A striking fact about civil wars is that the outcome is often clear months or even years before they actually end. Jefferson Davis knew he would lose the American Civil War after the fall of Atlanta, yet continued to fight. Muammar Qaddafi almost certainly knew he would lose the war in Libya as soon as NATO assaults began, yet he continued to fight. The same is true in Syria. Syrian President Bashar al Assad continues to fight despite increasing evidence that he cannot win. Why does Assad continue to fight despite declining odds and what does this suggest the U.S. should do?
Assad continues to fight for two reasons. First, he knows he cannot negotiate his way about of war despite offers by Kofi Annan to do so. From Assad’s perspective, any real offer to share power would be tantamount to a decisive defeat. Agreeing to open up the political process to a group that represents 70% of the population would be equivalent to Assad agreeing to a minority position in the new government. And a minority position in government would make him vulnerable to reprisals in the form of imprisonment or death at the hands of a vengeful population.
Even if Assad were to agree to a compromise deal, the opposition has its own reasons to reject a settlement. Assuming they could unite, why would Sunnis and Christians trust that Assad would continue to share power once they laid down their weapons? Violence and the continuing threat of violence is the only tool they have to keep Assad in line and they will almost certainly be deeply skeptical of any promise by Assad to change.
Assad could voluntarily cede power, spending the rest of his days in comfortable exile. But this is the second reason he continues to fight. Assad knows that a safe, comfortable exile is not an option for him. In the past, hated dictators have sometimes chosen exile when defeat seemed likely. The Shah of Iran did it in the 1970s, Ferdinand Marcos did it in the 1980s, and Ben Ali did it last year. This option isn’t open to Assad and this is what makes fighting to the finish attractive to him.
Assad cannot go into exile because exile leaves him vulnerable to prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Assad’s problem is that he signed the Rome Statute of the ICC, giving the Court the right to prosecute him if he engages in crimes against humanity – something he has clearly done over the past year. In fact, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly confirmed that Assad could be prosecuted for war crimes. This places Assad directly in the sightline of the ICC.
So what will happen? History suggests that Assad will continue to fight with the aim to decisively defeat the rebels. He will hope that Iran and Russia will continue to support him and that the international community will not intervene. But time is not on his side. Continued war and economic sanctions will make his regime weaker. This decline may convince him to eventually accept a compromise settlement, but this offer is likely to be rejected by an opposition that does not trust him. Exile isn’t a good alternative. Few states are likely to accept him or credibly promise to protect him over time. The most likely outcome, as it was with Qaddafi, is defeat and death.
Perhaps this is not a bad option for the United States. Syria will get a new government under majority Sunni leadership without the U.S. having to commit any additional soldiers to the Middle East. It will be a home-grown movement that deposes a hated dictator and one who had been a longtime enemy of the United States. Military and financial aid to the rebels could hasten this outcome. But anyone who believes that Assad will eventually agree to negotiate, or leave power quietly, ignores the strong incentives he has to fight to the death.