A negotiated political settlement in Syria has been touted as the best way to preserve state institutions and guarantee a smooth transition, with Iraq's post-Saddam chaos often cited as a “lesson learned.” But those advocates of a Syrian settlement seem to have learned little from Iraq.
If they had, they would have known that stability in Arab countries is strictly tied to the dictator. In his absence, the status-quo is upset and needs rebalancing, during which time the country is forced to live through an inevitable period of turbulence. In the case of Syria, even with Bashar al-Assad still in power, the balance of power has been irreversibly shaken, as the regime’s opponents have thrown caution to the wind and broken the barrier of fear that the Assad clan has used to rule Syria for the past four decades.
Yet believers in a settlement want to stay the course. Robert Ford, the last US ambassador in Syria and America's front man on the issue, was heard arguing that a solution without political settlement was like riding a bicycle with one wheel. "Impossible," was the word he used to describe any effort to force Assad out without consulting him on his departure, or at least talking to other senior regime figures.
Ford's argument, widely endorsed in Washington and throughout world capitals, verges on the absurd because it does not ask the key question: When has a brutal dictator ever abdicated by negotiation? Ford might cite Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, but he gave up only after a rocket literally exploded in his face and forced him abroad for medical treatment. Even then, it took Saleh, a much less brutal autocrat than Assad, months and immense international pressure, especially from his primary backers in Washington, to step down.
Syria has not had the global pressure Saleh had to endure. Thanks to the support of Moscow and Beijing, Assad has been able to easily dismiss calls from Washington and the West to stop his massacres and give up power.
But even assuming that Russia and China are genuinely supportive of the transition plan so cherished by the West and repeatedly presented to Assad by UN Special Envoy Kofi Anan, there are no indications that any Syrian state institution will survive post-Assad. In fact, the late Hafez al-Assad had designed the system to be so dependent on him, and later his son, that it looks inconceivable for the Syrian institutions—both military and civilian—to operate in their absence.
Assad Senior transformed the state into a hollow body that is propped up by the decentralized security apparatuses. Throughout the Assad era, their apparatchiks jockeyed for influence in a never-ending game of power grabbing. The Assads' job was to preside over the intricate balancing of power among the different security agencies. Whenever any security chief was deemed a threat to the Assads, the dictator often granted his rivals the opportunity to pound him and cut him back to size.
In the absence of Assad, the zero-sum game between security chiefs will be disturbed. Should Assad be made to go, not only will Syria's security gangs turn against each other, but the Alawite clans might also fall into disunity, and Syria's civil war, like Lebanon and Iraq's conflicts, will turn into a number of raging mini wars within each community, in addition to the more general inter-communal conflict.
Imagining that a negotiated settlement will allow Assad to hand over the keys to the Syrian state is just like when Washington thought that when Saddam was gone, Iraq—the so-called country of the one million engineers—would automatically thrive. Dictatorships are designed in a way where "stability" is tied to the autocrat staying in place. This was true in Iraq, and it will prove true in Syria.
A negotiated political settlement that allows an orderly transition of power in Syria was constructed by the imagination of the few and then took on a life of its own. In Iraq, despite all the American efforts, political solutions failed in the past and are still failing today. There is no reason to assume that they will succeed in Syria.
But inevitable instability in post-Assad Syria should not be an excuse for Assad to stay. Rather, it is an invitation for the world to understand that it cannot always engineer a transition of power in ways as smooth as those envisaged by intellectuals and diplomats. Syria is destined for bumpy months, and maybe years, ahead, and if Ford and like-minded world officials want to help, they can do so by letting go of the belief that Syria’s state institutions can be preserved.
As for the alternatives, charting a course forward is as tricky and unrealistic as preaching political settlement. What we know for sure, however, is that the killing must stop, and this can only happen the sooner Assad is ejected from power.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai