Gaddafi, Assad or Salih: who will go first?

Following the comparatively swift exits of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, we now have three Arab leaders who face serious challenges to their power but are proving more much difficult to dislodge: Gaddafi in Libya, Salih in Yemen and Assad in Syria. Which of them, I wonder will be the next to go – and when?

The Syrian uprising is the most recent – it began in the middle of March – and my gut feeling is that it will not succeed quickly. The Assad regime could easily survive into next year, if not for longer, though it is unlikely ever to recover from the blow to its authority.

"The regime will dig in its heels and fight to the end," Joshua Landis writes on his blog. But he continues:

"The Syrian opposition has successfully established a culture of resistance that is widespread in Syria and will not be eliminated. Even if demonstrations can be shut down for the time being, the opposition will not be defeated. Syria’s youth, long apolitical and apathetic, is now politicised, mobilised, and passionate. All the same, the opposition remains divided and leaderless, which presents great dangers for a post-Assad Syria."

In Yemen, where protests directed specifically against the president began during the second half of January, Salih has been playing his usual wily game. he has already agreed to go, but he keeps finding reasons why he should stay a bit longer. Protected by his Republican Guard, he seems to have decided that street protests alone – even if millions take part in them – are not going to dislodge him.

This has led to many predictions that the result will be armed conflict. But there is also a possibility that the economy will bring him down.

The Chinese news agency, Xinhua, has a grim report today which quotes the Yemeni oil minister as saying economic collapse is "imminent".

The report says Yemen's oil production "has been halved in recent weeks after producers pulled out their staff and halted output, which led to the closure of the country's sole refinery in Aden". 

The minister, Amir Salim al-Aydarus, blamed this mainly on "sabotage", though he also acknowledged the role played by "political deadlock".

"The sabotage and destruction by outlaws on oil and gas pipelines as well as electricity lines exacerbated the economic situation," Aydarus is reported as saying. "If the problem persists, the government will be unable to meet the minimum needs of the citizens. The situation will pose a catastrophe beyond imagination."

In Libya, where the rebellion began in mid-February, there has been much talk of a prolonged stalemate – though I'm sceptical about that. Judging by recent reports, the rebels are gradually consolidating their position while the Gaddafi regime is being slowly worn down by the Nato bombing and other factors. When the time comes, it could collapse quite suddenly.

The course of events in Libya is now largely in the hands of outside forces, unlike Syria and, to a lesser extent, Yemen (where the GCC countries are involved diplomatically), and my reading of the situation is that western powers are in no great hurry to see Gaddafi go. After more than 40 years in power, another few months is neither here nor there, so it's better to keep him pinned down in Tripoli until the rebels have properly got their act together and are capable of running the show.

One way or another, all three regimes – in Libya, Yemen and Syria – are on the slide. In any of these countries, unforeseen events such as assassination or a coup could hasten their demise but as things stand at the moment it looks like a toss-up as to whether Salih or Gaddafi will be the first to go.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 May 2011