Kofi Annan, on August 2, resigned as joint special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League for Syria, effective as of the end of the month. He had been assigned the difficult task — a “mission impossible,” as he himself put it — of negotiating a peaceful solution to the current crisis in Syria. In voicing his frustration, he blamed the failure of his plan primarily on the lack of unified support from the Security Council. The disunity at the U.N. made it impossible to begin a political process in Syria. “You have to understand,” he said, “as an envoy, I can’t want peace more than the protagonists, more than the Security Council or the international community for that matter.”
Some blame Annan for the failure of his peace mission, but it truly was a nearly impossible task. Indeed, it may not even be fair to call the plan Annan’s. He, after all, is a past advocate of intervening on behalf of abused populations in the name of the Responsibility to Protect. Others condemn the mission itself for causing delays and distracting nations’ attention from more meaningful approaches. But it is difficult to see what more meaningful approaches they have in mind or what countries they expect to undertake them. The Annan plan was, in a sense, the residual that remained after the various global and regional powers ruled out all the things they were not willing to do.
As for the mission itself, an outside mediator cannot simply bring two warring parties to a peace settlement through pure force of will. I. William Zartman has argued that the most propitious circumstances for a negotiated peace settlement arise when both parties face a long-term, painful stalemate. As long as one side believes it is winning, the winning side will see little need to negotiate a mutually agreeable settlement when it can wait until victory and impose whatever terms it wishes. At the same time, the losing side may find little reason to negotiate so long as it believes it can still turn the situation around, at least enough to improve its bargaining position. If a stalemate persists, but the levels of death and destruction are viewed as tolerably low, each side may believe it can wait the other out. However, when the prospects of victory are nil for both sides, both sides are spent, and the costs in lives and treasure continue to mount, then the belligerents may make a serious effort to see what can be attained at the bargaining table. Such a situation of parallel realities and symmetrical perceptions comes rarely, and when it does, it can take a long time to arrive.
But a mediator has to do something, and Annan, to his credit, had agreed to take on the task. He was confronted with a conflict that was still in its early stages, a conflict in which both sides still appeared to be optimistic about their prospects for eventual victory (or, as the case may be, sufficiently terrified by the potential consequences of defeat). The best a mediator can do in this situation is to try artificially to construct circumstances more favorable to negotiation, to try to eliminate the belligerents’ preferred options. For instance, this might be done, with the active and effective cooperation of all regional and global powers, by treating both sides as equal (regardless of how they are actually viewed) and cutting them both off from the means of making war. This, however, would be difficult to achieve because the situation starts out asymmetrical: the Syrian state begins with a far greater war-making capacity, and supporters of the rebels will insist that they be able to match it, if only to attain stalemate. According to Annan, however, the inflow of arms to date has made the rebels less willing to negotiate, presumably because it increases their chances of success. In any event, it appears that Annan was unable to get the full cooperation of all relevant powers. They, too, appear distracted by the prospect that “their side” could still win unilaterally or at least obtain better terms at a later time. That presumably explains why Annan’s frustration was directed toward the U.N. Security Council and other outside powers more than toward the belligerents.
The United Nations and its Security Council, of course, are not independent actors. The Security Council reflects the policies, deals, and understandings of its members, especially its five permanent members. (Within this limited population, one member, China, tends to take a relatively passive role, rarely initiating anything or blocking anything on its own unless the issue is closely linked to Chinese interests.)
Of the permanent members, the British and the French, backed by some Arab countries, have been most active in seeking a U.N.-centered solution to the Syrian crisis. The United States has been more skeptical, and Russia has been fairly opposed.
Russia, with the support of China, has blocked action on resolutions based on Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter to impose sanctions on the Syrian regime. Russia has stated that the approach is unbalanced, singling out the regime, but is also opposed to referencing Chapter VII, the part of the Charter that sanctions military action. To some extent, Russia views Syria as a friend and ally and as a customer of Russian arms, but Syria’s strategic value toRussia has declined considerably since the end of the Cold War and it can afford to buy arms only when other debts are forgiven. Russia’s position on Syria, however, is influenced by other factors that are less directly tied to Syria per se. Moscow is reluctant to encourage or endorse what it views as U.S. meddling in the affairs of other countries (which, one day, could include Russia or countries close to it). Russian leaders see the United States as manipulating the Arab Spring in Syria and elsewhere to advance its own geopolitical objectives while hiding behind talk of democracy. For the same reasons, Russia also wants to discourage the United States from resorting to military solutions at the drop of a hat. Its position in this regard has been reinforced by the experience last year in Libya, when Russia’s abstention on a Security Council vote for a “no-fly zone” to protect civilians resulted in a U.S.and NATO air campaign against the Libyan army. (U.S. officials argue that the Russians knew from the beginning that this would be the result.) Finally, the Russians believe, or at least profess to believe, that outside military involvement will only make the situation worse. While observers elsewhere compare Syria to Libya or Iraq, the Russians favorably cite U.S. policy in Yemen, where the United States refused to intervene militarily but eventually succeeded in removing the Yemeni president and muting the crisis, at least for the time being. Thus, Russia presumably prefers the Annan plan or something akin to it, but is suspicious of U.S. intentions and what it perceives as a U.S. tendency to interpret international agreements in novel and self-serving ways. For its part, Russia claims to have applied pressure on Syrian president Assad to compromise, but the results have been meager and the rebels have shown no interest in any compromise that includes Assad.
The United States wants to be seen as taking a firm position against Assad, but it does not want to be drawn into yet another Middle Eastern war and is not sure that it trusts the rebels. It is still burned by the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s as well as the 1980s experience of arming Afghan rebels who later turned against the United States. The U.S. position parallels the Russian argument that violence is not going to solve anything anyhow. Washington has resisted calls on both the left and the right to arm the rebels, and it backed the Annan mission more as a default plan than out of any conviction that it would succeed. So far, nothing has been offered to replace the Annan mission.
Thus the situation in Syria is more likely to be decided by facts on the ground than by decisions made at United Nations headquarters. To date, the facts on the ground do not seem particularly encouraging. The International Crisis Group argues that the sides are not only moving away from compromise but losing even the capacity to compromise. The regime is not coming apart so much as transforming itself into an ethnic militia fighting for survival. The opposition is divided. Attempts to unify it in the form of the Syrian National Council seem to be falling apart. Internecine strife is spreading, with Kurds seizing border areas, Alawites regrouping in their ancestral mountains, and small but growing numbers of domestic and foreign jihadists flocking to the scene. Some people believe that quick U.S. intervention would stop this process of implosion, and that not to intervene is therefore immoral, but the same process occurred in Iraq while U.S. forces were there. The regime of Saddam Hussein was overthrown in April 2003. Hussein, himself, was captured in December of that year, but by then he was already irrelevant. The internal war started by the intervention was no longer about him; it continued with our participation until last year, and it continues without us today. Yet, people still talk as if removing or killing Bashar al-Assad will somehow resolve the Syrian crisis.
Kofi Annan “My Departing Advice on How to Save Syria,” Financial Times, August 2, 2012.
Colum Lynch, “Syrian Shadow Boxing,” ForeignPolicy.com, August 3, 2012.
International Crisis Group, Syria’s Mutating Conflict, August 1, 2012.
I. William Zartman, “Ripeness: The Hurting Stalemate and Beyond,” in Paul C. Stern and Daniel Druckman, eds., International Conflict Resolution after the Cold War (2000).