Terms of Engagement

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 failed.


Fourteen 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.

Annan is of course in the midst of another such mission, this time as U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, where he has presented a six-point plan to President Bashar al-Assad in  the hopes of ending the  mass killing of civilians. In recent weeks, Assad had made Annan look like a naïve devotee of peace-at-any-price by first accepting the plannd then systematically trampling on its terms. And then, last Friday, government forces and local militias systematically slaughtered more than 100 civilians, most of them women and children, in Houla, a group of villages in the province of Homs, proving beyond any doubt that Assad has been cynically using Annan to buy time for his own plan, which is to kill and terrorize his opponents. The time has come to thank Kofi Annan for his services and send him back home to Geneva.

I 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.

But 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."

And 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 finds himself in the same predicament in Syria today. Arriving in Damascus three days after Houla, Annan condemned the “tragic incident,” and said that his “message of peace” was intended “not only for the government, but for everyone with a gun.” Annan knows perfectly well that responsibility for Houla lies with the regime, but he also knows that Russia, a key player on the U.N. Security Council, insists on blaming both sides for the violence.  And, of course, that even Assad’s toughest critics in the West won’t soon be rushing in with troops or airstrikes.

Annan 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 it no longer is.

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.

Houla has vividly demonstrated how very little the 260 or so observers can do to prevent violence where they are not physically present, but the mission grinds on, with another 40 observers still to be added to the force. Annan has returned to Damascus, Fawzi says, because "he feels the time is now ripe to sit down with the president and assess where we are."

Of course, that’s not true either. 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."

The 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. The United States and the EU have allowed Annan to decide when and whether his mission has ceased to be useful; but Annan’s faith in diplomacy may wind up serving Assad’s interests more than those of the Syrian people.

It 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.

Fawzi 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 together.

We mustn’t delude ourselves about Plan B’s likelihood of success. The air war that 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.

But 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.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect events in Syria over the weekend.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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