The escalation of violence in Syria stands in sharp contrast to the relative calm that followed a similar Arab Spring uprising in Yemen last year. In past months, Middle East observers have proposed that the transition from the 33-year rule of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh could be a model for the proposed departure of another long-serving head of state, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But as the violence increases, time appears to be running out for a peaceful transition in Damascus.
Among those observers who once urged a negotiated settlement in Damascus, conflict resolution specialist Ibrahim Sharqieh of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, told VOA’s David Arnold this week it may be too late for Syria. “My argument at this point is that it’s becoming extremely difficult, and every day that passes without a serious initiative, the chances become less, unfortunately,” he said.
Yemen became a model for peaceful change and possible political reform in part because the Gulf States negotiated Saleh’s peaceful departure. The country still needs to prepare for national reconciliation and to provide electricity, water and jobs for the people, according to Sharqieh. But he says conditions have improved under the new president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi.
Here is Sharqieh’s assessment of the two countries and five reasons why he thinks a negotiated regime change probably won’t work in Syria:
Progress in Yemen
“Yemen made progress on two levels. One is in terms of working with a balance of power and the fighting with the former president’s group. President Hadi was able to eliminate to a certain extent and weaken the block of former President Saleh and marginalize many of its leaders. So he is gaining momentum in having a centralized power…. The other progress he made is in the fighting with al-Qaida, especially in the south where al-Qaida was able to control the entire province of Abyan.”
“There are five elements we need to consider in my view that prevent any easy implementation of the Yemeni scenario in Syria. Number one is that we have an army split in Yemen, where half of the army supported the revolution. In Syria, we’re only seeing, at least formally, the army is backing the regime. Two, which is more important…is that in Yemen we did not see the bloodshed we are seeing in Syria now.”
Divided opposition, divided neighbors
“Number three: In Yemen…we have a unified opposition…that was able to engage in negotiations and sign, whereas, in Syria we have seen a split position that does not have any unity…. Number four: The trust has been completely eliminated in Syria…. While it wasn’t perfect in Yemen, to a certain extent the parties were able to trust each other when it comes to signing on papers. Number five: The different parts of the international community – Saudi Arabia, the United States, China, Russia – were all united and pushing for the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] initiative to implement a solution in Yemen. In Syria…we are seeing a split in the international community in two blocks.”
Listen to more of Ibrahim Sharqieh’s views on Syria and Yemen (6:00):
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.