British Prime Minister David Cameron stirred controversy Tuesday when he said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could be offered a safe escape from Syria if it would hasten the end of the 19-month civil conflict there.
In a filmed interview with Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned cable news outlet based in Dubai, Cameron explained that the promise of safe passage for Assad might be a way out of the bloody civil war.
“Of course I would favor him facing the full force of international law and justice for what he's done. I am certainly not offering him an exit plan to Britain, but if he wants to leave, he could leave -- that could be arranged,” he said.
The comment has drawn criticism from some supporters of the rebellion, many of whom argue that granting amnesty to the dictator would be offensive and unacceptable.
The Syrian uprising began in March 2011, when the Assad regime used excessive force to crack down on protests. Since then, the clashes have devolved into a bloody conflict between rebel forces, loosely organized under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, and regime troops, which are well-armed but plagued by frequent defections.
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As rebel troops fight for territory wherever they can hold it, regime forces retaliate with brutal efficacy, often initiating indiscriminate air strikes that kill civilians.
The political struggle has become increasingly sectarian, and is often framed as a battle between Sunni Muslims and Alawites, the minority Shi’a splinter sect of which Assad is a member. Extremist Sunni Islamist groups, including al Qaeda and affiliates, have infiltrated the anti-regime movement and blurred its objectives, complicating international efforts to assist the rebels.
Amid this turmoil, 36,000 people and counting have lost their lives, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
After 19 months of seemingly endless obstacles to international interference -- blocked United Nations resolutions, inconclusive conferences, powerless peace envoys -- Cameron voiced disappointment with the pace of progress.
“We played our part in helping the refugees at the border, helping with the opposition, pushing at the United Nation for the strongest possible resolutions, but we are prevented frankly by some of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China, that don’t want us to go as far as we should,” he said.
His suggestion that Assad could be granted safe passage was pragmatic, but risky. It provoked quick backlash from Amnesty International.
“Instead of talking about immunity deals for President Assad, David Cameron should be supporting efforts to ensure that he faces justice, ideally at the International Criminal Court at The Hague,” said the organization’s UK Syria campaign manager, Kristyan Benedict, in a statement.
“After Syrian government forces have indulged in a massive campaign of indiscriminate bombings, mass roundups and torture, there should be no question of Bashar al-Assad escaping justice with a cozy deal of this kind.”
British officials rushed to assure the public that Cameron was not offering a British safe haven to Assad.
“The UK is not making an offer,” said a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman, according to the Financial Times.
“We have been clear that Assad should face justice and that it is for the Syrian people, including the opposition, to decide the details of a transition, including the options for Assad.”
Still, Cameron’s comments make clear that in an increasingly complicated conflict, the fastest way to end the violence may not be the fairest.
“Anything, anything, to get that man out of the country and to have a safe transition in Syria,” he said to Al Arabiya.