe such a process is the only way to satisfactorily resolve the current conflict and usher in change. “The regime can never go back to the way it was before March 15. Those days are history,” said a former senior government official, referring to the day popular protests first broke out in Syria.

“The only question now is whether Bashar recognizes this in time and agrees to hand over authority to a truly democratic system,” added the former high-ranking official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Those who think the regime can triumph [by its violent crackdown]are talking stupidly.”

Stupid or not, the crackdown is continuing and with a vengeance. More than 70 people were reported killed this weekend including some 14 opposition members who had been taken prisoner. They died when the bus in which they were being transported was struck by a series of bombs near the northern city of Idlib. The number of fatalities climbed dramatically when 30 unidentified bodies were reportedly found hidden in a hospital morgue in Homs.

“The current situation [in Syria]can go on for years,” said Mohamed Chatah, a foreign policy adviser to Saad Hariri, leader of Lebanon’s opposition Future Movement party. “Neither side can win outright as things stand, but neither will yield.”

According to the former Syrian official, options are limited. The only “realistic choices” facing the Syrian President are either to hand over power to a new system or be shot in a ditch, he said. And the longer Mr. al-Assad waits before agreeing to a handover, “the more likely is the violent end.”

In the kind of handover envisioned by the ex-official and by the Arab League, there would be a transitional period in which President al-Assad remained in office, albeit with reduced powers, and formation of a government composed of opposition figures and presidential appointees. None of those would come from the currently ruling Baath Party. This proposed transitional leadership would administer the country until a new constitution is approved and democratic elections are held.

“Syrians don’t want to see Assad just replaced by another dictator or some revolutionary group. They want to make sure there’s a real change to democracy,” the former Syrian official said. “A negotiated exit,” he added, “is an incentive to step down.”

Of course a skeptical opposition also would have to agree to negotiate such a handover. While some internal opposition elements appear prepared to have negotiations, and while the Arab League initiative calls specifically for them, the Syrian National Council, the major outside opposition group, has insisted on Mr. al-Assad’s unconditional surrender.

“That’s not going to happen,” the former Syrian official said. “If there’s no other choice for him, the President will continue to fight to the death, and he’ll take a lot of people with him.”

Such an endgame also would require an outside power to guarantee both the handover and the safety of all parties including the out-going President. Only Russia, which maintains a naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus and long-standing military ties to Syria, may have the sway and incentive to play that role.

“The only way it could work is if this leadership saw the end coming and saw there was no alternative,” aid Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “And we’re not there yet.”

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