Is it time for Kofi Annan to give up in Syria?

A growing number of diplomats are arguing Kofi Annan's peace plan is failing. But is it better for the U.N. to oversee, and arguably provide cover for, the current violence or retreat and open the way for something potentially worse?  

Is it time for Kofi Annan to declare that his bid to resolve the Syrian crisis has failed? A growing number of Western diplomats argue privately that he should. U.S. officials have stated publicly that Annan's peace plan “is failing,” and the Saudi foreign minister has said confidence in his efforts is “rapidly falling.” Syrian security forces continue to target dissidents, rebel forces remain active, and there have been attacks on convoys carrying U.N. monitors — reinforcing the case that Annan should admit defeat.

The former U.N. Secretary-General has made it clear that he knows his mission is close to failure. But it's very difficult for him to call the whole thing off. While violence has continued in Syria at what Annan calls “unacceptable” levels, the death-rate has generally been lower than prior to the “ceasefire” he engineered in April. But whoever is attacking the U.N. observers probably wants to foment a full-scale war, and fighting appears not only to be on the rise again but also to be spreading into Lebanon.

If Annan were to quit now — precipitating the withdrawal of U.N. military personnel from Syria — he could risk a further escalation. This presents an ethical dilemma: Is it better for the United Nations to oversee, and arguably provide cover for, the current violence or retreat and open the way for something potentially worse? 

Annan, previously pilloried for the U.N.'s failings in cases such as Srebrenica and Rwanda (some of which have been rehearsed by Western hawks who dislike his role in Syria) is deeply sensitive to attacks on his own performance and that of the U.N. In dealing with other conflicts, such as that in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he has argued for patience and persistence in the face of continuing violence. He can hardly turn away from that philosophy now, and is unlikely to admit defeat quickly.

Even if Annan wants to quit, the political implications of doing so might be destructive. Russia, which approved his mission to win breathing space for its allies in Damascus, would accuse him of having given up too early. The Western members of the Security Council could push for a new U.N. resolution imposing new sanctions on Syria. Russia and China (which has made sincere-sounding statements about backing Annan) would almost certainly then use their vetoes against the West for a third time on Syria.

This would mean the end of U.N. diplomacy over Syria, over a year after European members of the Security Council first proposed a resolution censuring Damascus. In theory, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could find a replacement for Annan. But Ban has taken a much harder moral line on the conflict than Annan, and Syria has accused him of “outrageous” bias. It is hard to see how he could credibly re-launch talks. It is equally difficult to think of any international mediator with enough prestige and drive to take on Assad where Annan failed.

So Annan is trapped: he cannot keep up his peace process indefinitely, but nor can he resign peremptorily. If the Syrian situation deteriorates, he has one chance to escape this quandary. In late July, the Security Council will decide whether to renew the mandate for the U.N. monitoring mission. U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, has stated that she will veto the continuation of the mission if there is no improvement on the ground. Technically, Annan could continue his diplomatic efforts after the monitors went home. But the U.S. veto would be a vote of no confidence that he could not survive.

But Annan presumably does not want to be humiliated. So, with his original peace plan fraying, he needs some sort of Plan B, both to alleviate Syrian suffering and safeguard his reputation. He hasn't been coy about this, telling the Security Council at the start of May that he would “jump” at new ideas. 

One Plan B — calculated to please Western commentators — would be for Annan to throw caution to the wind, declare that the Syrian government is irredeemable, and call for a major international intervention. There has been a lot of talk about a no-fly zone and creating safe areas or humanitarian corridors. But Annan and his team know that these are politically or operationally impractical. Even if Russia and China weren't primed to veto proposals for any U.N.-mandated military presence in Syria, there is very little evidence that NATO powers want to send in forces. While Western officials may think that it's time for Annan to announce that he's failed, they don't really want him to tell them what to do as a result.

A lower-risk alternative would be for Annan to state that, on the basis of reporting from the U.N. observers, he believes that it is time for a strategic pause in his diplomatic efforts. He could request the Security Council to keep the peacekeeping mission in place to track violence, and then lay out a series of conditions he needs to see met before renewing his mediating role. Some of these would be based on his initial peace plan, such as a lasting diminution of violence and the release of political prisoners.   

But Annan could also test the goodwill of some wavering international backers by asking for concrete signs of progress in bilateral efforts by the U.S., Russia, and others to prepare the ground for peace talks. If Annan is struggling, nobody else seems capable of pulling off a diplomatic coup either, as the Arab League's recent inability to convene Syrian opposition groups for a unity conference demonstrated. Annan could state that he remains willing to act as a mediator in the future — but only if he is sure that the Security Council's members and regional powers can cajole or compel their clients in Syria to bargain.

A strategic pause might allow some facts on the ground to change to Annan's advantage. There have, for instance, been some signs of rebel forces regaining momentum in recent weeks. Peaceful protests also continue, having spread to previously quiet Aleppo this week. If these trends continue, the Syrian regime may begin to rethink its position on talks (the U.S. and its allies can continue to keep Damascus off-balance with gestures such as this week's war-games in Jordan.) Even the much-maligned U.N. observers, who have deployed faster than peacekeeping experts thought likely a month ago, may make a difference if they can switch from reporting on violent incidents to giving public warnings of upcoming Syrian offensives.

The odds against Annan succeeding remain daunting. But on balance, the risks of him quitting outright are too great for him to do so yet. By declaring a strategic pause, he could show that he is not willing to be treated like a fool by the Syrian regime — and stay on standby for a better opening to mediate later.

This article first appeared in Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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