Kofi Annan has just three weeks left to serve out his time as the UN envoy for Syria. Understandably disappointed at the failure of what others had called “mission impossible” – a description he came to agree with – he lamented two aspects of the crisis: its increasing militarisation and the disunity of the security council. Earlier, in a Guardian interview, he had deplored the “destructive competition” of the five big powers who still sit round the world’s “top table” on New York’s East river.It bears repeating that Syria is first of all a human tragedy, with thousands of dead and many thousands more lives ruined in the bloodiest chapter of what in happier or more naive times and circumstances was called the Arab spring. Feelings are running high. For some, however, principled objections to western policy clearly weigh more heavily than the suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of a government that used deadly force from the moment protests erupted in Deraa in March 2011.
It is a moot point whether diplomacy could ever have succeeded in ending the carnage. Syria, it has been wisely observed, is where the Arab uprisings met the cold war and the Sunni-Shia divide. Regional and international rivalries worsened by the Libyan crisis last year, sectarian incitement and a fight to the death for regime survival all make for a toxic mixture.
For most elements of Syria’s fractured opposition, Assad’s acceptance of Annan’s six-point peace plan was only ever a way to buy time, exploit divisions and carry on killing. The regime barely observed a ceasefire that notionally began in April or implemented any of the plan’s other five conditions. The armed opposition accepted it but carried on fighting even as mass peaceful protests continued.
Yet the cartoon book claim that “the west” (conspiring with compliant Arabs) has malevolently blocked an agreement that a principled Russia tirelessly supported does not stand up to scrutiny. (Nor does the closely related and deeply patronising notion that Syrians who are prepared to risk all for freedoms others take for granted are mere puppets in the hands of others.)
In June, Annan decided to try to jump-start a political transition. In his draft statement of principles for the Geneva conference on 30 June, the key passage sought the widest possible consensus on forming a unity government in Damascus – a negotiated way out of the escalating confrontation. The language he proposed was deliberately vague and fudged the burning question of whether Assad had to go. It was a model of diplomatic ambiguity that could mean different things to different people but – perhaps – serve as a basis for movement. Russia rejected it. The final Geneva text was even blander, accommodating Moscow’s objections to say that a transitional unity government could be formed by “mutual consent”. Annan hailed the agreement. But the truth was that it gave Assad and his supporters a veto over their own departure. It was hardly going to convince their opponents that a deal could be done.
Violence on the ground rapidly outstripped this agonisingly convoluted diplomacy. No element in the opposition is currently prepared to even consider Annan’s plan, the Geneva principles or a transition that leaves Assad or his closest supporters in place. That is as true of groups such as the National Coordination Bureau and Building the Syrian State, which once advocated talks with the government, and still spurn violence and foreign intervention, as it is of the Muslim Brotherhood or extremist Salafis now fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army.
In mid-July Britain drafted a new UN resolution that repeated the call for a “Syrian-led political process” (language supported by Russia). Nowhere did it advocate “forced regime change” as the blame-the-west brigade falsely claims. It was tabled under chapter 7 of the UN charter to trigger sanctions in the event of noncompliance with Annan’s plan – specifically the withdrawal of heavy weapons. It used article 41, which excludes military action. Russia and China vetoed the resolution. The US, Britain and France supported it. Pakistan and South Africa, nonpermanent members of the council, abstained. India, not part of the nefarious “west,” was among the 11 others that supported it.
Annan, insist UN diplomats, also wanted a security council resolution – and told Vladimir Putin so – since without it there was no means of applying any pressure to Assad. And lest there be any doubt about where he stood, Annan stated publicly when he announced his resignation that Assad would “sooner or later” have to go. He singled out the Syrian government for blame and castigated Russia, China and Iran for failing to use their influence with Assad.
No one can be sure whether unity at the world’s “top table” could have stopped the downward spiral of this terrible crisis. Syria’s agony certainly shows no sign of ending any time soon. The blame game may be useless. But it is worth stating for the record who did what and who was largely responsible for the most recent failure of diplomacy by what passes for the international community.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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