Written By: Khaled Fattah*
Article Date: Sep 20, 2012 - 2:19:23 PM
The divergence of foreign interests in Syria and the regime’s brutality against its people makes such a transition unlikely
Realizing that neither a full-scale military intervention nor Libya-style air strikes are feasible options for Syria, some western politicians are considering a Yemeni-style transition of power in Damascus.
The three main aspects of the Yemeni model were based on granting immunity to the Yemeni leader from persecution, transferring his political power to his deputy, and forming a national consensus government, with half of the ministers from the ruling party.
For many reasons, however, such a model would be difficult to implement in today’s explosive and badly traumatized Syrian socio-political arena. First, from an international relations point of view Yemen is fundamentally different.
The roadmap for political transition in Yemen was designed mainly by Saudi Arabia, the powerful giant of the Arabian peninsula, which has a vast network of patronage-based close connections with numerous state and non-state actors inside Yemen.
Riyadh has the ability – and every national security reason – to throw its weight behind brokering a peaceful transition of power in Sana’a. The Yemeni political file, basically, is a Saudi security file.
The crisis in Syria, on the other hand, has a far wider international context: it is about strategic alliances with Iran, Russia and China – the growing anti-US hegemony nexus in the post-cold war era. Unlike Yemen’s politically and culturally homogenous neighbourhood of oil-rich gulf monarchies, the Syrian neighborhood is heterogeneous, with clashing political agendas and interests inside Syria.
Therefore the roadmap to transition in Syria, unlike that in Yemen, cannot be regionally designed. The insistence of Russia on deleting from the UN resolution any text that calls for President Assad to transfer power to his deputy illustrates the difficulty of applying the Yemeni model.
The divergence of the interests of major international players in Syria stands in a sharp contrast to the convergence of their interests in implementing the Saudi-orchestrated Yemeni model of transition.
The Yemeni formula also serves Washington’s narrow fixation on knocking out terror threats emanating from the country. Second, the degree and duration of the brutal response of the Assad regime to the popular uprisings has exceeded the aggressive reactions of all the regimes of the toppled leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.
As a result, the collective traumatizing experience of Syrian society today is much wider and far deeper than in all the other places visited by the Arab Spring. With tens of thousands killed, scores of towns destroyed and hundreds of thousands seeking refuge in camps along the borders with Jordan and Turkey, it’s difficult to imagine the duplication of Yemen’s scenario for peaceful transition of power.
Third, President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Yemen was a fragile political entity governed by a familial-clan-tribal structure, which penetrated the institutionally faceless and heavily tribalised military.
The structure was sustained via a network of patronage. At society level, the chronic weakness of Yemen’s central authority, and the long continuous history of instability have equipped the people of Yemen with the skills of resilience, traditional conflict resolution and mediation, quick absorption of political shocks and coping with uncertainties. Owing to the unique particularities of the fabric of the Yemeni society, the Saleh option secured a safe political exit for the political leader without dragging his clan or tribe into a battle with the rest of the society.
The strongly centralized and iron-fisted Assad regime in Syria, on the other hand, is centered on sectarian-based control of the military, security and state institutions.
The fierce mukhabarat (intelligence) state of the Assad regime has deepened sectarian paranoia. In generic terms, it is far more problematic to deal with the aftermath of bringing down a sectarian-based regime than dealing with the aftermath of removing a tribal-based regime.
Sect is constructed on the foundations of an ideology; tribe is a dynamic identity. If Assad did agree to give away his presidential chair in return for immunity from prosecution, as Saleh did in Yemen, and the perpetrators of the atrocities in Syria are not brought to justice, the urge for revenge against the Alawite sect will become the way for many Syrians to avoid further suffering.
The application of the Yemeni model in Syria would fuel a sectarian existential battle. The double standards of the international community on the issue of the Arab spring, and the consequences of toppling four Arab leaders teach us that democracy and respect for human rights cannot be delivered from the sky or via foreign military intervention. Instead, these precious values have to be fought for by the people in the Middle East at a cost of great pain and long struggle.
* Khaled Fattah: holds a PhD in international relations from the University of St Andrews and is an expert on Yemen and state-tribe relations in the Arab world. guardian.co.uk,
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