Is Syria’s Bashar Assad Going the Way of Muammar Gaddafi?

As his regime slowly crumbles and options for exile and reconciliation narrow, Syria's embattled President Bashar Assad looks likely to cling grimly on to power, no matter the consequences

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ADEM ALTAN / AFP / Getty Images

Free Syrian Army soldiers point guns at a portrait of President Bashar Assad at the Bab al-Salam border crossing to Turkey on July 22, 2012

As tens of thousands of Syrians flee the chaos and bloodshed of the country’s 17-month uprising and civil war, Arab leaders on Monday raised the possibility that President Bashar Assad would be allowed a “safe exit” from power, if he quickly abandons the presidency and ends the all-out military assault on rebel fighters.

But is it too late for that?

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Bloody Civil War)

According to some — including officials from the country that said it would offer Assad asylum just a few months ago — the Syrian leader might have missed his moment to leave (and then live) in peace. It seems increasingly likely, some believe, that Assad will end his rule — and perhaps his life — in the fighting, much the way that the late Muammar Gaddafi did last October, when Libyan militia fighters cornered the dictator on the run and shot him on the spot. “We are in a kind of Gaddafi situation,” says Khaled Ben M’Barek, chief political aide to Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki. “The scenario of Assad saying that he will leave seems more and more improbable.”

In a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Qatar on Monday, officials raised the issue of a deal for Assad to leave office, according to the organization’s Secretary General Nabil Elaraby, who told reporters after the discussions that Assad could be offered a “safe exit.” He would not reveal any details, apparently because the proposal needed to be fleshed out further with other countries.

Until now, Tunisia’s Marzouki was the only leader — Arab or otherwise — to offer Assad asylum. He has twice floated the idea of taking in Assad and his family in Tunisia as a way of ending the bloody conflict, in which more than 10,000 have died. In a BBC interview in March, Marzouki said, “If the price of peace in Syria is to give a safe haven to this guy, why not?” In an interview with the Arabic al-Hayat newspaper the following month, Marzouki again pleaded with Assad to get out while he could — a strategy that Gaddafi refused to heed. “It is best for you and your family to leave alive because if you decide to leave dead, this would mean that you will cause the death of tens of thousands of innocent people,” the Tunisian President said.

(MORE: What Syria’s Unraveling Means for the Middle East)

Marzouki’s country has become used to setting precedents (if not saving presidents). Tunisia’s former leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled the presidential palace in January 2011 after 24 years in power, chased out by a monthlong revolt that swept through the country to his very doorstep. Clearly concluding that his regime was on the verge of collapse, he flew into exile in Saudi Arabia — and is unlikely ever to face trial, despite being convicted in his absence in a Tunisian court. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak staved off numerous calls to resign in peace, instead sending in forces to quash an 18-day revolt in January and February last year. Though Mubarak will now surely die in prison, after being convicted in Cairo, he at least survived the revolution. The same could not be said of Gaddafi. And in the end, might not be said of Assad.

In an intimate, imploring tone, Sheikha Mayassa, the 28-year-old daughter of Qatar’s Emir, e-mailed her friend, Assad’s wife Asma, earlier this year, urging her to persuade her husband to resign and leave Syria, at the very least in order to save his family. “I only pray that you will convince the President to take this opportunity to exit without having to face charges,” she wrote in the e-mail, which was intercepted by opposition activists and leaked to the Guardian. “I’m sure you have many places to turn to, including Doha.”

But with the conflict hugely escalating since then, those “places to turn to” might steadily have narrowed. Russian officials — Assad’s closest allies outside Iran — have not extended any offer to take in the Assads. Both President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Serge Lavrov have rebuffed reporters’ queries about whether Assad could be given sanctuary in Russia, and last Friday Putin’s aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters that the Russian President had not discussed the issue in a phone call with President Obama last week.

(MORE: A Dispatch from Inside Syria — the Rebels Celebrate Gains)

At this point, says Tunisian presidential aide M’Barek, Tunisia too would find it difficult to offer asylum to a man whose regime has overseen large-scale military killings. “If Assad at that time had sought to exit, we would have envisioned offering sanctuary,” he said. “But now, there have been thousands more deaths.”

Given the massive escalation of violence in recent weeks, one big problem is that whichever country offers Assad asylum would implicitly be offering him a safe haven from legal proceedings too. That is something many might be unwilling to do, now that so many have been killed. Syrian National Council executive member Bassma Kodmani told TIME on Monday that even if Syria’s opposition accepted a safe exit for Assad, it would not include immunity from prosecution. “If he is allowed to leave the country safely, I think what we want to see is that there remains a possibility for any Syrian to ask for his prosecution, whether inside or outside Syria, through national or international courts.”

In that respect, Assad has failed to learn some lessons from the other dictators removed by the Arab Spring, most of whom were likely out of touch with the facts on the ground beyond the bubble of their inner circles. To many cornered tyrants, inured by years of total control, it might still be hard to comprehend — even after 1½ years of brutal fighting — that the status quo they wrought over decades can disappear in a flash of smoke.