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Will Syria's Assad get away with murder?

WASHINGTON -- Will Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad be allowed to get away with mass murder, like his father 30 years ago? Some of the ideas now under discussion could mean precisely that — a golden parachute into exile. No war crimes charges, no prosecution, no trial.

Unlike Egypt's ousted dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who was sentenced to life in prison on June 2, and unlike Libya's Muammar Ghaddafi, who was killed at the hand of anti-government rebels, Assad would “transfer power and depart Syria.” That's how U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it after a meeting of foreign ministers of Arab and Western nations in Istanbul.

That idea is known as the Yemeni Solution and was floated by U.S. President Barack Obama at a meeting of the Group of Eight in May. It refers to a deal under which Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was granted immunity from prosecution for the killing of protesters. In return, he handed power over to his deputy and announced he planned to go into exile in Ethiopia.

No such deal would be possible in Syria without the involvement of Russia, the Assad regime's chief armourer, and the two other pillars of his support — China and Iran. This is why Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary General who is now peace envoy on behalf of the U.N. and the Arab League, has come up with the idea of a “contact group” to work out an end to a conflict that has claimed at least 10,000 lives so far.

The group would include the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — where Russia and China have blocked tough measures against Syria — as well as “countries with real influence on the situation, countries that can influence either side — the government of Syria and the opposition,” Annan said at the United Nations. “Iran, as an important country in the region I hope will be part of the solution.”

Clinton has poured cold water on that idea, saying Iran was helping to keep the Assad regime in power and therefore part of the problem. That, of course, also goes for Russia and China but involving Iran would take Washington on a collision course with its close ally Israel and open Obama to charges of being “weak on Iran,” a damaging label in his campaign for re-election.

If the contact group idea would eventually lead to Assad's departure — and that is a very big if — where would he go? According to David Ignatius, a well-connected columnist for the Washington Post, Russia has offered him exile and there are rumors that Assad has already transferred US$6 billion in Syrian reserves to Moscow.

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