Nigel Farage poses an interesting question: if Syria’s President Assad ‘goes’, who or what replaces him? Could the next Syria leader or ensuing chaos be even worse than what we have now?

This takes us straight to our old friend Bad Leaders:

Other Bad Leaders, such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, both ruin their own countries and export the consequences, as refugees or wider instability. In Assad’s case he faces a life or death battle for survival, but he also wants to show the Syrian masses and the rest of us how strong and resilient he is. How to respond to a Bad Leader whose very perniciousness in exporting badness sharply raises the international costs, but also may be a weird source of domestic strength?

What considerations are in play here?

First, the policy issue of Bad Leaders (here = leaders whose policies make a country ruinously worse off than it otherwise might have been) arises only if the Bad Leader’s grip on power starts to wobble for one or other reason. Those BLs who keep merciless control for years if not decades cause few problems to the rest of us, unless (as eg Gaddafi did for a while and maybe North Korea now) they deliberately export problems to show how mighty they are.

That said, a BL’s success in ruining his/her own country usually piles up huge problems for the future: sooner or later even the worst BL falls from power or dies, so someone new has to keep control of a debased, demoralised population. Transitions are difficult. See eg Tito and the slowly unfolding crash of Yugoslavia. And the abrupt disintegration of the USSR.

And these days it’s much harder to keep from a population the progress being made elsewhere. Resentments build up, and may explode uncontrollably and unpredictably. See eg the Arab Spring.

This reminds me of a speech I wrote for Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1987 or so about the possibility of the end of Communism:

What happens when prisoners kept in a filthy dark insect-infested dungeon for years finally see the light as the door opens?

Are they pleased that things are changing for the better?

Or are they furious when they at last see the squalor of their surroundings?

Anyway, in Syria a useless quasi-fascist regime has run the country since the early 1960s, with the Assad family leading it since 1971. The elder Assad’s chief claim to infamy was the 1982 Hama Massacre, when the regime massacred some 20,000 Syrians. Something like three Srebrenicas in one killing orgy. Back in those halcyon pre-Internet days, no-one cared. Assad 1.0 was a ‘force for stability’.

It’s almost impossible to grasp how badly the Ba’ath/Assad leadership has governed Syria. Suffice to say that over a fifty year period before the current shambles began the GDP per capita of Syria had risen to a pitiful $2000. Even Cuba has done better than that. Look too at what Poland has done since communism ended. In other words, the opportunity cost to Syria of bad leadership on this scale of badness over so long a period probably runs to trillions of dollars.

Quae cum ita sint, the accumulated incompetence of Arab national socialism has led to a catastrophe for Syria, with different ethnic/religious/ideological factions trashing the place while jostling for a place at any peace talks. Therefore what? The Syria-specific issues for any peace process are simply expressed (leaving to one side all the wider ramifications for Israel/Palestine/Lebanon and the future of Arab societies):

Should Syria survive within its current borders?

Can Syria survive within its current borders?

How should Syria be run going forward?

Can any sane way to run Syria be identified and delivered?

What might/must the rest of us do to help support a solid peace process?

Can any peace process be agreed and then work if the most dangerous fanatics such as ISIL/ISIS/Daesh are excluded?

Where in all this does it make sense to fit Assad and Assadism?

All these are big fat problematic questions. N Farage’s question ostensibly raises the last one, but in fact they are all intertwined.

Let’s assume that the global consensus (and maybe even the wishes of Syrians themselves as far as anyone can identify them) coincide around Syria staying on within its current borders and starting peacefully to rebuild. That in practice will happen only with colossal external support (primarily ‘Western’ funding) and a closely supervised political and economic rebuilding plan.

It therefore follows that if we are investing our money in rebuilding Syria, we need to decide how far it makes sense morally and operationally to invest that money via the very people who created all the problems, namely Assad 2.0 and his immediate elite. Haven’t they had decades to show what they can do and failed spectacularly? Haven’t they through their horribly violent incompetence forfeited the right to play any meaningful role going forward?

Is it wise (or decent) to expect the victims of Assad and Assadism to cooperate with any process in which Assad/Assadism is involved? Does not any programme that includes Assad/Assadism necessarily demoralise and disempower moderate Syrians whose support is vital for any success from our investment?

