Why Syria and the World Will Miss Kofi Annan’s Peace Plan

The former U.N. Secretary-General embarked on a mission that was bound to fail. But its end is unlikely to help Syria avert a chaotic bloodbath

  • Share
  • Read Later
FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP / Getty Images

In this picture taken on July 20, 2012, U.N.–Arab League envoy Kofi Annan looks on before a meeting at his office at the U.N. offices in Geneva

The habit in the U.S. punditocracy of blaming Kofi Annan for the failure of his Syria mediation is not only misleading; it’s often a self-serving evasion. Annan, who admitted defeat on Thursday when he resigned as the joint envoy of the U.N. and the Arab League, was always on something of a fool’s errand in Syria, sent to forge a peace in which none of the combatant parties saw any value beyond enhancing their diplomatic position, but to which the international players looked to mask the limits of the leverage they were willing or able to bring to bear on the situation. As the International Crisis Group (ICG) had noted just a day before Annan’s announcement, the envoy had “sought to mediate, but Syrians and non-Syrians alike backed him for opposite reasons and in entirely self-serving ways.”

In a valedictory op-ed in the Financial Times, Annan warned of dire and brutal consequences for the current impasse, at the same time arguing that a morbid outcome was not inevitable. “Military means alone will not end the crisis,” he wrote. “Similarly, a political agenda that is neither inclusive nor comprehensive will fail. The distribution of force and the divisions in Syrian society are such that only a serious negotiated political transition can hope to end the repressive rule of the past and avoid a future descent into a vengeful sectarian war.”

But a political solution requires international consensus, he wrote, which would remain elusive “while all sides — within and without Syria — see opportunity to advance their narrow agendas by military means.” He urged Russia, China and Iran to press the Assad regime to implement a political solution, while urging Western powers, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to press the opposition “to embrace a fully inclusive political process — that will include communities and institutions currently associated with the government.”

His failure, Annan argued, presented a challenge to those who appointed him:

The future of Syria rises and falls on more than the fate of just one man. It is clear that President Bashar Assad must leave office. The greater focus, however, must be on measures and structures to secure a peaceful long-term transition to avoid a chaotic collapse … None of this is possible, however, without genuine compromise on all sides … Syria can still be saved from the worst calamity. But this requires courage and leadership, most of all from the permanent members of the Security Council, including from Presidents Putin and Obama.

Western powers had seen Annan’s peace plan, adopted in April, as a means of getting international accord — particularly with Russia and China — on the demand that Assad stand down. Annan’s peace plan didn’t explicitly demand he do so, of course, although U.S. officials insisted for a time that this was the implied meaning of the plan for a cease-fire and political transition to which all sides signed on and then failed to implement. And while the Western powers — and, eventually, Annan himself — focused on the demand that the Assad regime remove its heavy weaponry from urban areas and stop its military assault on opposition-held areas, Russia insisted that this was impossible while whole towns and neighborhoods were in the hands of armed rebels, and berated Western and Arab countries for overtly or covertly arming the rebellion and thereby escalating the confrontation.

The result was deadlock at the U.N. Security Council, with Russia and China vetoing attempts to threaten sanctions on the Assad regime for failure to implement Annan’s peace plan, on the grounds that those resolutions failed to address the proxy war being waged in Syria by Gulf Arab states arming the rebels. The proxy-war dimension also helped put the kibosh on Annan’s final effort to broker a peace breakthrough by convening a Geneva summit of all international stakeholders in the conflict to hammer out terms for a political settlement: the U.S. refused to have Iran, the Assad regime’s most important outside backer, participate in such discussions despite warnings from the Russians, and Annan himself, that excluding it undermined a key premise of the exercise. (Perhaps in an attempt to placate the Russians, Saudi Arabia was also removed from the guest list, which took another key proxy player out of the equation.) Annan was incensed when, having crafted a plan for a political transition that he understood had the backing of the Security Council, Russian and Chinese vetoes and a new round of recriminations killed off the effort.

In short, Annan — through no fault of his own — had no leverage to bring to bear on any of the players, making his diplomatic effort an exercise in choreographing cats.

Assad had signed on to Annan’s plan as a way of staying onside with the Russians and disorganizing his opponents, even if he hardly implemented it — citing ongoing rebel operations as a pretext. The deeper reality, of course, is that the military terrain actually suited the regime because it polarized Syrian society in a way that narrowed the base of the rebellion and reinforced a willingness among the Alawite minority to fight for the regime’s survival. Following the path of a democratic political transition as envisaged by Annan’s plan would have ultimately elbowed out the regime, even if it did not demand that Assad stand down as a precondition for ending the conflict.

For the rebels and their supporters, the plan offered international backing for a cease-fire that would require the standing down of regime forces in a manner rebels believed would enable their victory on the streets through emboldened protests.

