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The Resignation of Kofi Annan: The End of the Diplomatic Road?

Commentary, 6 August 2012
International Institutions, Middle East and North Africa
Kofi Annan's Peace Plan for Syria was doomed from the start as none of the actors were prepared to take it seriously. His resignation means the stage is now set for a dénouement to this bloody civil war, spurred on by outside support.

Kofi Annan's Peace Plan for Syria was doomed from the start as none of the actors were prepared to take it seriously. His resignation means the stage is now set for a dénouement to this bloody civil war, spurred on by outside support.

By Michael Stephens, RUSI Qatar

Assad Annan

The departure of Kofi Annan as Arab League and UN envoy has brought to an end a sad six months of busy, but ultimately doomed diplomatic initiatives to try to prevent the conflict in Syria from escalating further. His six point peace plan has met an ignominious end, and with it much of the hope that an increasingly bloody war could be resolved by diplomatic means.

The main difficulty with the Annan Plan was that very few nations ever really believed it could work. In the face of a Syrian regime that enacted empty reforms - who saw the demands of many sections of its population as security threats to be dealt with militarily, and not through prolonged civic engagement - there was little evidence to suggest that diplomatic efforts could bring the Syrian crisis to a close. Indeed many European diplomats would quietly indicate their lack of faith for the initiative, whilst publicly putting on a brave face to show that they believed in the pursuit of a multilateral, diplomatic solution.

As if to confirm this position, upon learning of Annan's resignation, both Britain and France have reaffirmed that they believe the six point plan to be 'the best framework for securing an end to the conflict.'[1] Although the European position is contradictory, it at least provides a framework for diplomatic action. Indeed there will be a replacement for Annan, who will try (and most likely fail) to advance the six point plan as a tool for holding both sides in Syria to account.

Contrast this to the Arab world's lack of support for the initiative and the little hope that was held for both the UN backed Monitoring Mission and the six-point plan. The position of Qatari and Saudi diplomats verged on the derisory. Throughout the early days of March and April, these two countries in particular would indicate their displeasure at the lack of efficacy that the UN afforded to Major General Robert Mood and his monitors, and would decry the lack of armed support and fungible resources given to the 'people of Syria' to protect themselves. As such Qatar's energetic, but ultimately over assertive diplomacy contributed to a very public swipe at Annan's efforts. Indeed on more than one occasion Annan was known to have left meetings at the Sheraton Hotel in Doha in silent fury, frustrated by Qatar's attitude and lack of support for his initiatives.

Lukewarm European support, and Arab behaviour clearly undermined the plan's chances of working and as such Annan's departure raises an inevitable question: if, as has so often been stated, the Annan Plan was destined for failure, what does the inevitable demise of the plan actually change?

The answers lie not in the efficacy of the plan itself, but in the diplomatic game that swirled around it. Firstly, as the violence in recent weeks began to escalate and massacres became public knowledge, the Russian and Chinese position of blocking Security Council resolutions without offering a diplomatic alternative began to seem increasingly untenable. However, both nations found refuge under the shadow of Kofi Annan's plan to justify their stubbornness in the diplomatic arena. The conflict was quickly spinning away from Russian control and descended into a bloody civil war between two more evenly matched sides. Knowing that rebel commanders and Syrian National Council (SNC) leaders were refusing to negotiate with Assad, the use of the Annan plan became a strategically convenient tool for Russia to use to point out that they were supporting a peaceful alternative to war.

The Russians and Chinese for their part were fully aware that the Assad regime had no wish to sit at the negotiating table, but in the face of an intransigent opposition, the Russians now possessed the perfect excuse to turn the tables on their Western and Arab counterparts. Thus, through Russian diplomatic skill the Annan Plan became the opposite of what it was intended to be: an enabler of diplomatic stagnation, rather than a facilitator of solution. Although advancing the language of 'negotiations' and mutual cease-fires, Russian connivance ironically afforded Assad all the manoeuvrability he needed to crush rebel elements with more brutal tactics.

