EXCLUSIVE - U.S., allies exploring prospects for Assad exile

WASHINGTON Thu Feb 2, 2012 12:30pm IST

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) during his visit to wounded troops who injured in clashes with rebels against his regime, at Youssef al-Azmaha military hospital, in Damascus January 31, 2012, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA. REUTERS/SANA Handout

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) during his visit to wounded troops who injured in clashes with rebels against his regime, at Youssef al-Azmaha military hospital, in Damascus January 31, 2012, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA.

Credit: Reuters/SANA Handout

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States, European governments and Arab states have begun discussing the possibility of exile for Bashar al-Assad despite skepticism the defiant Syrian president is ready to consider such an offer, Western officials said on Wednesday.

While talks have not progressed far and there is no real sense that Assad's fall is imminent, one official said as many as three countries were willing to take him as a way to bring an end to Syria's bloody 10-month-old crisis.

Two sources said no European states were prepared to give Assad sanctuary, but one official said the United Arab Emirates might be among those open to the idea.

Talk of exile has surfaced amid mounting international pressure on Assad and a diplomatic showdown over a proposed Arab League resolution at the United Nations aimed at getting him to transfer power. He has responded by stepping up assaults on opposition strongholds.

With the White House insisting for weeks that Assad's days in power are numbered, it was unclear whether this marks an attempt to persuade the Syrian leader and his family to grasp the chance of a safe exit instead of risking the fate of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who was hunted and killed by rebels last year.

But with Assad showing he remains in charge of a powerful security apparatus and the Syrian opposition fragmented militarily, it could also be an effort to step up psychological pressure and open new cracks in his inner circle.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said neither the United States nor the European Union had taken the lead on the idea, which has been advocated by Arab nations as a way to try to end the violence in Syria.

"We understand that some countries have offered to host him should he choose to leave Syria," a senior Obama administration official said, without naming any of the countries.

Before that could happen, however, the question of whether Assad would be granted some kind of immunity would have to be tackled --- something the Syrian opposition as well as international human rights groups would likely oppose.

"There are significant questions of accountability for the horrible abuses that have been committed against the Syrian people," the senior U.S. official said.

"Ultimately these issues will be deliberated by the Syrian people in concert with regional and international partners," the official said. "This is about what Syrians need to end this crisis and begin the process of rebuilding their country."

While U.S. officials maintained that exile was worth exploring among other options, one European official voiced doubt it would work, saying Assad had given no indication that he might accept a graceful exit.

YEMEN-STYLE SOLUTION?

Bruce Reidel, a former CIA analyst who has advised President Barack Obama, said Arab countries appeared to be trying to craft a political solution in Syria modeled after Yemen.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh arrived in the United States on Saturday for treatment of wounds suffered in an assassination attempt in June. Under a power transfer plan drawn up by Gulf Arab countries for Saleh to step down to end a year of protests against his rule, a vice president is presiding over a unity government with presidential elections set for February 21.

"Assad and his wife get safe exile," said Reidel, now at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. "But who will take him? Iran? Russia? UK? And does he get immunity like Saleh?"

Officials stressed the discussions of the exile option for Assad were at an early stage and there was no agreed plan on how such an exit might be orchestrated.

A European official said EU members were willing to consider the idea of Assad going into exile but that there was "no way we'd have him in our countries."

"Our priority remains ending the slaughter that Assad and his regime are perpetrating against Syrian civilians, and facilitating a peaceful and orderly transition to democracy," the senior U.S. administration official said.

Administration officials were hesitant to predict how much time Assad might be able to stay in power in the face of international isolation and sanctions. But the consensus was it would be months, not weeks, before Assad came to crunch time.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said on Tuesday that it was just a matter of time before Assad falls, but acknowledged "it could be a long time."

Much could depend on the fate of a European-Arab-drafted resolution in the U.N. Security Council that would call for Assad to hand powers to his deputy to defuse the uprising against his family's dynastic rule.

Russia said on Wednesday it would veto any resolution on Syria that it finds unacceptable, after demanding any measure rule out military intervention to halt the bloodshed touched off by protests against Assad.

The political violence in Syria has killed at least 5,000 people in the past 10 months and activists say Assad's forces have stepped up operations this week on opposition strongholds, from Damascus suburbs to the cities of Hama, Homs and the border provinces of Deraa and Idlib.

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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