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Weighing The 'Yemen Option' For Syria

May 30, 2012
Originally published on May 30, 2012 6:56 pm

The Obama administration says that Syrian President Bashar Assad has forfeited his right to lead Syria, and grisly murders in the town of Houla over the weekend reinforce that argument.

But despite mounting pressure, Assad isn't budging. The U.S is now trying to enlist Russia to use its influence with the Syrian leader to follow the so-called Yemen model and move out of the way.

As protests mounted in Yemen last year, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and others with influence persuaded President Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand power to his vice president in exchange for immunity. It wasn't easy, as Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough recalled Wednesday in a speech at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha.

"The Yemen effort was painstaking and took place over the course of many, many months, with many twists and turns," he said.

And while McDonough says every transition is different, the U.S. has been speaking with Russia about the Yemen option for Syria. Moscow has close ties with Damascus and has vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning the Assad regime.

But White House official McDonough says the massacre over the weekend in Houla may change Russia's calculations.

"We don't believe it is in Russia's interest to be associated with the Assad regime and certainly not in the interest of the region for this kind of barbaric activity to continue," he says.

Less-Than-Stellar Results So Far

But before applying this model to Syria, Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University says diplomats should first ask whether the Yemen option has worked for Yemen.

"The jury is still out, but the initial signs have not been great," he says.

It did get Saleh out of the way. But Johnsen says the deal papered over many of the country's problems, left in place much of Saleh's power structure and, in Johnsen's words, "didn't go very far in satisfying anybody."

"The possibility of violence still remains very, very high in Yemen, so there are a lot of people, both Yemenis as well as outside observers, who are quite concerned that the Yemen option in Yemen has not really solved the problem as much as sort of pushed it down the road a little bit," he says.

It was an easy way out for diplomats at the time, Johnsen says. And that's one reason why it might seem appealing for officials now struggling to come up with a way to resolve the conflict in Syria.

Russian Frustration Growing

Dmitri Simes of the Center for the National Interest, a public policy think tank formerly known as The Nixon Center, says the Russians are intrigued.

"But they don't quite know how to do it, and they don't believe that the United States would stop at that," Simes says. "They think that after Assad would have to go, the Obama administration would probably want a much more sweeping change in Syria."

Speaking from Moscow, Simes says he has noticed a change in tone by Russian officials when they talk about Assad.

"The Russians are clearly frustrated with him. They clearly think he is not behaving the way he promised them originally. He's an embarrassment, and they think he's not a leader whom they want to parade as an ally," Simes says.

But even if Russia agrees with the U.S. to put pressure on Assad, Syria has another key ally: Iran.

"So the question is: How can Russia pressure Assad to resign if the Iranians are telling him that they would be prepared to support him to the end," Simes says. "So it's not just a question of what the Russians want, it is a question of limits on its influence."

Violence Complicates Possible Talks

There are many other questions about all of this. Everyone seems to define the Yemen model differently, according to Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group.

"The Russians want to make sure you preserve the structure of the regime, that you preserve the dignity and interests of some of the elite members of the regime, whereas for the U.S. and the West and many Arab countries, what really matters is that President Bashar [Assad] goes, and goes quickly," he says.

Syrian opposition figures are already balking at the idea that Assad's regime could remain basically intact if the president quits; and Malley doubts that anyone will want to give Assad an immunity deal like the one the Yemeni president has.

"The violence has been much more acute in the case of Syria, so it's going to be much harder for the opposition to grant immunity for the president and to, sort of, forgive elements of the regime," he says.

And Malley warns that as the death toll mounts, the Yemen option or any other negotiated settlement becomes less plausible.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The Obama administration says that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has forfeited his right to lead Syria, and the grisly murders in the town of Houla over the weekend reinforce that argument. But Assad isn't budging despite mounting pressure, so the U.S. is now trying to enlist Russia to use its influence with the Syrian leader. The proposal: to entice Assad to leave using the so-called Yemen model. NPR's Michele Kelemen explains.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: As protests mounted in Yemen last year, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and others with influence persuaded President Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand power to his vice president in exchange for immunity. It wasn't easy, as deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough recalled today in a speech at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha.

DENIS MCDONOUGH: The Yemen effort was painstaking and took place over the course of many, many months, with many twists and turns.

KELEMEN: And while McDonough says every transition is different, the U.S. has been speaking with Russia about the Yemen option for Syria. Moscow has close ties with Damascus and has vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning the Assad regime. But White House official McDonough says the massacre over the weekend in Houla may change Russia's calculations.

MCDONOUGH: We don't believe it's in Russia's interest to be associated with the Assad regime and certainly not in the interest of the region for this kind of barbaric activity to continue.

KELEMEN: But before applying this model to Syria, Gregory Johnsen, of Princeton University, says diplomats should first ask whether the Yemen option has worked for Yemen.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: The jury is still out, but the initial signs have not been great.

KELEMEN: It did get President Saleh out of the way, but Johnsen says the deal papered over many of the country's problems. It left in place much of Saleh's power structure and, in Johnsen's words, didn't go very far in satisfying anybody.

JOHNSEN: The possibility of violence still remains very, very high in Yemen, so there's a lot of people, both Yemenis as well as outside observers, who are quite concerned that the Yemen option in Yemen has not really solved the problem as much as sort of pushed it down the road a little bit.

KELEMEN: It was an easy way out for diplomats at the time, he says, and that's one reason why it might seem appealing for officials now struggling to come up with a way to resolve the conflict in Syria. Dmitri Simes, of the Center for the National Interest, says the Russians are intrigued.

DIMITRI SIMES: But they don't quite know how to do it, and they don't believe that the United States would stop at that. They think that after Assad would have to go, the Obama administration would probably want a much more sweeping change in Syria.

KELEMEN: Speaking from Moscow, Simes says he has noticed a change in tone by Russian officials when they talk about Assad.

SIMES: The Russians are clearly frustrated with him. He's an embarrassment, and they think that he's not a leader whom they want to parade as an ally.

KELEMEN: But even if Russia agrees with the U.S. to put pressure on Assad, Syria has another key ally: Iran.

SIMES: So it's not just a question of what the Russians want; it is a question of the limits on their influence.

KELEMEN: There are many other questions about all of this. Everyone seems to define the Yemen model differently, according to Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group.

ROBERT MALLEY: The Russians want to make sure you preserve the structure of the regime that you preserve the dignity and the interests of some of the elite members of the regime, whereas for the U.S. and for the West and many Arab countries what really matters is that President Bashar goes and goes quickly.

KELEMEN: Syrian opposition figures are already balking at the idea that Assad's regime could remain basically intact if the president quits, and Malley doubts that anyone will want to give Assad an immunity deal like the one the Yemeni president has.

MALLEY: The violence has been much more acute in the case of Syria, so it's going to be much harder for the opposition to grant immunity for the president and to sort of forgive elements of the regime.

KELEMEN: And Malley warns as the death toll mounts, the Yemen option or any other negotiated settlement becomes less plausible. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.