This must be the question that the Syrian tyrant asks himself every day. While the world’s democracies have discussed long and hard the options for bringing a stop to the slaughter, far less time has been spent identifying the options that remain for Assad himself. I imagine him contemplating his possibilities while he looks at two photographs taken last year. One of his lovely wife Asma in a flattering report that appeared in Vogue magazine, and the other of the dead body of Muammar Gaddafi. The first reminds him of a life and alternatives that he no longer has, while the second brutally illustrates his possible future. The hope, symbolized by Vogue's flattering article, that Assad might be able to reform the murderous dictatorship he inherited from his father, is now gone forever. The thousands of innocent people he has killed put an end to that. In which case, what possibilities remain? I see three:
1. Kill. Assad can continue, as he has up until now, to kill rebels, protesters and their families. This is what Gaddafi tried to do. The Libyan leader was stopped by NATO, but Assad knows that the Western powers will not go to war in Syria. And each time they toughen the sanctions, he steps up the killing. But he also knows that repression by itself offers no way out, and that he cannot maintain it indefinitely. Too many countries are arming and supporting the rebels, who grow in numbers daily. At any moment, an important faction within the armed forces could turn on him, as could China and Russia. So, killing may continue but it is not the way out of his dire situation. Something else needs to happen.
2. Negotiate. The problem is, who with? The opposition is an ever-changing amalgam of different groups whose only commonality is their total commitment to getting rid of Assad. He could try talking to the outside world: the UN; the Arab League; the European Union; the United States… In return for international mediation Assad could promise to implement a series of political reforms that would involve giving up part of his power. But it would be naïve to imagine that the outside world would believe him and that they would not impose stringent demands and guarantees. What’s more, not even Assad himself believes this is an option anymore. He knows that giving up a little power means significantly increasing the likelihood of losing it all (see Hosni Mubarak). Gaddafi’s stubborn refusal to make concessions was based on the same understanding of power. But, surely the Syrian leader has asked himself, if Gaddafi had known where his intransigence would lead him, would he have clung on to power as he did? In the end, Gaddafi and his sons desperately sought a way to negotiate a ceasefire that would allow them to hold on to some form of power. But by then it was too late. The lesson to be learned from Libya is that negotiations have to start before defeat. The lessons of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen is that authoritarian regimes do not share “a little” of their power: in that part of the world it’s all or nothing.
3. Exile. Surely it is better than death. Or jail. The Mubarak, Hussein, and Gaddafi families, among others, understand this. The Assad family is also likely to have thought about this. But where could they go? The International Criminal Court awaits them in Europe, and hundreds of organizations have documented the regimes' atrocities. Iran is a possibility, as are China and Russia. The challenge, then, becomes who else to include in the exile-bound airplane? Assad’s brother is in charge of the regime’s apparatus of repression, while his sister is a vocal exponent of the hard line. Then there are the generals, the heads of the security services, along with other collaborators and their families. One of the more plausible rumors doing the rounds at the moment is that in the event that he should opt for exile, Assad’s collaborators have already created a well-organized network to make it hard for him to travel anywhere without including many others.
The end of the blood-spattered Syrian dynasty approaches, but nobody knows whether it will be a question of days, weeks, or months. Assad has only few, and poor, options left. And while it is true that the great leaders create new ways to move forward that nobody else could have imagined, Assad is anything but a great leader. Perhaps all that is left open to him is to hope that his wife, who prior to the recent killing Paris Match described as “an element of light in a country filled with shade” can discover a shining path that will save thousands of lives, including that of her husband.