Why the U.S. Won’t Give Up on Kofi Annan’s Syria Plan

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Denis Balibouse / Reuters

U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan pauses during a photo opportunity at the start of a meeting with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva June 5, 2012

Senator John McCain may be cranking up the political heat on the Obama Administration over Syria  amid reports of a new massacre at Hama, but don’t expect Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to berate Kofi Annan over the failure of his peace plan when she meets the U.N. special envoy in Washington on Friday. Clinton knows better than the pundits and politicians bashing Annan that his mission is not an obstacle to more decisive action — it’s a product of the limited leverage and poor options available to Western powers to bring about regime change in Syria. The Administration is sticking with Annan’s failing plan because the alternatives seem even worse. Still, it’s also a safe bet that Clinton won’t like the special envoy’s message about what needs to be done to implement a viable negotiated solution.

Annan is more acutely aware than any of his critics why neither Syria’s regime nor its opponents have implemented the six-point peace plan to which they signed on in April. There’s no real “or else” option because the Western powers are unable or unwilling to go to war in Syria. The fact that Russia and China will block any U.N. authorization for foreign military intervention provides a convenient excuse for avoiding military action, but that camouflages a deeper apprehension among Western powers about being sucked into a potential quagmire in the Levant.

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Annan’s mission, then, wasn’t to deliver ultimatums to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, but to find ways to bridge the vast chasm between the Western and Arab powers aligned with Syria’s opposition, and those like Russia, China and Iran either actively or passively backing the regime. And despite the rhetoric in Washington, it ought to be noted that the State Department sharply criticized the recent announcement by the rebel Free Syrian Army that it would no longer abide by Annan’s cease-fire plan. Still overwhelmingly outgunned by the regime, the rebels appear to be hoping that, sooner or later, the regime will unleash a bloodbath so appalling, it will force Western governments to use their own military power to finish off Assad. That’s an expectation the U.S. is clearly seeking to discourage.

The focus of recent U.S. and European diplomatic exertions has been on cajoling Russia into abandoning Assad, but those have thus far proved fruitless. Although the optimistic spin in Washington once again holds that Russia can be pressed to break with Assad, it’s hard to detect any substantive shift in Moscow’s position despite its reiteration that the Syrian leader is not personally indispensable. “We have never said or insisted that al-Assad necessarily had to remain in power at the end of the political process,” Russia’s deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said Tuesday. “This issue has to be settled by the Syrians themselves.” This is not a new position. It leaves Assad in charge of the country at the beginning of such a process — a position accepted by the Obama Administration, which sees his ouster as an endpoint rather than a precondition. But Russia blames the opposition and its foreign backers for the failure of the political process to get off the ground.

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And while much of the Western diplomatic focus has been on Russia, Iran’s support is even more essential to Assad, leading some analysts — and the U.N. envoy himself — to suggest that Tehran be drawn into negotiations over Syria. Annan is reportedly proposing the creation of a “contact group” on the Syria crisis comprising the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, possibly Qatar — and Iran. The purpose of this group, according to The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius, would be to assemble all of the outside stakeholders with influence over the conflict on the ground and have them agree on a transition plan. Such an accord would specify timelines for constitutional changes and the holding of new elections and provide for Assad’s retreat into exile.

Such an agreement among all the key outside stakeholders would leave both the regime and opposition with little room for evasion. Russia, perhaps for its own reasons, seems to embrace the idea of broadening the discussion, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calling Wednesday for a meeting along the lines of the “contact group” idea in a bid to save Annan’s peace plan. But the idea of drawing Iran into talks on Syria sticks in the craw of many in Washington who view the Syrian crisis as primarily an opportunity to weaken Iran, and therefore seek a more aggressive regime-change intervention. Clinton balked at Lavrov’s call for a meeting involving Iran, telling reporters in Azerbaijan on Wednesday that it was “a little hard to imagine inviting a country that is stage-managing Assad regime’s assault on its people.”

Of course, if Syria is to be approached as part of a strategic “great game” rivalry with Iran, then Annan’s diplomatic efforts are, indeed, pointless — as are U.S. efforts to lobby Moscow and Beijing to change sides, since their own strategic outlook obliges them to oppose Western efforts at regime change in the Arab world. To the extent that responses to the Syria crisis are shaped by a regional strategy to weaken and isolate Iran, there may be no way around a protracted civil war with many of the region’s key players backing their own proxies, some even intervening directly.

The reason for adopting Annan’s diplomatic process was the Western powers’ reluctance to intervene directly, and their recognition of the danger to regional security posed by an escalating civil war. That logic hasn’t changed even if Annan’s work has yet to produce results. But the U.N. envoy appears to be suggesting that the logic of diplomacy, and getting results, forces some uncomfortable choices not only on Moscow and Beijing, but also on the Western powers.

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