As the killing rages on in Syria, all eyes are turning to Russia as the country best able to rein in the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and effect a so-called Yemen-style solution to the conflict.
It was in Yemen, earlier this year, that long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh relinquished power after a year of trying to violently suppress popular protests. Mr. Saleh was persuaded by his powerful neighbouring patron, Saudi Arabia, to hand over power to a transitional authority headed by his vice-president and was assured immunity from prosecution.
Syrians who know Mr. al-Assad, and who want to see an end to the conflict that now has killed some 10,000 people, have long advocated such a solution.
In the Syrian variation, Mr. al-Assad would be allowed to remain in office with diminished powers for a modest period of time, while his vice-president negotiated with opposition and other representative groups a proper transition to democracy. A patron such as Russia with long-standing ties to Syria would guarantee the interests of both sides.
Floated earlier this year, the plan was shot down by major elements in the Syrian opposition who insisted that Mr. al-Assad immediately be removed from office and put on trial for his crimes.
The scheme also was rejected by major Western powers who clung to the belief that the Syrian leader would be toppled soon enough without the need for such measures.
But the al-Assad regime is too well bullet-proofed for that to happen. The essence of the regime is concentrated in the hands of members of the minority Alawite sect from which the al-Assads hail. Believing they would be annihilated if they were to hand over power to the Sunni Muslim majority, the leadership has ensured that all the power and the best military forces remain under its control. As a result, relatively few soldiers and officials have defected and the regime marches on.
Advocates of the Yemen-style approach also argue that an abrupt resignation by the Syrian leadership would leave a vacuum at the top, one that would be filled by whichever group got to Damascus first. Such a group could well be one that would not oversee a transition to democracy, leaving the country much as it is now but with different dictators.
The appeal of the Yemeni approach is not just to give Mr. al-Assad a safe exit but to ensure a transition to democracy and a constitution that would safeguard the Alawites and other minorities, something that would be welcomed by the country’s Christian community.
Syrians with intimate knowledge of the country’s program of economic reforms ushered in by the al-Assad administration say that democratic reforms were next on the agenda but that last year’s popular uprising pre-empted the plans.
Indeed, when Mr. al-Assad succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, and came to power in 2000, he vowed to make democratic reforms and began loosening controls on free expression, human rights and political activism. The Alawite old guard, however, fearing their own demise, stepped in and persuaded the young leader to hold off, and openings to political reform were abruptly slammed shut.
As attractive as the Yemeni solution appears, there are significant differences between Syria and Yemen that might make such an approach more difficult.
In Yemen, for one thing, there was a major defection of large elements of the country’s armed forces under a commander who pledged to protect the mostly young protesters who had hounded the regime for months. President Saleh was made to realize he couldn’t simply crush the opposition. No such large-scale defection has taken place in Syria and the regime’s forces have a monopoly on power.
In Yemen, it also took a narrow escape from death to convince Mr. Saleh that he was vulnerable. A rocket attack on the president’s palace left Mr. Saleh severely burned and he was flown to Saudi Arabia for life-saving treatment. It was while in Riyadh that Mr. Saleh had his epiphany.
To this point, the Syrian President has not been similarly struck – which is where Russia comes in.