See eg the Dayton Peace Accords for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The core ‘deal’ was between the ‘international community’ and the rival ethnic leaders in Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade whose greedy machinations started the conflict in the first place. Moderate Bosnians who believed in pluralism and ‘ethnic disarmament’ were not invited. 22 years on Bosnia has not flourished.

This is where Principle collides with Reality.

In real life Moscow has done enough to make sure that Assad won’t fall immediately. Plus Moscow’s active support at the UN and elsewhere will be needed for any Syria peace process to get going. So if the world wants a peace process, the world has to work with Moscow. And Moscow blandly insists (for now) that Assad/Assadism is part of the process.

NB that’s not because Moscow cares tuppence about Syria. Moscow means to establish itself as the sine qua non for progress on key international issues, and is quite good at that these days. It’s in part because the West has demanded that Assad go that Moscow insists he must stay!

Nevertheless, Moscow too has to think about what actually works, and what Moscow really wants from all this in Syria itself. It’s not credible or at least not easy to sit around a negotiating table and insist in the face of overwhelming evidence against you that utterly discredited/incompetent people are vital to the success of any outcome. If (if) Moscow wants a peace process that delivers peace and growth, Moscow also has to respect and work with the views of the people throwing in the most cash (ie the West and the IFIs) who have good reasons not to trust some Syrian leaders to spend that money intelligently.

How to square all this?

See what US Secretary of State Tillerson and Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov said yesterday:

Should Assad go as part of any deal?

Tillerson gave a careful, pragmatic reply:

… the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct of the war these past few years …

We do think it’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way – an orderly way – so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution. How that occurs, we leave that to the process going forward. We do not think one has to occur before the other can begin. And it will take a pace of its own.

But the final outcome in our view does not provide for a role for the Assad – for Assad or for the Assad family in the future governance of Syria. We do not think the international community will accept that. We do not think the world will accept that.

In other words, Assad needs to go (eventually) if only for symbolic ‘new start’ reasons. But Assadism has a role to play. Let’s talk!

Lavrov replied with an extended and rather condescending historical tour of what happens when dictators fall or wobble under outside Western pressure (Milošević, Bashir, Saddam, Qaddafi):

So in Syria – and I have stressed this on many times – we are not staking everything on a personality, on President Assad, as is being done in Libya at the moment. We are simply insisting that everybody sits around a table and talks about it and comes to agreement. As has been enshrined in the Security Council resolution, we want to install dialogue with all the players concerned, and we want the Syrians themselves, without any kind of exclusion, to be represented in this process.

And removing or ousting a particular personality from this scene is not on our agenda. We are talking about the whole of the Syrian Government. We want it to be democratic and we want it to be secular as well. We want to see all the ethnic confessional groups in the country to feel protected, justly represented in all the branches of government and power.

And, obviously, for that you need a new constitution. We think that then the question of the fate of individuals could be dealt with and without any kind of tragic consequences for the state as a whole.

This formulation is in fact arguably realistic. It amounts to saying that Assad’s future is open for discussion as part of a wider process involving all key forces in Syria. Moscow does not rule out Assad ‘going’, as long as that is part of an agreed process involving, ahem, Assad too. That in turn reflects real issues of power and ‘face’ in Syria.

In other words, Washington and Moscow potentially can agree on all this. Washington does not make Assad going a precondition for peace talks. Moscow does not exclude that outcome as an option.

In real life there are lots of ways of inching forward. A peace conference can involve Assad’s people more or less explicitly while Assad himself stays well away. Lots of trading between Form and Substance. The ensuing new political settlement is implemented via elections that lead more or less deliberately to a new ruling coalition taking over and Assad leaving power peacefully, with Assadism sharing power with others under better conditions and international supervision.

Maybe in all this we all swallow hard and rule out war crimes indictments for Assad and key people (and others in different factions) as part of achieving a deal? Peace first. Justice for Assad’s countless victims later (if ever).

In short, the ‘Assad must go’ policy of Obama and others has been an ignominious failure. But the principle of replacing in due course Assad with someone able to do a far better job of uniting Syrians in peace is sound. It’s now all about how that happens, and who gets to be involved in making it happen.

Maybe President Assad himself spends some pensive private hours brooding on this question: