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Why Assad Will Likely Fight On

- July 10, 2012

This is a guest post from Scott Wolford of the University of Texas-Austin and Emily Ritter of the University of Alabama, both international relations scholars.


The Guardian reports the US and the UK are considering offering Syrian president Bashar al Assad safe passage and possibly clemency for his alleged role in war crimes to entice him to attend a conference designed to negotiate a settlement with Syrian rebels and facilitate the peaceful transition to a new government.*

We don’t think an offer of clemency is likely to help the situation, however, because it can encourage peace only if it entices Assad to agree to something that the rebels will also accept—and clemency alone is unlikely to do that. In other words, clemency might affect Assad’s willingness to negotiate, but not the rebels’ willingness to accept a deal.

The terms of any successful settlement will have to credibly promise both Assad and the rebels at least as much as they can expect by continuing to fight. However, keeping Assad in power in any form is unlikely satisfy the rebels, because his commitment to sharing power once they’ve laid down their arms isn’t credible—just as the terms of the Annan Plan weren’t self-enforcing a few months ago. Thus, an arrangement the rebel group will accept will probably have to entail a substantial, if not complete, handover of power. In other words, for this effort to produce a stable peace settlement, Assad must agree to (a) leave power and, possibly, (b) leave Syria, an arrangement that he’ll likely only accept with the promise of asylum and clemency.

In other words, that’s a pretty bad deal for Assad.

It’s a particularly bad deal compared to his prospects for fighting on. Continuing to fight is costly, but he preserves a decent chance of remaining in power as long as he holds the upper hand militarily. Of course, he also risks losing and then either dying or facing domestic trial…and then probably dying. The poor prospects associated with losing could make him prefer the international out, but we’ve shown in print that surrender is likely to be optimal only if he is likely to lose or be caught anyway—otherwise any offers of clemency will have to be so generous that states like the US and UK will be unwilling to make them.  Instead, it seems Assad and his supporters have the upper hand in this fight and are unlikely to lose without foreign intervention on the rebel side (as discussed on this blog here, here, and here).

Thus, Assad is likely comparing the prospects of fighting (which is costly, but his prospects are good and he maintains power and its benefits) to those of negotiating an end to the war (which will mean he survives but no longer has power and may not be allowed to remain in Syria). He’ll probably choose fighting on.

If, however, the situation changes and it looks like he’s going to lose the war, power, and his head, an international deal with clemency is likely to look far more appealing. But in that case, we wouldn’t really need an international transition conference to end the war, because the rebels would be getting exactly what they want.

* Of course, it’s not entirely clear in this situation what “clemency” could mean, as ICC referral is unlikely (given a likely Russian veto at the UNSC), and—as we discuss—that clemency granting Assad safety at home is likely to be a non-starter for the rebels.