US, EU, Arab allies explore Assad exile prospects

3 countries willing to take in Syrian leader, sources say; US official: There are significant accountability questions.

Assad making speech 311 (r) (photo credit: REUTERS/Syrian TV)
Assad making speech 311 (r)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Syrian TV)
WASHINGTON - The United States, European governments and Arab states have begun discussing the possibility of exile for Bashar Assad despite skepticism the defiant Syrian president is ready to consider such an offer, Western officials said on Wednesday.
While talks have not progressed far and there is no real sense that Assad's fall is imminent, one official said as many as three countries were willing to take him as a way to bring an end to Syria's bloody 10-month-old crisis.
Two sources said no European states were prepared to give Assad sanctuary, but one official said the United Arab Emirates might be among those open to the idea.
Talk of exile has surfaced amid mounting international pressure on Assad and a diplomatic showdown over a proposed Arab League resolution at the United Nations aimed at getting him to transfer power. He has responded by stepping up assaults on opposition strongholds.
With the White House insisting for weeks that Assad's days in power are numbered, it was unclear whether this marks an attempt to persuade the Syrian leader and his family to grasp the chance of a safe exit instead of risking the fate of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who was hunted and killed by rebels last year.
But with Assad showing he remains in charge of a powerful security apparatus and the Syrian opposition fragmented militarily, it could also be an effort to step up psychological pressure and open new cracks in his inner circle.
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The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said neither the United States nor the European Union had taken the lead on the idea, which has been advocated by Arab nations as a way to try to end the violence in Syria.
"We understand that some countries have offered to host him should he choose to leave Syria," a senior Obama administration official said, without naming any of the countries.
Before that could happen, however, the question of whether Assad would be granted some kind of immunity would have to be tackled --- something the Syrian opposition as well as international human rights groups would likely oppose.
"There are significant questions of accountability for the horrible abuses that have been committed against the Syrian people," the senior US official said.
"Ultimately these issues will be deliberated by the Syrian people in concert with regional and international partners," the official said. "This is about what Syrians need to end this crisis and begin the process of rebuilding their country."
While US officials maintained that exile was worth exploring among other options, one European official voiced doubt it would work, saying Assad had given no indication that he might accept a graceful exit.
Officials stressed the discussions of the exile option for Assad were at an early stage and there was no agreed plan on how such an exit might be orchestrated.
A European official said EU members were willing to consider the idea of Assad going into exile but that there was "no way we'd have him in our countries."
Much could depend on the fate of a European-Arab-drafted resolution in the UN Security Council that would call for Assad to hand powers to his deputy to defuse the uprising against his family's dynastic rule.
Russia said on Wednesday it would veto any resolution on Syria that it finds unacceptable, after demanding any measure rule out military intervention to halt the bloodshed touched off by protests against Assad.