But none of the parties that backed Annan’s mission appear to have been serious about seeking an inclusive political compromise, embracing the plan simply as a short-term political expedient while continuing to pursue strategies designed to eliminate their rivals.

“Because the mission’s success was predicated on finding middle ground when most parties yearned for a knockout punch,” noted the ICG, “few truly wished it well, even as no one wanted to be caught burying it.”

Annan’s announcement was simply the formal death certificate on a mission that was effectively stillborn. But its passing hardly opens the way for a more satisfying outcome: absent a political solution, Syria is left in throes of an escalating war, in which the various international players back opposite sides. The idea that Russia could be shamed by the scolding of U.S. officials into leaving Assad to his fate has not panned out — and even if Moscow moves, on the basis of its own calculations, to abandon Assad himself, it’s unlikely to desert his regime in the face of a rebellion backed by Western and Gulf Arab states.

And increasingly mindful of the multiple dangers that could be unleashed across the region by a protracted sectarian war in Syria, Western powers will now need an alternative means of pursuing Annan’s goal, which was to ensure a soft landing for the regime, or at least to contain the fallout from its collapse.

As U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted in accepting Annan’s resignation, “Both the government and the opposition forces continue to demonstrate their determination to rely on ever-increasing violence,” while Security Council divisions prevent any effective action. Ending the conflict through a political solution can only succeed, he warned, “when the parties to the violence make a firm commitment to dialogue and when the international community is strongly united in support.” Prospects for either have become increasingly remote right now. But if current patterns hold and neither the regime nor the rebels are able to deliver a knockout blow, there will come a moment — weeks, months or years from now — when many thousands more Syrians have died or had their lives destroyed, when the combatants and their backers will turn once more to someone like Kofi Annan — someone willing to take on the thankless task of making peace out of other people’s wars.

26 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
drorbenami
drorbenami

Gee Tony Baloney,

no comment on the syrian rebels placing their fellow arabs up against the wall and shooting them ???

If the Israeli army had done that you would have ejaculated all over your keyboard....

polnick
polnick

Revenge seeking Sunni tribesmen will soon be searching basements for hiding Christians. The massacre cannot be prevented unless the hunted are quickly transported to the Vatican. The Pope himself must come to Syria to supervise the evacuation.

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

It doesn't matter who's rulling Syria. You shouldn't expect a democratic, just and enlighted ruller anytime soon. What's important is to establish and secure a viable Kurdish state that will provide a buffer between Iran and Iraq and the countries along the shores of the Mediterranean. The problem is, Turkey resist any fair solution to the Kurdistan problem. When the current Turkish Muslim government will understand that a Kurdish federation is better than an Iranian empire, isolating Turkey from the Middle East, it might be too late. 

polnick
polnick

Freedom to a true Muslim means an open path to the Mosque.  There shall be no leader but Allah; the will of the people will be expressed by Sharia Law. Satanic rulers must be removed; Islamic anarchy will become the holy order.

JDSillig
JDSillig

Any hope of a peaceful resolution in Syria ended once the USA got involved in supporting the Al Qaeda terrorists that are behind the FSA.    The USA can point fingers to Assad all they want, but the greatest instigator of what has become a war between the secular government of Assad and the Islamic extremists is, once again the Untied States and its support of the Al Qaeda terrorists whom even Hillary the Hun declared we were on the same side in Syria.

Eric11210
Eric11210

Folks, JD is a very sick man who supports whole heartedly the regimes of terror in Tehran, Damascus and PyongYang. He has also openly called for the murder of thousands of Jews in Jerusalem and has openly states that he believes Jews are not human beings. He is either himself Iranian and protecting his country or is an utter psychopath who hates the United States so much that he goes out of his way to support America's enemies at all costs.

One can of course see this clearly above, where he supports fully the regime of terror which has murdered thousands of its own people.

Tereza Martins
Tereza Martins

Some countries wanted a bloodbath and that’s why they took sides, arming the rebels and paying them turns the rebels into foreign agents, mercenaries, scum,  it’s hard to see them as victims when they kill civilians and  tribes with glee.

Gary B
Gary B

Jeesh! It's not "that" complicated. The freedom fighters are typically a handful of thugs who are fully aware that if they touch off a revolution in the name of "freedom" that the US led West will intervene and do the dying for them while the thugs open offshore bank accounts and plan how they will spend their loot. Except this time the US/West didn't take the bait. Oops! Kofi Annan is not a US envoy. He's a UN eunuch trying to sell out the US and the West and he bailed because he was being laughed at and he knows that a widely recognized dolt doesn't look good in Armani.  

bcfred
bcfred

What a bunch of revisionist garbage.  The mission was a fool's errand from the beginning?  I don't remember it being pitched that way in April.  I'm sure the tens of thousands of civilians who have been killed would be relieved to know we knew this is how it would play out all along, but had to pretend to go along with a toothless UN effort to keep up appearances.  Hopefully this at least persuades anyone left out there who doesn't view China and Russia as anything other than economic mercenaries of those nation's sole motives in any situation.

