It must be depressing for Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy to Syria, to hear at every turn that the “Annan plan” for resolving the conflict is dead, and that country will soon plunge into a full-fledged sectarian civil war. My impression is that Annan is resolute, and is just now nearing the make-or-break point of his difficult mission. He has sketched out a path of critical steps – including local, regional and global actors – needed to avert all-out war and instead peacefully negotiate future governance arrangements.
I get this impression from talks this week with authoritative sources close to the Annan mission, who underscore the urgency of action to damp down the use of violence across Syria, to start implementing the plan’s points, and to rebuild enough trust for a political negotiation.
Beyond the escalating violence, an added element of urgency is that the international community may not see this as an open-ended process, but might pull the plug soon if violence continues, I was told. Therefore the urgency now is to get all parties to start complying with the six points of the Annan plan, including a cease-fire, release of prisoners and pullback of heavy weapons from urban areas.
This clearly requires pressure from outside parties, which is why the Annan team is exploring possible ways to bring “intense external pressure” on President Bashar Assad’s regime to start complying with the cease-fire terms.
That pressure must come primarily from Russia, but the Annan team is also in touch regularly with others who support Syria, such as Iran and China. The hope is that if the key external parties – in this case the United States and Russia – can reach minimum agreement with others in the international community on the importance of collective action to nudge the parties to comply with the Annan plan, Syria might be spared a devastating explosion of violence that engulfs the whole country and perhaps spills over to neighboring countries.
The recent Houla massacre is a watershed that demands speedy responses from the Syrian government especially, the sources said. Otherwise, those Syrians and international parties that still care to explore a peaceful transition will give up hope and turn to more radical and militant options.
Annan’s team is working on both protagonists as much as it can, trying to get the government to make bold moves, while also nudging the various opposition groups to create some sort of umbrella group that could allow them to define a common approach and vision for the future of Syria, so they would be ready to enter into any talks that might start in the future.
The “Yemen option” that has been floated for nudging Assad out of office, as happened to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, seems not relevant at this moment. That’s because the decisive regional or external actor needed to pressure Assad to step down does not exist, while Saudi Arabia played this role in Yemen. Russia is not in the same position vis-a-vis Syria that Saudi Arabia was in Yemen, so the Annan team is focusing instead on forging consensus among key international actors to convince Assad to move boldly.
One encouraging sign has been the U.N. Security Council’s recent resolutions and statements that were supported by all key states, including Russia and China.
Assad could take some immediate steps to make it clear to his own people and the world that he is serious about using the Annan plan to resolve the conflict and move to a new stage of reformed governance in Syria, my sources explained. These could include a substantial release of detainees (in the thousands, not the hundreds, as happened recently), greater access to humanitarian supplies, and pulling troops out of urban and village areas where there is no security issue.
If Russia, the U.S., China and Iran can agree on a minimum level of steps to bring Syria back from the brink of an all-out civil war, then it might be possible to contemplate establishing some sort of contact group-like mechanism of concerned states that also includes players like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq and the European Union.
It is impossible now to get the Syrian government and opposition groups to meet and talk, due to a lack of trust and lack of clarity on whether they each want to negotiate at all. So the most feasible strategy is to focus on getting regional and international parties that play a direct role in Syria to do four things: agree on their common interests, prevent all-out war in Syria, pressure both sides in the conflict to implement the Annan plan, and create transitional mechanisms that protect the interests of all groups and perhaps point the way forward to a stable and peaceful Syria.
Serious talks are under way to explore if regional and global actors might be able to agree on such a mechanism. Annan is said to be encouraged by private conversations he has had with key players, and is not deterred by the fact that these same countries’ public pronouncements can differ. For progress to be achieved I am told, the Annan team feels that “harmony and logic” must be achieved among the three rings of this conflict – domestic, regional and international.
The writer is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, where this article was published on June 1st, 2012.