Amidst unconfirmed reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has fled the capital of Damascus by private jet for the Alawite stronghold of Latakia on the coast, speculation is growing about his ultimate destination.
Confusing reigns in Syria. A report on Thursday from Agence France Presse indicated that Assad is still at the presidential palace in Damascus, “directing the destiny of the country,” according to an unnamed aide.
Nonetheless, after the deaths of three of his most senior and trusted advisors in a bomb attack on Wednesday, including his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, the noose is tightening on Assad, who, along with his father have ruled Syria with an vice-like grip for more than four decades. When rebels were able to strike at the very heart of Assad’s security complex – the national security council building – he likely realized he had to escape.
The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) took credit for the bomb attack, but the actual perpetrators and how they could have breached the inner sanctum of the regime remain a mystery.
Others speculate it was an inside job.
Meanwhile, rebels have poured into Damascus, engaged in extremely violent clashes with what is left of the Assad regime’s security forces. Syrian opposition groups claim that hundreds of people have fled Damascus due to the fighting in the city. The FSA also stated that the latest killing of top government officials has sparked a massive flurry of defections, thus ever weakening Assad’s crumbling power base.
The U.S. government is already preparing for the collapse of the Syrian regime, conferring with Israeli officials over the post-Assad Syria and the possible disposition of chemical weapons in the country.
“The Syrian government has a responsibility to safeguard its stockpiles of chemical weapons, and the international community will hold accountable any Syrian officials who fails to meet that obligation,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
But Carney added: “Assad is a spent force in terms of history. He will not be a part of Syria’s future.”
President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone, urging the Russian leader to help push Assad away from power. The White House said in a statement that Putin and Obama “noted the growing violence in Syria and agreed on the need to support a political transition as soon as possible that achieves our shared goal of ending the violence and avoiding a further deterioration of the situation.”
As Damascus and other parts of Syria convulse in clashes and violence, one must wonder where Assad is and where can he go should he be able to flee the country.
Unconfirmed rumors suggest that Assad has already sent his wife Asma to safety in Russia, one of the few major countries on earth that has supported the Assad regime throughout the 17-month crisis. However, Russian officials have not confirmed such an event – in recent weeks both Putin and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov have rejected suggestions that Moscow would provide a haven for Assad.
Moreover, on Thursday, Putin’s spokesman and foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov again scuttled such talk, telling reporters that Russia has not had any discussions regarding the Syrian President’s fate.
Given the enormous amount of criticism that Russia (and China) have received, not only from the west, but from other Arab countries, over their continued support of Assad, it is unlikely the Syrian dictator will find a home in either Moscow or Beijing.
Two of Assad’s strongest allies, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, both denounced that blasts that killed his inner circle on Wednesday as acts of “terrorism” – however, statements from Tehran and from Hezbollah chief Seyed Hassan Nasrallah suggest that even they are cooling their ardor for Assad by calling for negotiations with Syrian opposition forces. Indeed, Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi offered to mediate between the two warring sides of Syria.
“[The bomb attack in Damascus] was more than a wake-up call for Iran and Hezbollah, the honeymoon with the Syrian regime is coming to an end, Hilal Khashan, a political-science professor at American University of Beirut, told the Wall Street Journal.
Therefore, assuming Iran and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon get cold feet with respect to offering Assad asylum, where else can he land?
The only nations on earth that might even consider providing Assad a haven would be Cuba, North Korea, and Zimbabwe – none of which would be an attractive option for the wealthy and glamorous Assad couple.
Damascus and Havana, as a satellite of Moscow, have had warm ties since the 1960s. In January 2008, Cuba’s ambassador in Syria told a press conference that he wanted to boost “economic and trade relations between the two countries.”
However, it’s hard to believe that Cuban president Raul Castro, already reeling from US economic sanctions himself and desperate to improve the island’s economy, would want to further antagonize not only Washington, but also key European nations, by hosting Assad.
Oil-rich Venezuela, however, may also be a potential destination for Assad. Venezuela President Huge Chavez is an avowed enemy of both the U.S. and Israel and likely does not care about any fallout from receiving Assad (indeed, he spoke fondly of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi until the very end).
In October 2010, Chavez visited Syria to upgrade trade and diplomatic relations between the countries, Among other things, Venezuela agreed to build a refinery in Syria as a joint investment of Iran and Malaysia.
“Syria's relations with Venezuela consolidate its ties with South America and vice versa, Assad said at the time.
Lots of efforts are needed to set up strong ground for a serious launch of relations to help carry out the agreements signed between the two sides.”
Just last week, CNN reported that Chavez’s state-run oil company dispatched a large shipment of diesel fuel to Syria, and had been making similar deliveries over the past few months.
If they need diesel, and we can provide it, there is no reason not to do it, Rafael Ramirez, the energy minister of Venezuela, told reporters in February.
We cannot determine our foreign policy with fear of U.S. sanctions. We have said that those truly don't matter to us.
Chavez himself blasted the US attitude toward Syria.
They [U.S.] should be focusing on solving their own country's problems, but they want to impose themselves, like they did in Libya, where they killed thousands and thousands of people to then kill Moammar Gadhafi, and now they want to do the same with Syria and they are also threatening Iran, he told state-run VTV.
Zimbabwe, run by the international pariah Robert Mugabe, has also repeatedly supported Syria against what it calls interference from the west. Harare is one of the few African states that has taken Assad’s side in the international stage, voting against UN resolutions aimed at the Damascus regime.
A little known ally of Syria is the former Soviet republic of Belarus. The Atlantic reported last month that Belarus might be sending military technology to Assad, including expertise in surface-to-surface missiles, which has been one of the Syrian regime’s principal weapons against the opposition.
Belarus, which also has close ties with Iran, has long ignored Western pleas to stop supporting such rogue regimes.
However, a neutral third-party may also step in to offer Assad refuge. In March Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki offered asylum to Assad – not because he supports the Syrian leader, but as a way to end the bloodshed in Syria.