Syria: Annan’s Mission Impossible

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Kofi Annan speak to the press in Damascus, on 29 May 2012, following his meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Photo: AFP - Louai Beshara)

By: Nasser Charara

Published Tuesday, June 5, 2012

UN envoy Kofi Annan’s recent trip to Damascus revealed that his bid to resolve the crisis in Syria is faltering. By his own admission, his six-point plan is being ignored by both sides of the conflict.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s speech to the opening session of the new People’s Assembly came on the tails of UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan’s visit to Damascus and just as Russian president Vladimir Putin’s envoy was concluding his tour of the country.

Assad’s speech clearly avoided the international situation, focusing solely on internal affairs. It was a message that indicates that he will not succumb to current international pressure.

By the middle of this month, the Syrian government will be hit by new financial and economic sanctions, this time led by the United States. This is in addition to international efforts to reorganize the fragmented Syrian opposition.

The international community wants to ensure that the upcoming elections for the president of the Syrian National Council (SNC) on June 12 and 13 are successful.

Meanwhile, an international relief campaign for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey is underway, led by Japan and Italy.

In the next few days, Italy will be setting up a field hospital for refugees on the Jordanian border with Syria. This is in addition to abundant funding from the EU to organizations working with displaced populations, expected very soon.

At the moment, the crisis in Syria seems to be heading towards an escalation.

This is bolstered by the steadiness of Russia’s support of the Syrian regime and the decision of the core countries in the Friends of Syria Group to turn up the political pressure and impose new sanctions when Annan leaves.

These pessimistic international diplomatic events beg the question of whether Annan’s visit to Syria last week was a failure. In spite of the declared international support behind his mission, it could be only a matter of time before he announces failure.

Upon his return from Damascus, Annan informed a number of European diplomats about his basic impressions and conclusions regarding the future of his mission. They were as follows:

First, the political process cannot be launched currently and he is no longer enthusiastic or in a rush for a political process not led by the Syrians themselves.

The main reason behind this lack of interest is due to the ambiguous nature of opposition groups working on the ground in Syria.

One of the examples mentioned by Annan is that the internal opposition suffers from a structural crisis. While it has become more pragmatic, a wide gap separates it from the mobilization on the ground.

The Syrian regime, according to Annan’s remarks, also suffers from an internal problem. Its policy is still based on denial and it is not willing to show good intentions. Although, some steps could have been taken, such as releasing detainees and distributing humanitarian aid.

To remove this ambiguity, Annan suggests that international support for the Syrian opposition should adopt an alternative methodology.

Instead of encouraging it to unite organically, which seems impossible, it should be encouraged to have a unified vision instead.

As for the regime, Annan expressed during his meeting with Assad what he called the great concern of the international community about the escalation of violence in Syria. He also pointed to the risks involved in the increased rigidity of positions.

During his meeting with Hassan Abdul Azim, a prominent figure in the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), which is part of the internal opposition, Annan warned about the dangers of hardened positions.

Although Abdul Azim still supported Annan’s peace plan, he was unyielding on four issues: forcing the regime to commit to the six-point peace plan, a complete cessation of violence, allowing peaceful protests in the street before the start of any dialogue, and the NCC’s rejection of any outside interference in Syrian affairs.

Second, Annan admitted that his plan failed in reducing the violence due to the ambiguous political situation and the rigid positions of all the parties involved. He believes the political deadlock will make it difficult to build a mechanism for a return to calm.

He revealed that he is now more aware of the criticisms against his plan, in addition to the possibility of its failure.

Third, Annan considers Russia to be acting unilaterally on the Syrian issue, independent from the international community. Therefore, there should be continuous engagement with Moscow and an acknowledgement of its role in plans for Syria’s future.

Conversely, Annan is going against the EU’s decision to reduce the level of communications with the Syrian regime by closing down European embassies in Damascus.

Annan does not see that this will have any impact on the regime’s position. He believes that the Syrian government does not care about its ambassadors being kicked out of Europe and that it will ignore the issue.

Fourth, Annan does not agree with the demands that the monitoring team should provide a list of their achievements in stopping or reducing violence.

He believes that this prevalent understanding of the role of the observers in the Friends of Syria Group is mistaken.

During his last visit to Damascus, he deliberately met with officials of the observer team to clarify their mission. He told them that the role of the observers is observing the ceasefire, not trying to bring it about.

Annan’s words were considered to be a response to the observers’ methodology which considered that the relative decrease in the level of violence since they began their work is one of the mission’s achievements.

Annan believes this goes against UN peacekeeping principles that do not sanction the deployment of UN peacekeepers (under Chapter 6 of the UN Charter) before a ceasefire is achieved.

This is why the observers’ mission to Syria is unprecedented in the history of UN peacekeeping forces. Annan wishes to put the work of the mission back on the right track.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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