Syria's President Bashar Al Assad. Image Credit: Reuters

Dear President Bashar Al Assad,

It's well known that you are a highly intelligent and cultured family man with comparatively simple tastes, an Arab nationalist who sincerely loves his country. When you were first thrust into office you held great ambitions. You had resolved to turn Syria into an open, progressive country, well equipped to take its rightful place in the modern world. You were looked up to by your own people and feted by European heads of state and royalty.

Instead, Syria is on the point of international pariah status and may be on the brink of civil war. What went wrong? Given what is known about you, one can only imagine your hands are still tied by your father's old guard.

Simply dismissing the protesters as extremists or troublemakers paid by foreign powers isn't credible because of the sheer numbers involved. It's clear that the majority of Syrians want a pluralistic democratic political system and free and fair elections. As we've witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the days when Arab men and women willingly submitted to being ruled under the iron fist of a paternalistic figure are over. The populist overthrow of Zine Abidine Bin Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi is proof that political dinosaurs can no longer hold sway over populations that have breathed freedom's sweet air.

I know that you still enjoy substantial support in country, although just how much cannot be ascertained in an atmosphere of fear and repression. If you truly believe the majority stands with you, then what's preventing you from calling an election? Killing, imprisoning and torturing men, women and even children won't make dissent evaporate; on the contrary. Arabs have overcome the psychological fear barrier to embrace a spirit of ‘do or die'.

Civil war

Can't you hear the clock ticking towards disaster? Your country's army is splintering. Your friends are deserting you. Syria has been suspended from the Arab League. Jordan's King Abdullah has said if he were in your place he would step down. Your own uncle, Rifaat Al Assad, says the situation is not your fault but, nevertheless, is urging you to go to stave off civil war.

France is calling for tough anti-Syrian sanctions. Turkey has set up camps for fleeing Syrians and has frozen cooperation on energy exploration. Indeed, your former friend Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says "the future cannot be built on the blood of the oppressed" while Syrian opposition groups have called upon Turkey to intervene militarily to protect civilians from your regime.

The possibility of western intervention also exists. That would not be blessed by Syria's allies China and Russia but their grumblings won't necessarily prevent an Iraq-style ‘coalition of the willing' being formed ‘on humanitarian grounds'. Ask yourself, will China or Russia go out on a limb to preserve your government if the international community aligns against them with a green light from the Arab League? Those world powers held strong reservations against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and Nato's role in bringing down Gaddafi, but when push came to shove they stood back.

The path you've taken is misguided but there is still time for you to make a U-turn. It's probably too late for meaningful dialogue with the opposition now that trust has evaporated so the sooner you come to terms with the fact the Al Assad dynasty's days are numbered the better. You're like a CEO of a failing company whose credibility has been irrevocably damaged except that such CEO would resign before he takes the company down with him. I would ask you to face the unpalatable truth. For whatever reason, you and your cabinet colleagues have become a liability. If you care about Syria and its people, you must take the decision to step aside. Nothing lasts forever and in your case, the writing is on the wall. Why is it that everyone can see it except you?

You may think of the demonstrators flooding your streets as the enemy but the course you've taken opens the door to Syria's real enemy Israel at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering launching strikes on Iranian nuclear sites. Anything that weakens Syria is a gift to Israel which fears repercussions from Damascus and Hezbollah. Should your country be embroiled in civil war or meet the same fate as Libya, Israel will reap immeasurable rewards. The Palestinians will lose considerable bargaining power and the Lebanese will be vulnerable.

You are not a power-hungry man with over-vaulting ambitions; you're not a megalomaniac or a dictator. You were not groomed for the top job like your late brother Basil. You wanted to be an ophthalmologist. You can still have the life you were meant to have. All you have to do is board a flight to a friendly country with those nearest and dearest. It may be a painful personal sacrifice but for the sake of your children, your people and the entire Middle East region, please accept that it's the right thing to do.


Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at lheard@gulfnews.com. Some of the comments may be considered for publication.