Kofi Anna, who has resigned as the United Nations and Arab League special envoy on Syria, has had a bad press in certain quarters of late. Whether the plan that bears his name – to bring a halt to the killing and a political transition – was ever realistic in the first place, Annan, at least, was honest in his efforts to bring an end to the violence without widening the conflict.
Annan has been criticised for his past history, largely by those whose default is to prefer intervention over talking. He has been criticised, too, for the style of his meetings with President Bashar al-Assad, ignoring the fact that his role was a diplomatic one, not to deliver a non-existent ultimatum. That Assad, with the support of Russia and China, has resisted Annan's overtures can hardly be laid at his door.
The same cannot be said of the UN security council members whom Annan was supposed to be serving. While it has become a commonplace – and rightly so – to criticise Russia for its determination to support Assad and undermine Annan's efforts, the US has not been much more honest. As Reuters revealed on the day of Annan's resignation, President Barack Obama secretly signed a presidential "finding" authorising covert aid to Syria's rebels, while US allies in the region provided weapons. Given that Annan's plan called for a cessation of violence on both sides, he was undermined by Washington as well as Moscow and Beijing, even if, in the final analysis, more blame can be attached to the latter pair.
In diplomacy as well, Annan – as he made clear in his resignation press conference in Geneva on 2 August – has been ill-supported by both Russia and the US, which have preferred posturing to genuine negotiation. That was sharply dramatised by the blunderbuss dilomacy of both Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton at the UN meeting on Syria on 30 June, where the two powers could not even agree on the most basic parsing of the communique that they had spent a day discussing, with Clinton arguing that it meant "Assad must go" and Lavrov immediately disputing that. It is precisely this that Annan meant when he referred on Thursday to the continued "finger-pointing and name-calling in the security council".
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It is perhaps apocryphal but a colleague insists he overheard Clinton in an aside insisting to Lavrov as they left one of the closed sessions that he should desist from "contradicting her". Whether it is true or not, it does reflect a resentment in some quarters over Clinton's personal style as secretary of state, which has seemed to some less diplomatic than abrasive and uncompromising. The reality is that the players in Syria's agony have been more interested in their own agendas than in ending the bloodshed and civilian suffering. Leaders of the incoherent and fractured Syrian opposition have sometimes seemed more interested in jostling for influence; Russia, Iran and Hezbollah back Assad for their own diverse reasons; while Gulf states, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been pursuing their own regional interests, not least proxy competition with Iran.
"You have to understand: as an envoy, I can't want peace more than the protagonists, more than the security council or the international community for that matter," said Annan. "My central concern from the start has been the welfare of the Syrian people. Syria can still be saved from the worst calamity – if the international community can show the courage and leadership necessary to compromise on their partial interests for the sake of the Syrian people."
The alternatives to the Annan plan look no more practical and appealing than they did before the former UN secretary general's efforts. Those backing the wholesale arming of opposition factions – already receiving arms and assistance from various quarters – cannot answer a fundamental question: how they would prevent sophisticated weapons ending up with the minority of jihadi groups operating in Syria or indeed with Free Syrian Army units like the one that videoed itself murdering bound shabiha prisoners, unquestionably a war crime.
There are no right solutions to the conflict in Syria now, only least bad ones that mitigate the risk of regional destabilisation. They will not be found until those who say they care what happens in the country put aside their differences and begin to talk about the interests of Syrians.