July 20, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Geopolitics of Exile

As of mid-July 2012, the recent events in Syria — including Russia's publicly proclaimed refusal to consider offering Bashar al-Assad asylum — have highlighted the lack of a current international understanding about the role of modern exile in the age of globalization, about what it means to be in exile in an age of instant communication, and about what it accomplishes to remove a single leader in an age of entrenched bureaucratic and ideologic systems. Additionally, there is little current public debate about the proper weighing of justice, retribution, ending near-term bloodshed, and forging long-term peace in balancing decisions as they relate to exile.

Far from having the right answers, the international community might not yet be broadly asking even the right questions. These heretofore unasked questions could very well prove to be a much-needed step toward limiting the last-minute dramatics that complicate — and often undermine — real conflict resolution. Since it is obviously improbable to discuss thoughts on modern exile with a dictator well before he (and it always seems to be a man) begins to lose power, the burden of determining in the strategic sense what role exile should play in today's geopolitics falls to the international community that will inevitably confront more such crises.

Of course, every situation is different and every nation has its own interests and spheres of influence; as such, this treatment is not designed to address the specifics of exile for Bashar al-Assad or any other leader. It does, however, promote the idea that the international community should begin to ask in earnest the fundamental questions about modern exile to facilitate more expeditious solutions to the current crisis in Syria, as well as those crises that will most assuredly emerge in the future.

For some, especially those who have suffered under the current regime and perhaps now believe they are nearing a decisive victory against al-Assad, the thought of allowing safe passage and lifelong exile for him and his family is as criminal as the actions of the Syrian president himself. While such a response is most understandable, the deeper concerns might be more effectively addressed by the actions of the right post-revolution leadership, as the case of South Africa's boldly designed and implemented Truth and Reconciliation Commission dramatically illustrated.

Likewise, policymakers more distantly involved might view the proposal of safe exile as rewarding bad (even heinous) behavior and therefore encourage other leaders with similar flaws to resist needed reforms  — under a very real moral hazard situation —  because they rely on the knowledge that they can always flee to safety if the situation spirals out of control. Others might see the formation of the International Criminal Court (which affected both the exile plans of former Liberian president Charles Taylor and the late Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi) as possibly complicating exile planning. All of these are clearly valid points of view; at the same time, they also provide evidence for the proposition that it is time to formulate strategically useful questions that need to be vigorously discussed if the world community is to devise a new and far more meaningful alternative to the traditional view of exile as a last-ditch solution.

Syria not only provides a timely case study for better understanding this dynamic, it also points to the critical element of timing: the strategic inflection point for this issue occurs well before people and tanks have taken to the streets and a regime in on the verge of collapse. The discussion is further aided by an assessment of both recent and ongoing events in the other Arab Spring countries of Libya, Egypt, as well as Iraq (in 2003) to examine how the choices, made quickly and under tremendous pressure, impacted the respective societies.

As noted above, the international community, and indeed reform elements in any system that is shaped more by the leader than the law, should formulate questions — a geopolitical checklist of sorts — to help determine how and when to consider the use of exile, not as an option of last resort, but as a potential mitigating factor early in the process of a country's descent into chaos. While each situation will need to be examined through the lens of a unique set of specific questions, the overarching questions of relevance to the current Syrian crisis (and which could be effectively adapted to similar scenarios going forward) are as follows:

• When does the opportunity to avert further bloodshed and violence — of unpredictable proportions — sufficiently outweigh the need for justice or vengeance for the bloodshed and violence already inflicted by the regime in the 16 months of revolt and in the decades of rule by the al-Assad family?  

• What will be the lasting impact on societal, political, and ethnic prospects of either al-Assad fleeing to a country offering asylum or of his arrest and/or death?

• Does removing a dictator also truly remove an entrenched and long-standing dictatorial system?

The first question — when avoiding uncertain numbers of future victims outweighs the need for justice or vengeance for the victims of the past — is the hardest to answer in that it invites another question: who has the right to make that determination? While the visceral answer is that the people of Syria in this current crisis should have the right to decide this, the international community also has a voice based on the vital and inescapable role it plays in negotiating and facilitating exiles. What must not be overlooked is the fact that, by definition, the affected nation is in crisis and therefore unable to reach a reasoned and unbiased consensus on the issue, while the international community will be the actor ultimately called upon to intervene (as has been the case with all of the recent revolutions). In Libya, the final fall of Tripoli came so quickly that by the time Burkina Faso made its offer of asylum, Gaddafi was already on the run and unable to act on the offer. Would fewer people have died in Libya then if Gaddafi was now alive in Ouagadougou? Again, although a definitive answer that can be safely reached ahead of time — or even in retrospect — remains elusive, there is certainly a mindset, a framework for thinking, that should be at work in advance to avoid yet another instance of flailing for the "least worst" measure.

The second question that must be asked — if the long-term prospects of peace, stability, and justice of a country are better served if the deposed dictator is dead, tried, or in exile — is an entirely appropriate one for the international community to consider, since the worldwide community of nations has a vested interest in fostering stable and peaceful countries that will not require military intervention or costly reconstruction efforts. Will Syria in 2013 and 2014 be more stable because al-Assad went into exile now, or will it be worse? Will his supporters fight more desperately if he and his family departs, and thereby fuel the cycle of future retribution and distrust? Is exile actually something the international community should aggressively endorse in the rush to end the violence if the longer-term consequences of exile have yet to be fully analyzed, much less understood? The uncertainty that surrounds the effort to answer such questions must, at some point, be replaced with clarity and purpose.

On July 19th, a Tunisian court sentenced in absentia deposed president Zein al-Abiden Ben Ali for crimes committed during the revolution (having earlier been found guilty of crimes committed during his 23-year reign). There was serious outrage that the former president had avoided responsibility — and punishment —  for his crimes, and that Tunisia has been unable to convince Saudi Arabia, who granted Ben Ali asylum in January 2011, to extradite him back home to stand trial. Does his exile hurt or help Tunisia's future? Certainly, questions abound about how this ultimately impacts Tunisia's prospects for moving forward to a peaceful and democratic future, especially given the substantial number of victims of his regime who are left without any measure of closure.

The third question — what is actually accomplished in removing a single person from a deeply entrenched bureaucracy/kleptocracy — is very applicable in today's Syria, and will likely be just as relevant in many future crises. The al-Assad regime is comprised not just of Bashar al-Assad, but rather a network of extended family members and longtime supporters who have embedded themselves so deeply in the running and mishandling of the government that his exile alone might not actually constitute true regime change. What, then, does it take to fully dislodge a dictatorship? In 2003, last-minute negotiations to cajole, compel, or coerce Saddam Hussein into exile in Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates failed, mostly as a result of the unreasonable demands made by Hussein, but also because the United States had determined that his removal alone would not end his regime. What would Iraq look like today if, in 2003, Hussein had fled to Manama, leaving his Baathist infrastructure (even a more reform-minded version of it) still in place? How stable might Iraq be if Saddam was still in the region, perhaps using modern (and clandestine) communications to remain relevant if not in control? Would the carnage of 2003-2009 have been avoided or merely delayed if Saddam were in exile under any conditions?

None of the above questions, at the present, are answerable with any real precision; instead, their intrinsic value — and potential strategic meaning — are found in the asking. Given a contemporary history replete with crises that have a despotic personality toiling at the center, the international community should diligently explore these questions in the pursuit of some form of agreement on the role of modern exile…and then leverage that agreement earlier in a crisis so that national and international interests are best served by the community's endeavors.


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