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Yemen’s Peaceful Change Won’t Work in Syria

  • David Arnold

Soldiers guard house of Yemen's President Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, as protesters demand dismissal of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh' family, August 10, 2012 (Reuters)

Soldiers guard house of Yemen's President Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, as protesters demand dismissal of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh' family, August 10, 2012 (Reuters)

When Syria’s deputy foreign minister left a Moscow meeting with Russia’s foreign minister a few days ago, journalists reported that the official from Damascus hinted that President Bashar al-Assad might be willing to discuss a negotiated departure.

But so far, President Assad has given every indication he intends to hold on to power as long as possible, and it remains unclear if his opponents would even let him step down and go into exile.

Rebel forces, the president's political opponents and other Syrians have most more than 20,000 relatives or colleagues. Will they be satisfied with a negotiated end of the 42-year-old Assad regime?

A proposal the Arab League made in January and repeated by the United States in May talks in Moscow was the executive power transfer made in Yemen in May of last year: the head of state resigns and a vice president takes over. The Russians called it the “Yemenski variant”. However, recent high-level defections in Damascus may make it hard to find someone to replace Assad. And critics of the proposal have even more reasons to believe the Yemen solution won’t work in Syria.

The Syrian opposition’s peaceful quest for political reform collapsed many months ago. The nation is now embroiled in a civil war between the considerable military powers of the Assad regime and the increasing strength and popularity of Syria’s rebel forces.

Just one month ago as he was isolated by global sanctions, Assad sent armored brigades to take back the streets of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, and declared that he was ready for a fight to the finish. Experts predicted another year of fighting before the end of the regime.

A transition plan that worked in Yemen

Is it too late for Assad to follow in the footsteps of Yemen’s ex-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh?
They’re trying to mobilize the Yemen model to Syria

Yemen’s own tumultuous pro-democracy uprising came to an end nine months ago when the Gulf Cooperation Council brokered a deal in which – after 33 years of autocratic rule - Saleh agreed to be replaced by his vice president, Abd Rabbu Mansur al-Hadi. Since then, Hadi has sought to reign in the powerful military and re-establish a government of checks and balances.

The Yemen model was often proposed as an option to a continued Syrian civil war.

“They’re trying to mobilize the Yemen model to Syria, “ said Radwan Ziadeh of the Syrian Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C. “I think it is too late,” said Ziadeh.

Ziadeh joins other experts who say the bloodshed of the past year may have made a Yemeni political solution all but impossible.

“The collective trauma in Syrian society - as a result of long duration of Assad’s regime - is wider and deeper than in Yemen, in Tunisia, in Egypt and even in Libya…” said Khaled Fattah, a European Union consultant on Yemen and a University of Lund lecturer on the Middle East. “It will require a much longer time for collective healing in the Syrian society.”

Why a peaceful departure may not work in Syria

On the one-year anniversary of Yemen’s uprising, Brookings Institution conflict resolution specialist Ibrahim Sharqieh observed that “With Bashar al-Assad clinging to power, Yemen’s model of coordinated transition may well provide insights for Syria.”

But five months later, Sharqieh said the chances of a Yemen-like transition for Syria are vastly diminished. “It is now difficult to see such a solution in Syria.”

1. Syria has grown too violent

Sharqieh cited the regime’s repeated shelling of neighborhoods sympathetic to the rebels as the most important reason why negotiation is unlikely. But he added that Syria’s strong military and the opposition’s divided politics are other factors.

While half of Yemen’s military supported the demonstrators in Sana’a and Taiz, Sharqieh said Syria’s military remains united behind Assad, in spite of many defections to the Free Syrian Army.

2. Syria’s opposition is split

The lack of a unified vision among Syria’s political opposition in the diaspora has further weakened opportunities for making it to the bargaining table.

“In Yemen, we have seen a unified opposition and they formed themselves in a pattern of joint meeting parties,” said Sharqieh. “They had one voice, one block, one negotiator … that was able to engage, negotiate and sign…”

3. Other countries can't agree on a solution

Central to Yemen’s success was its position in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council and major global partners such as Russia saw every reason why stability on Yemen’s borders was essential.

However, Syria’s political future has broader regional and international implications and Russia’s central voting role in the U.N. Security Council has so far blocked efforts to force Assad out.

“On Yemen, we saw a consensus in the international community,” Sharqieh said. But in Syria “we are seeing a split in the international community…”

4. The Syrian government is too sectarian, centralized

Fattah also says the very nature of the Syrian regime also makes negotiations over its end difficult and maybe even impossible.

There were no arms actually in the hands of the people of Syria
“It has been very centralized,” he said, “and the reality of the regime in the case of Syria was sectarian in nature. Because the Syrian state was stronger, it had control over the society. There were no arms actually in the hands of the people of Syria.”

“In the case of Yemen, it was tribal in nature,” he said. The government in Sana’a ruled tentatively and sought alliances with heavily-armed tribes through a semi-official patronage system.

“In the case of the tribe, it is more about identity,” Fattah said. “People can give concessions when it comes to particular identity.”

“In the case of Assad’s Syria, he filled it with the members of his sect, the Alawajis. The thinking of sects is based on ideologies."

Fattah said. “Usually, it is much more problematic to deal with ideological issues... The sect split is much more complicated.”

If Assad and his family do give up power, the survival of modern Syria will depend on whether the major actors in Syria’s revolution can accommodate one another: the several networks of activists who defined the revolution in the streets of Syria, the collection of independent rebel brigades who defend them, and the contending political organizations working inside and outside of Syria.

History may not be on their side.