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Saturday, May 26, 2012
Enough Talking, Kofi
It’s time for the world to stop hiding behind Kofi Annan's skirts.
We gave diplomacy a chance in Syria; now we must accept that diplomacy has
BY JAMES TRAUB
years ago, Kofi Annan, then the U.N. secretary general, embarked on a desperate
mission to Baghdad to persuade Saddam Hussein to allow U.N. weapons inspectors
back in the country. Miraculously, he succeeded. And for his pains he was
awoken in the middle of the night and browbeaten by U.S. Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright, who worried that he had caved to Saddam. When he returned
to New York he was mocked for saying that he could "do business" with
the Iraqi dictator. Serving as interlocutor-with-evil is a thankless job.
mention this, of course, because Annan is now in the midst of another such
mission, this time as U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, where he has
been trying for the last three months to put an end to the mass killing of
civilians by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Assad has made Annan look
like a naïve devotee of peace-at-any-price by first accepting his six-point
plan and then systematically trampling on its terms. But Annan is taking a
beating in Damascus for the same reason that he once did in Baghdad: The major
powers don't know what else to do, and are hoping that he'll save them from
their own irresolution.
have known Kofi Annan for as long time, and it is true that he has a
temperament peculiarly well-suited to situations of powerlessness. He is a
gentleman who speaks ill of no one, and thinks ill of only a few. He does not
wear his dignity on his sleeve, or anywhere visible at all. He does not upset
apple carts, a habit which may have contributed to his inactivity in the face
of slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda when he was the head of U.N. peacekeeping.
It's the part of him I admire least.
for a U.N. diplomat, powerlessness is a fact of life; it's much easier to
represent a superpower. In the summer of 2004, I watched Annan sit quietly in a
blazing hot office in Darfur while Sudanese officials piled one inane lie on
top of another. Didn't he know they were jerking him around? Of course he did,
he told me wearily. But what was the point of delivering threats? "I
don't," he said, "see anybody rushing in with troops."
that's the real point. Albright and the Clinton administration let Annan go to
Baghdad when they saw how little appetite there was in their own base for
airstrikes against Iraq (though they launched a few strikes later that year
when the deal Annan negotiated fell apart). And years later, Annan tried to
speak reason to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir because the Security Council
wasn't prepared to punish him for mounting a campaign of ethnic cleansing and
murder in Darfur.
Annan is exhorting Assad to do what he manifestly will not do -- withdraw his
security forces and heavy weapons from the cities where the opposition is
concentrated -- because nobody is rushing in with troops, or airstrikes. When I
asked Ahmad Fawzi, a former U.N. official who serves as the spokesman for the
mission in Syria, why Annan was still shuttling between capitals even as
Assad's forces continued to shell civilians, he said, "It's the only game
in town at the moment." Fawzi made only the most modest claims for the
mission's success: Violence goes down while inspectors occupy a given space,
though often returns to previous levels once they leave; civilians might
"start having faith in the presence of the observers." But it was
still better than the alternative -- even more killing.
is no pacifist. In the late 1990s, he championed the doctrine that came to be
known as "the responsibility to protect," which stipulates that when
states fail to act to stop atrocities, other states have an obligation to do
so. But Annan does believe that sometime atrocities can be halted, or
prevented, with diplomacy rather than with force. He and others did just that
when they mediated between the opposing sides after a disputed election in
Kenya in late 2008 led rival tribes to slaughter one another. That was an
effort worth making; so was his high-wire act in Baghdad in 1998; so was the
mission to Damascus. But is it still? Or is he now simply helping Assad to buy
is about to return to Syria. "He feels the time is now ripe," Fawzi
says, "to sit down with the president and assess where we are."
That's an extremely dubious proposition. The Syrian opposition, military and
political, won't relent until Assad leaves, but Assad almost certainly won't
leave unless he feels that the only alternative is death. And that moment is
still very far away. The Obama administration understands this well, but views
all the available alternatives as even worse than the current one -- talking
while Assad keeps killing. I was at a recent lunch with U.N. Ambassador Susan
Rice, who responded to a volley of questions about humanitarian corridors,
airstrikes, and the like by saying, "There is a risk it ends in more
violence, which is why the last peaceful game in town is one worth pursuing,
even if it's a low-probability game, which we readily admit it is."
question is: When do you stop pursuing this low-probability game? When, if at
all, do the risks of action become greater than the risks of inaction? The
international community kept talking with the Serbs until the massacre at
Srebrenica in July 1995 finally provoked a NATO bombing campaign. In Sudan, as
in Rwanda, nothing happened until it was too late to make much of a difference.
Annan knows this history all too well; it is his history. "He's been there
before," says Fawzi, "and he will know when the time has come to pull
the plug." Or maybe he won't. Maybe he'll recoil from the alternative.
has now become very hard to imagine any solution to the Syria crisis which is not
a terrible one. Though fewer people are dying per day than was true earlier
this year, when security forces were besieging the town of Homs, the violent
scenario to which Rice alluded is already a reality. According to recent
reports, the rebels have begun to receive significant quantities of weapons
from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as well as training
and equipment from Turkey. The Obama administration has admitted only to
supplying communications equipment and other nonlethal assistance, but is said
to be clandestinely helping direct arms to rebels forces. The White House, that
is, appears to be reluctantly accepting the inevitability of civil war.
says that no Plan B is on offer, but the fact is that an impromptu Plan B
appears to be taking shape: Turkey will provide its territory for the training
and organization of the Free Syrian Army, the United States will provide
logistical and command-and-control assistance, and Gulf states will supply the
hardware. Everyone, including Annan and the U.N., will labor mightily to keep
the Syrian National Council, the political organ of the opposition, from
collapsing into utter chaos, as it now threatens to do, and to persuade the
SNC, the rebel army, and the Local Coordinating Committees inside Syria to work
mustn't delude ourselves about Plan B's likelihood of success. The air war
which destroyed the Qaddafi regime in Libya was relatively swift and thoroughly
decisive, but Libya now teeters on the edge of anarchy. Syria hardly looks more
encouraging. If the rebels step up the pace of attacks, Assad is likely to
respond with yet more violence, possibly provoking the Gotterdammerung of
all-out sectarian war. And as foreign jihadists increasingly infiltrate the
rebel forces, and pervert their goals, the chances of creating an unarguably
better Syria than the one that existed before the uprising will recede. Syria
poses such a terrible problem because it is not about finding the political
will to do the right thing, but rather trying to find some way of doing more
good than harm.
the time has come -- or perhaps has very nearly come -- for the world to stop
hiding behind Kofi Annan's skirts. We gave diplomacy a chance; now we must
accept that diplomacy has failed.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 25/05/2012
-James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation