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

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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.