Bashar al-Assad is going down

Bashar al-Assad is going down

The noose around Bashar al-Assad’s neck is getting tighter.

With the extraordinary midnight statement Sunday by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, demanding the "stoppage of the killing machine and bloodshed" in Syria and withdrawing the Saudi ambassador from Damascus for "consultations," the Syrian president’s isolation is nearly complete. The remarks came after a milder Gulf Cooperation Council statement last week that, in hindsight, ought to have been seen as a warning.

Kuwait also withdrew its ambassador Monday, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was on his way to Damascus to deliver "a very sharp message" to Assad, in the words of an anonymous senior Turkish diplomat quoted by Hürriyet Daily News.

“[Turkey and Syria] will sit down and talk for one last time … even though one should not exclude dialogue, even in wartime,” another Foreign Ministry official told the paper. “The talks will show whether the ties will be cut loose or not … If a new [Turkish] policy is to be outlined on Syria – that’s the last meeting.”

Yet for all the drama of leading Middle Eastern powers finally expressing their exasperation with a brutal crackdown that has lasted for nearly 5 months — and escalated dramatically during the holy month of Ramadan — none of these countries are yet calling for Assad’s ouster, as France and the United States have done. Arab states are still signaling that the Syrian regime has a chance to stay in their good graces by carrying out those two favorite words of disingenuous tyrants everywhere: "dialogue" and "reform."

As Nabil el-Araby — whose tenure as Arab League chief thus far has been characterized by toadyishness and willful naivete — put it Monday, "Do not expect drastic measures but step-by-step persuasion to resolve the conflict."

Once you’re done laughing at the notion that the League of Arab Dictators has any idea what will satisfy the Syrian people, consider this: Does anyone really still think Assad is capable of solving this thing? Not only is the Syrian regime pushing back against the external criticism, insisting it is responding to "sabotage acts" by armed Islamist gangs, but the crackdown has empowered the very elements of the regime least amenable to a democratic transition. Moreover, as Assad himself noted in his interview with the Wall Street Journal in January, it is fruitless to make changes under pressure:

If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform. This is first. Second, if you do it just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is going to be a reaction, not an action; and as long as what you are doing is a reaction you are going to fail.

I expect that over the next few days, we might see fewer provocative moves — like this weekend’s bloody assault on the eastern city of Deir az-Zour, which seems to have provoked King Abdullah’s ire — from the Syrian regime. Perhaps Assad and friends will announce a fresh round of "reforms" — always, of course, with trap doors and escape hatches that render them meaningless. But at this point, Assad seems doomed; after so much bloodshed and anger, any genuine political solution will inevitably lead to his ouster. His wisest course of action now is to find a safe place to spend his retirement (perhaps Vogue will give him a job?).

I imagine a loose coalition of France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States will now be working toward a soft landing for Syria — looking for high-level defectors who could negotiate with opposition leaders and carry out what political scientists call a "pacted transition." But it’s hard to imagine this working either, given that the military and security services are so tightly controlled by the Assad clan and that the opposition is so diffuse and fragmented. There is nothing comparable to the relatively upright Tunisian and Egyptian militaries in Syria, whose army has been shelling cities and towns across the country. And there is nobody for the regime to negotiate with who can guarantee calm on the streets.

The whole Baathist system has to come down, and it probably will. The only questions now are how long it will take, and how much more innocent blood will be shed in the process.