Bernd Debusmann recently penned a rather timely and thoughtfully brief Reuters column addressing a possible deal for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to leave the country in exchange for his life. One might dub it an inversion of a well-worn saying: No bad deed goes punished: (Redeemable only by tyrants and solipsistic, culture-crushing Kim il-Sung copycats).
I can remember quite clearly, at my crisp young age of 21, a time when I abhorred that so many dictatorial mass-murderers were given deals in exchange for abdication. Upon “extended soaking,” as the massage parlors crow, I’ve come to the realization that these deals are nearly always morally obligatory. I now think the body blow to justice is sadly worth trading for prevention of further violence, but—as Debusmann implicitly argues—the weight of reckoning over said tyrants must be continuously preserved. The instinctive moral retch and the vomited meals tied to the thought of Bashar al-Assad granted legal immunity must be weighed against the considerable practical positives: a countrywide civil war stopped short, the avoidance of a costly and likely contentious intervention, and a Syrian body politic free to rebuild itself without delay, which, of course, is in entirety the reason Syrians daily defy cowardly bombardment by the armed forces of a horrid, bleating narcissist.
I think, at root, historical amnesia worries Debussman most. I cannot remember once hearing of a dictator in one of these cases having “made a deal.” It is always written: “so-and-so was ousted, and blah blah blah”–history continued, with no mention of payment for the crimes of the exiled leader. The degree of disgust that dictator-deals inspire corresponds perfectly with the reticence of mainstream dialogue to acknowledge said deals. Once I moved on from textbooks to specific histories and learned how most tyrants actually abdicated—carrying a sizable chunk of the country’s wealth and their massive extended plutocracies—it seemed a moral unthinkability to allow, say, Yemen’s Saleh to leave after presiding over the murders of innocent protestors. Or Idi Amin, Marcos, Pol Pot, and dozens of lesser-known historical human blights. Justice is rarely served in the most satisfying ways: the convictions of Taylor and Mladic represent the first tangible results of international justice, but most modern dictators have died of their own accord, sometimes while being brought to account, like the sickening champion of Balkan ethnic cleansing, Radovan Karadzic.
In no other scenario of foreign policy has balancing of principles and practicality been brought into such uncomfortably limpid contrast. Visceral reactions are normally instructive, but here obscure a tragic and distasteful brute fact: letting Assad off the hook, with all his embezzled funds, is unquestionably better than allowing him to further debase the country he illegitimately rules over. To understate the case, these types of agreements are never a mark of pride in a statesman’s career, but rather a dirty, morally compromised victory that demands serious extended revisiting. The tip-toeing is understandable, then, but ultimately self-destructive, as it prevents us from recognizing the precedent and readily considering the oft-available policy option of abdication agreements. In other words, people look at Assad’s situation and conclude that his crimes are so great he cannot escape justice, even if, in his fall, he immeasurably magnifies and multiplies the woes of Syria. Because deals of this genus are rarely touted and hardly studied, their benefits are shrouded in considering how to deal with contemporary dictators.
We are not party to Syrian accounts of this scenario, but their logic can be ballparked—albeit inadequately—by extrapolation from previous cases. Typically, diametrically opposed, and equally valid factions arise over how to deal with dictators. I don’t doubt—in fact, I suspect it’s a majority view—that many Syrians would simply cry, “Get that dog out of the country so we can rebuild our lives—I don’t care how it’s achieved.” These pragmatists tend to be older, with greater, diversified responsibility, and are the people who suffer most in civil war. There also exist—especially in the FSA and other groups-with-guns—those that defiantly claim, “No, Assad only gets to leave in a body bag, no matter how many Syrians must die to win.” This appeal to purity of motive, to totality of justice, shouldn’t be considered simply idealistic, but is common amongst the young and professional revolutionaries who have relatively little to lose in civil war. Choosing to risk one’s own life in defense of an ideal is admirable, choosing to risk one’s family is, to most, selfish, when all things are considered. Said hardliners won in Libya, as American and coalition diplomats advocated a fair trial for Qaddafi that never occurred. But, given the nature of the opposition in Syria, and the uptick in regime defections of top-level characters with much to lose in the uncertain swirl of civil infighting, I believe the pragmatist view will prevail. None of these opinions exist in a vacuum, of course, and the inevitable foreign intervention or interference must accommodate and will invariably affect Syrian demands.
Russia seems the logical endpoint for an exiled Assad family. History shows repeated consequences for host countries welcoming exiled authoritarian allies, most tangibly, to Americans, after the October 1979 welcoming of the Shah. I mention this only to note that, while Russia has thus far been immutably childish in Syria, their taking in Assad is not a simple admission of failed policy or friendly favor, but also carries obvious risks, as it will likely stoke the flames of Central Asian Sunni extremist groups that presently rank as blue-ribbon concern for the Kremlin. If Russia can be brought to support regime change, a variation of De-Ba’athification will become our primary concern in Syria, and we would do well to study its implementation and consequences in Iraq nine years ago to avoid repeating costly and unnecessary mistakes in reconstruction. If the deal-door opens—it’s begun to creak at the Paris meeting—the coalition shouldn’t hesitate to craft an agreement granting Assad immunity in exchange for his exile. Though the previous sentence does invite the esophageal regions to revolt, it also prevents the possible usage of CBW in regime death-throes, increased imports of foreign jihadis, and rapidly ossifying sectarian fault lines. Of paramount importance: an agreement hastens the chance for Syria to remake itself according to the will of its people, a cause for which fifteen thousand have already died—and for which no more should die simply because we cannot swallow the thought of Assad lounging guilt-free on the Black Sea shoreline.