Sid sridhar
Sid sridhar

This is a brilliant analysis by Tony Karon. For all the wrong reasons, the permanent members of the Security Council could not agree. Russia and China had no love for Assad but could not accept a western agenda for regime change like Libya, which would then install a Sunni led, Saudi supported Islamic Government. Hence the stalemate and therefore more bloodshed. The US must seriously consider the post-Assad scenario. It cannot be in anyone's interest to have all non-Sunnis caught in revenge attacks. Clearly, the perception amonst Shias is that the US is pushing for a regime change to support Israel. However, Iran is using this crisis to strengthen its own hold on the Shia alternative model by selling the idea of persecution of shias by the Sunnis for Centuries. The larger fear for the whole region must be an implosion, which impacts the whole world. It is a shame that Annan has quit!

bridgefanaat
bridgefanaat

Step down? it was about time! What a waste of time to assign this arrogant, burocratic, show-off figure who is at all times but too eager to get involved in such endless 'talks'...

Mostly is he most interested in showing off his expensives clothes and Ferragamo shoes to show the world. Let's hope we don't see this expensive idiot anymore!

JohnVan64
JohnVan64

Clearly you know nothing of the man - to attack him on a personal level rather than to take issue with his work is uncalled for.

bridgefanaat
bridgefanaat

No one will miss this arrogant, burocratic, show-off figure who is more than eager to get involved in such 'talks' without success, what a waist of time! He is mostly interesting to appear showing off the most expensives suits and Ferragamo shoes.... 

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

What can the " head " of a toothless tiger do ?

bridgefanaat
bridgefanaat

No one will miss this arrogant, burocratic, money spender, showing-off public who is everytime ready to get such assigments to earn as much as he can! When has this man succesfull in all the meetings going on back and forth for nothing! A charlatan like him?

Don't make me laugh! Asides, look the luxurious clothes he wears and the Ferragamo shoes...Waist of time! Enough is enough!

bridgefanaat
bridgefanaat

No one will miss this arrogant, burocratic, show-off public figure, always ready to take such engagements to make sure he earns a lot of more $$$$. what a pity such waste of time, never achievment a thing! A charlatan would do it much better!

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

There was never any chance for Peace.

This is tribal warfare and they are playing to win.

Just like Iran, there is no peaceful outcome possible.

All of the talk of peace is just posturing by people and governments who already know better so that they can avoid becoming part of the conflict themselves.

The only way this will end is with bullets and bombs.

JDSillig
JDSillig

I disagree only in regards to Iran, a country that has every right to despise us ever since we conspired with the British to overthrow their democratic government in order to install the brutal dictatorship of the Shah.     The best way for it to end is for the USA to mind its own damn business, but with AIPAC leading our congress and our candidates sucking up to the Israelis, there is little chance for peace.     

Buy gold and get ready for a 5 trillion dollar war. 

Eric11210
Eric11210

You are not American JD. You are yourself Iranian. Stop trying to garner sympathy by pretending otherwise.

Folks, JD is a very sick man who supports whole heartedly the regimes of terror in Tehran, Damascus and PyongYang. He has also openly called for the murder of thousands of Jews in Jerusalem and has openly states that he believes Jews are not human beings. He is either himself Iranian and protecting his country or is an utter psychopath who hates the United States so much that he goes out of his way to support America's enemies at all costs.

Eric11210
Eric11210

JD, the definition of a troll fits you perfectly. I merely point out the fact that you are a liar for those who wish to know the truth about who you are.

JohnDahodi
JohnDahodi

ANNAN was used by the US and her allies only to gather arms and ammunition and Jihadis around the several middle-east countries to dislodge legitimate Syrian Government. Saudi, Jordan and Turkey wanted a Sunni regime in Syria; and the big brother wanted to secure Israel further isolating Iran; they cooked this new war. And made Annan a scapegoat for their hatched dirty game plan. Russia and China were aware of this plan and so they continued their own game till to date. Now with full and open backing,America is on the fore front of this war, it is a matter of time for the regime of Assad to be over and soon the drums of Iran WAR will start. America and Israel have already signed off the blue print and waiting for the right moment or cooked excuse to start fire work. It is too bad I was fooled by Obama, who promised me that he will end all the wars but he started many more under his watch. 

Moo Shusmul
Moo Shusmul

Not the world! only US, Saudi and UK not all the world...

You are  respecting the kill of innocent in Syria.

Shame on US.

Tereza Martins
Tereza Martins

Don’t forget France and it’s tail wagging , France is a wannabe.