Despots Who Fight to the Bitter End

Wikistrat wonders what to do about hardheaded old dictators who refuse to go when their time is up.

Between Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a whole range of dictators seems bent on fighting to the bitter end. Wikistrat‘s latest CoreGap Weekly Bulletin wonders what to do with such hardheaded despots.

In the face of unprecedented civil unrest, longtime rulers across the Middle East had to chose either to resign or sit it out in the past two months. In Egypt and Tunisia, veteran presidents were ousted after weeks of demonstrations. Hosni Mubarak wouldn’t leave until the military made clear that he had no choice. In the Ivory Coast, it took French peacekeepers to make Laurent Gbagbo accept electoral defeat.

At the same time, the ruling families in Bahrain, Jordan and Saudi Arabia held on to power despite varying degrees of violence. In Syria, the regime has taken to crushing an anti-government revolt with brutal force. In Libya, Colonel Gaddafi perseveres under heavy NATO bombardment.

What do to about these people? Foreign policy realists may be willing to cut a deal with them, notes Wikistrat, so long as their quick departure is achieved and further bloodshed averted. Idealists tend to be uncompromising however, demanding trials and justice that could deter fellow dictators from stepping down.

The more zero-sum the immediate outcome of regime change, the more likely loyalists fight on indefinitely. Before NATO bombs started dropping, Western leaders spoke openly of war crime trials for Gaddafi. To date, no one has formally taken that threat off the table […]

As Mubarak and his sons face criminal charges that could conceivably result in their execution, Gaddafi and his offspring would certainly prefer protracted civil war over a similar fate.

Even if they are caught and dragged before a tribunal, the sentencing of former dictators can incite a whole new wave of violence, certainly in tribal and divided societies as Libya’s — and the Ivory Coast’s. If Gbagbo is tried at the hands of his northern and Muslim successor, we should not be surprised, according to Wikistrat, to see the more urbanized and Christian south rise up again.

Striking a deal for immunity and sanctuary overseas doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of bitter despots either. Deposed leaders are quite capable of rallying loyalists from abroad. “So as Libya heads toward a military stalemate, one has to wonder if Muammar Gaddafi’s departure — absent the willing surrender of his forces, would be all that conclusive.”

Wikistrat does not argue for what it terms “drawn out, Brezhnev like collapse of the ancien régime, where one doddering old fool is replaced like another,” but does remind us that not every country can handle the truth — much less a “truth commission.”