Mindful of the limited leverage available to Western powers and the expansive dangers of direct intervention or a protracted civil war, the Obama Administration has lately begun trying to sell Russia on a “Yemen Option” — a reference to the agreement under which Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down, handing power to his deputy, and leaving his regime intact.
The attraction of the Yemen idea to outsiders is obvious: It provides a way to declare victory before the core issues of the conflict are resolved. It could also help avert a destabilizing power vacuum. Some argue, for instance, that keeping the state security apparatus intance could help keep Bashar al-Assad’s stocks of chemical weapons out of the hands of extremists—and keep the same groups from establishing bases in Syria.
But the so-called Yemen option holds no obvious appeal for the opposition. It is not Assad himself that has killed more than 10,000 Syrians over the past 15 months, and given the scale of the bloodshed it remains extremely unlikely that armed opposition groups would accept personnel change at the top of the regime as a basis to stand down. It would be even more difficult right now to persuade Assad himself to accept such a deal. Right now, he believes he’s winning the battle in the streets, explaining his crackdown using macabre analogies to the blood spilled by a surgeon trying to save a patient. In order to get him to that point, his regime would have to be weakened by the bloody attrition of rebellion and sanctions and pushed overboard not only by Russia, but also by Iran. At best, that’s a long-term prospect, and the longer the conflict rages, the less likely it becomes that either side could or would accept such an outcome.