December 5th, 2012
07:15 PM ET

Is Assad seeking asylum?

By Jamie Crawford

U.S. officials have said for months that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's days in power are numbered.

A fight to the death might seem a more plausible outcome as the carnage of the Syrian civil war approaches its second year.

But the idea of asylum in a third country is an option that is also emerging in questions over Assad's fate.

The complexities of a successful flight from Syria, however, could complicate any hope that Assad harbors for a clean get away.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Wednesday that Faisal al-Miqdad, the Syrian deputy foreign minister, recently traveled to Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador with personal letters from Assad looking at the possibility of political asylum for himself and his family if he were forced to leave Damascus.

But there is no indication that Assad is ready to abandon his powers yet, according to multiple sources in the United States, Europe and the Arab world. U.S. officials have made it clear that Assad's decision is in his own hands.

"That will require the Assad regime making the decision to participate in a political transition, ending the violence against his own people," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters while traveling to NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday.

"And we hope they do so because we believe, as you know, that their fall is inevitable," she said.

And the question of whether Assad seeks an offer of asylum is not as important for the United States, as are the responsibilities of the government that ultimately accepts him to make certain he is held accountable for the actions of his regime.

"A number of countries have offered" asylum to Assad, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last month while declining to name specific countries. "We want to get him out of there so we can move on. That said, we also support accountability for him and for everybody else with blood on their hands."

And that certainly could be why Assad might find the three Latin American countries as an appealing destination.

While Cuba and Venezuela have made no secret of their anti-U.S. and western views over the years, Ecuador's leftist government has shown its resistance to U.S. policies as well, and could be hesitant to hand Assad over for prosecution.

Ecuador is currently offering WikiLeak's founder Julian Assange asylum in its British Embassy, as he resists extradition to Sweden.

But questions over the ultimate longevity of those governments might give Assad pause, some analysts say.

"Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba are countries where he could feel safe for the time being but he has to be concerned about a shift in the winds in any of those governments as well," Scott Horton, an international law expert at Columbia University, told CNN. "And certainly no one expects the regimes in those three states to continue indefinitely."

Saudi Arabia, which has a history of accepting repressive dictators like Uganda's Idi Amin and Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali into exile, is not likely to figure in Assad's calculus with the government in Riyadh currently assisting and arming the rebel groups that seek his overthrow.

For many analysts who follow the situation, they say Iran has gone to great lengths to keep the Assad government in power and likely would be the most hospitable to Assad's situation should he choose to leave Syria.

"President Assad could go multiple places throughout the world," Andrew Tabler, a long-time Syria watcher who spent years living in the country, told CNN. "The question is how long can he survive there, how long can he really live in security before someone goes after him and his family, and Tehran is safer."

With Assad's Syria seen as Iran's principal ally in the Arab world and a conduit to its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran likely would not have much interest in Assad leaving while still holding significant portions of Syria within his grip.

Russia, with its long time support for Assad and opposition to international efforts to oust him from power, has been mentioned as another possible destination for Assad. But that, too, may be a dwindling option.

"I think that the Russians at the moment are realizing that they are going to have to deal with a new Syria," Tabler, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said. "It's going to be hard to deal with a new Syria when they are harboring, or possibly harboring the former president."

As countries make even informal offers of asylum to Assad, the United States continues to express what it believes is their responsibility to make sure that issues of Assad's accountability inside Syria are addressed.

"We've been quite clear publicly, and I would assume we've been equally clear privately," Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters on Wednesday.

But Assad's possible departure, while a welcome prospect to many in the international community, could open the door to even more instability in the country.

With the majority Sunni opposition enraged at the minority Alawite Assad regime for the many months of ruthless aerial and artillery strikes on civilians, analysts say his departure would likely hasten a scenario of revenge killings across the country on a much larger scale.

U.S. officials said they have long been planning for "the day after Assad" – such as training Jordanian troops to provide security. But for now, they just hope Syria will keep its chemical weapons under wraps.

In the end, Assad is still seen as having the vast support of his Alawite sect, that of the Iranian government, and with it, a ruthless ability to stay and fight to the end. Whether his inner core of support will ultimately see that as the best option, remains to be seen.

"The question is will his sect decide that President Assad has to leave as part of any transition in the country," Tabler said. "I think there is a real chance he will huddle along with his sect. The question is whether his sect will want to huddle with him or not."

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    December 8, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
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