With Annan's plan now lying in tatters there is no place for Russia and China to hide. No mechanism now exists whereby they can feign interest in a diplomatic solution whilst empowering the regime to continue with its brutal crackdown. The death of the plan is a diplomatic blow not for those who initially envisaged it, but for those who sought to stymie its progress and use it for their own ends.

Secondly, the illusion that many players, most specifically Iran, had sought to cast the conflict as anything other than a full and protracted civil war is now lifted. We may begin finally to talk in the language of reality and not that of fantasy. Increasingly the diplomatic squabbles in New York had begun to look more and more as being out of step with the reality of developments on the ground. The period following the emergence of the Houla Massacre up until now has been highly damaging for the reputation of the Security Council as an executive body capable of ensuring peace and stability. To be sure, the Western-Arab vs. Russia-China divide still exists, and as such will not allow for any Resolution in the Security Council that is overly critical or punitive of Assad.

This change of perception will allow space for the conflict to take its true course, which, unfortunately is that of increased armed conflict. But with greater control and support from outside powers, no longer restrained by the need to work within a failing diplomatic initiative, there exists now an opportunity to try to prevent some of the nightmare eventualities of the conflict spiralling out of control and empowering both Al-Qa'ida elements and pro-Iranian misfits. It is an ugly scenario and will not sit well at many a Western policy table, but the reality is that this conflict has moved from the international to the local; from the diplomatic to the military. It is time that all sides recognised this fact and acted in tangible ways to manage it, not expend their energy on diplomatic efforts which are not likely to work.

Where Next?

Ultimately the Syrian conflict will be decided by the actions of Syrians themselves. Indeed discussions with many Syrians have shown that this is the result that they most wish to see. Assistance but not interference is the order of the day, and as such any direct military intervention is sure to be resisted. It is worthwhile exploring what the conditions for an intervention might be, indeed the RUSI Syria Crisis Briefing outlines the conditions of regime collapse, and the options for military intervention to prevent total state collapse.[2] Diplomatic measures such as the UN General Assembly vote taken on 3 August 2012 point to an almost universal anger at the Security Council for failing to achieve consensus, but ultimately it is unlikely that the General Assembly will be able to authorise any sort of force without the Security Council being involved in the process. It is unlikely therefore that we will see any international military intervention at this time, and more bloodshed will occur as Assad's forces use increasing levels of violance to try to win the conflict outright. Fast jets, helicopters and tanks pound urban civilian areas daily, and these operations will only increase as Assad looks to finish off the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

However it is a battle he will not win, FSA forces are able to operate freely in the countryside and will retake urban areas the moment the Assad forces move out. Assad's forces are moving to a 'clear and hold' strategy and have negated this recent yo-yoing of control, but they lack the numerical strength to be able to operate 'clear and hold' across the country. The civil war therefore will continue to rage for weeks if not months to come, and it should be understood that UN deliberations not backed by a credible use of force will not change this equation.

Where the UN may well finally find its role will be in the post-Assad Syria. The country's main cities and economic heartlands lie in ruins. State institutions are damaged and will be ineffectual in the aftermath of Assad's fall. In post-conflict Syria the UN and indeed Annan's successor may be able to play a real and tangible role in alleviating the suffering of Syria's people through assisting with aid, security provision and providing a framework for Syria's disparate population to negotiate. Until such time however, strong words will not be enough to stop this most bloody of civil wars. Annan knew as much, and his predecessor will ultimately discover the same. 

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

NOTES

[1] Louis Charbonneau and Hadeel Al Shalchi 'Frustrated Annan quits as Syria peace envoy'  Reuters, 3 August 2012

[2] See SYRIA CRISIS BRIEFING: A Collision Course for Intervention, RUSI.org

Author

Michael Stephens
Associate Fellow

Michael Stephens was the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies. He joined RUSI’s London office in September 2010, first in the Nuclear... read more

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