Top US official: Assad’s ouster is ‘inevitable'

Israeli expert says Syrian leader more likely to seek shelter in Iran than Saudi Arabia.

anti-Assad protest in Deir al-Zor 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
anti-Assad protest in Deir al-Zor 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s departure is “inevitable,” the US State Department’s top Middle East official said Wednesday, adding that several Arab states had offered the embattled Syrian president sanctuary within their borders.
“Almost all the Arab leaders, foreign ministers who I talk to say the same thing: Assad’s rule is coming to an end. It is inevitable,” US Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman told a Senate panel.
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“Some of these Arabs have even begun to offer Assad safe haven to encourage him to leave quickly,” he added, without elaborating.
Feltman said the US hoped Assad and his inner circle would “head for the exits voluntarily.”
According to activists, an estimated 16 people were killed Wednesday in Damascus, Hama and Homs.
On Thursday, at least another five people – four of them army troops – were killed in clashes with insurgents in Idlib, near Aleppo, CNN reported. Another three civilians were killed in Homs, the network reported, quoting the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Mordechai Kedar – a scholar at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin- Sadat Center and author of the 2006 book Assad in Search of Legitimacy – said he believed it might be a matter of weeks before the Syrian autocrat was removed.
“This escalation means Assad cannot survive such an upheaval, in which more and more of those who supported him in the past abandon him. It is inevitable,” he asserted.
On reports of Arab offers of safe haven, Kedar said that “it doesn’t mean much, except that more and more Arab states already sense that the time has come for him to leave, and that maybe they’re trying to encourage him to leave.”
Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a favored destination for embattled Arab and Muslim leaders going into exile, from Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and earlier this year, Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Kedar said exile in the desert kingdom was one possible outcome, though not the most likely.
“The Saudis don’t like him. He’s not a Muslim; he’s an infidel, and he’s been killing Muslims,” he stated. “I think Iran is more likely to do so, but it won’t say so now, because that would mean it has already given up on him.”
Assad is a member of the secretive Alawite sect, but has extremely close political and military ties to the Shi’ite theocracy in Tehran.
“The entire old guard of leadership in the Arab world is going away one by one. Assad has almost no friends anymore,” Kedar noted. “He doesn’t feel comfortable in the changing Arab world, so that’s why Iran may be his best choice.”
On Wednesday, eight people were killed and 25 wounded as forces fired on a funeral procession in Damascus. YouTube footage distributed by activists purportedly showed several soldiers and security police at a main thoroughfare in the capital shooting automatic rifles in the direction of a crowd running to take cover.
Wednesday’s bloodshed was some of the worst yet in the capital, which, along with Aleppo, has not yet experienced significant protests.
“Damascus is a very big city with many neighborhoods. Some are Kurdish. If riots or unrest comes to those neighborhoods, it doesn’t mean much, because the Kurds are already rising up against the regime in their own district in the North,” Kedar said. “But if the rich Arab merchants of Damascus start demonstrating, that would be a change.”
In addition, he said, “the city of Rastan, which isn’t far from Damascus, is a military city in which a large portion of the population is officers and their families. Rastan was a target of a very hard regime crackdown two months ago. This uprising could indeed spread to more of those who used to support Assad.”
The death toll in the nearly eight-month uprising is believed to be over 3,500, but Kedar said that figure could be much higher.
“So far, around 3,500 have been killed who are known by name. However there are dozens of thousands who were arrested, and no one really knows what happened with them,” he said.
In a letter to the Arab League, the Syrian National Council – the main opposition group, formed in Istanbul two months ago – said a League initiative to bring calm to Syria had reached a “dead end” after Assad’s forces killed 100 civilians in the last seven days. The letter said it was time “to seek protection for civilians according to all legitimate means under international law.”
Syria’s representative to the Arab League insisted Damascus had “gone a long way” toward implementing the plan, pointing to the release of around 500 detainees under a conditional amnesty announced last week.
The official Syrian news agency reported that life was carrying on as usual in Homs and municipal departments were removing refuse piled in the streets by “armed terrorist gangs.”
Reuters contributed to this report.