Safe Havens for Arab Despots

By Ahmed Amr

With a year of Arab uprisings in the rear view mirror, there is mounting evidence that Arab despots cling to power to avoid the dismal alternatives. When backed into a corner with no ‘flight’ option on the menu, they have every incentive to fight to the bitter end. So it’s worth speculating whether the carnage in Misrata and Homs could have been avoided if Arab despots had safe havens.  

Middle Eastern dictators live lives of utter splendor. Short of everlasting life, they’re accustomed to getting their grubby hands on any creature comfort they crave. So when faced with the prospects of a personal apocalypse, there’s little incentive to make hasty appointments with Qaddafi’s lynch mob, Saddam’s executioners or Mubarak’s prosecutors. 

Before the ascent of the House of Assad, Syria had more than its fair share of deposed presidents. Shukri Al Kuwatli, the first post-independence head of state, died in exile. His successor, Husni Al Zaim, the father of Syrian military coups, held onto power for four months before being dragged away and executed in the infamous Mezze Prison. Shishakli, The man who toppled Zaim ended up in Brazil where he was assassinated in 1963.

After being overthrown by Hafez el Assad, Noureddin Al Attasi spent his last twenty two years under arrest in Mezze. He never stood trial, was never charged with a crime and was only released on his deathbed for treatment in Paris. He died of cancer two months later.

The names on the roster of deposed Syrian Presidents include Mammun Al Kusbari, Nazim Al-Kudsi and Fawzi Selu. They all died in exile.

One legendary Syrian statesman, Hisham Al-Attasi, managed the feat of expiring naturally on Syrian soil. His son, Adnan, was not so lucky. In 1955, he was sentenced to death for a coup attempt. His verdict was later commuted to life imprisonment and he ended up serving five years before being exiled to Lebanon.   

None of this will come as news to Bashar Al Assad. Indeed, the Assad clan has spent four decades assembling a formidable security apparatus precisely to shield Bashar from the dismal prospect of becoming an ex-Syrian president. Absent an exit strategy for their leaders, the Syrian regime will deploy all its resources in a war to the finish.

The problem for Bashar and his clan is that there is more to exile than getting on a plane and taking off. There has to be a place for the plane to land. Even if Assad dodges the hangman’s noose and finds safe refuge in Tunisia or Moscow, exile comes with certain complications. For one thing, Bashar has a lot of innocent blood on his hands and can be held criminally liable for crimes against humanity.

Even by Middle Eastern standards, Bashar is unique – a war criminal and serial murderer who also happens to be a son of a Syrian war criminal and serial murderer. His brother, Maher, is the butcher of Homs and his Uncle, Rifaat Al Assad was responsible for the Hama Massacre in 1982. Rifaat fell out of favor with the ruling family and reputedly lives like a prince in Mayfair when he’s not living like a pasha in Paris. Maybe just maybe, if the rest of the Assad clan were assured that they could retire unmolested in Tunis or Istanbul, they might warm up to the idea of giving up power in Damascus.

The idea behind prosecuting dictators for crimes against humanity is not just to mete out punishment but to deter other dictators from acting with impunity against their own people. In the Middle East, it appears that the fear of accountability is actually deterring dictators from abdicating power. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that, when it comes to the Arab uprisings, the despots don’t see any downside in a viscous fight to the finish. Every day they fight, they live and breathe and their families live and breathe. Bashar’s cold calculations are that simple and no amount of name calling or economic pressure will dissuade him from attempting to pulverize his people into submission.

The lesson of Syrian history is that bloody repression often works. Back in 1982, a scorched earth policy worked for Hafez El Assad in Hama. Bashar is counting on the same tactics to pay off in Homs. Chances are they won’t because it’s not 1982 anymore and, this time around, it’s the Syrian people who don’t see a downside to doing whatever it takes to gain their freedom. Bashar is either unconvinced of that inevitability or doesn’t see the exit sign. Building an exit door might help clear up his vision.

Tunisia, The cradle of the Arab Spring, has already floated the idea of implementing the “Yemeni model” in Syria. President Muncef al-Marzouki recently suggested that granting safe refuge and judicial immunity to the Assad clan could save thousands of Syrian lives and avert the outbreak of a protracted civil war. It’s an ugly solution but saving lives is more important than justice. One can’t argue that the Tunisian uprising was the most successful and least bloody episode of the Arab Spring and that has a lot to do with the fact that Ben Ali managed to hop a plane and take off for Saudi Arabia.

The Syrian people have paid more enough blood to taste the fruit of liberty and the international community has offered nothing but declarations of outrage. So maybe it’s time for the United Nations Security Council to move on to the practical business of creating safe havens for Arab despots. 

– Ahmed Amr is the former editor of and the author of “The Sheep and the Guardians – Diary of a SEC Sanctioned Swindle.” He contributed this article to

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