The US, European governments and Arab states have begun discussing the possibility of exile for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite skepticism he is ready to consider such an offer, Western officials said on Wednesday.
While talks have not progressed far and there is no real sense that al-Assad’s fall is imminent, one official said as many as three countries were willing to take him as a way to bring an end to Syria’s bloody 10-month-old crisis.
Two sources said no European states were prepared to give al-Assad sanctuary, but one official said the United Arab Emirates might be among those open to the idea.
Talk of exile has surfaced amid mounting international pressure on Assad and a diplomatic showdown over a proposed Arab League resolution at the UN aimed at getting him to transfer power. He has responded by stepping up assaults on opposition strongholds.
With the White House insisting for weeks that al-Assad’s days in power are numbered, it was unclear whether this marks an attempt to persuade the Syrian leader and his family to grasp the chance of a safe exit instead of risking the fate of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who was hunted and killed by rebels last year.
However, with Assad showing he remains in charge of a powerful security apparatus and the Syrian opposition fragmented militarily, it could also be an effort to step up psychological pressure and open new cracks in his inner circle.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said neither the US nor the EU had taken the lead on the idea, which has been advocated by Arab nations as a way to try to end the violence in Syria.
“We understand that some countries have offered to host him should he choose to leave Syria,” a senior US official said, without naming any of the countries.
However, before that could happen, the question of whether al-Assad would be granted some kind of immunity would have to be tackled — something the Syrian opposition and international human rights groups would likely oppose.
“There are significant questions of accountability for the horrible abuses that have been committed against the Syrian people,” the senior US official said.
“Ultimately these issues will be deliberated by the Syrian people in concert with regional and international partners,” the official said. “This is about what Syrians need to end this crisis and begin the process of rebuilding their country.”
While US officials maintained that exile was worth exploring, among other options, one European official voiced doubt it would work, saying al-Assad had given no sign that he might accept a graceful exit.
Bruce Reidel, a former CIA analyst who has advised US President Barack Obama, said Arab countries appeared to be trying to craft a political solution in Syria modeled after Yemen.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh arrived in the US on Saturday for treatment of wounds suffered in an assassination attempt in June. Under a power transfer plan drawn up by Gulf Arab countries for Saleh to step down to end a year of protests against his rule, a vice president is presiding over a unity government, with presidential elections set for Feb. 21.
“Assad and his wife get safe exile,” said Reidel, now at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “But who will take him? Iran? Russia? UK? And does he get immunity like Saleh?”