The Death of Diplomacy in Syria

Kofi Annan resigns, while the country descends into full-blown sectarian civil war.

Citing the intransigence of the Assad regime and the lack of unity in the UN Security Council, Special Envoy for the United Nations and the Arab League Kofi Annan resigned his position effective at the end of the month. The former UN Secretary General is quitting at a time when violence in Syria has exploded into a full blown sectarian civil war, with atrocities being committed on both sides, and the major world powers now committed to their own proxy war, backing one side or the other in an increasingly chaotic and violent conflict.

Annan's resignation also signals, for all intents and purposes, the end of diplomatic efforts to halt the conflict. Ban Ki-moon, the current UN Secretary General, says he will name a replacement for Annan but no one in the international community expects the next envoy to have any more luck in halting the violence than Annan did. There is a desultory debate in the UN General Assembly over a Syrian resolution that is already so watered down that in order to get a majority vote in that powerless body, sponsors have removed a demand for President Assad to step down and dropped a call for sanctions on Syria.

Meanwhile, the war has escalated almost exponentially since the blast that killed 4 key advisors to Assad on July 18. The emboldened Free Syrian Army (FSA) is tenaciously hanging on to positions in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and the country's commercial center, as government forces are shelling, bombing, strafing, and terrorizing the city of 2.5 million people. More than 250,000 refugees have poured out of the city and the FSA is pleading for humanitarian aid to feed and shelter the multitudes.

Annan's futile efforts to stop the violence in Syria are added to other failures in his career that include an inability to stop the massacres in Bosnia in the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide where 800,000 were murdered, the tragedy in Darfur where upwards of 450,000 were killed, and Iraq's oil for food scandal that hit close to home when his own son was accused of profiting from Saddam Hussein's multi-billion dollar bribery schemes. Each of those horrific events occurred either while he was serving as Secretary General of the UN, or head of the world body's peacekeeping efforts in Rwanda when he failed to act to prevent the slaughter of Tutsi tribesmen.

But Annan has a point. His mission was doomed from the start because the Security Council and the world community was unable to come together to address the tragedy. The lion's share of the blame for that can be placed directly on Russia and China, whose vetoes of Security Council resolution after resolution gave Bashar Assad cover to carry out his war against his own people. But there is plenty of blame left for the United States, the European countries, and the Arab League, who clung for months to Annan's moribund "peace plan" despite a mountain of evidence that it had failed almost as soon as it was negotiated last April.

This failure to face up to reality moved Senator John McCain to launch a powerful, accusatory speech on the Senate floor in which he pilloried the Obama administration for it's faith in the Annan plan, which he said was "doomed to failure" from the start.

Isn't it foolish to base your policy and non-intervention on the belief that somehow a former secretary general of the United Nations' mission would succeed, when it was clear that the Syrian people were not going to be satisfied with the continuous barbarous regime of Bashar al-Assad?

McCain advocates arming the FSA -- something the administration still says they are not prepared to do. Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One, "Our position has not changed: We provide non-lethal assistance to the opposition," adding, "We don't believe that adding to the number of weapons in Syria is what's needed to help bring about a peaceful transition."

While another leak from the administration revealed that President Obama had signed a "secret" intelligence finding in the last few months, authorizing the CIA to assist the rebels, the finding is more window dressing than a dramatic change in policy. The US will coordinate activities at a base in Turkey that is a rebel conduit for arms and assistance. Previously it was revealed that the CIA is evaluating various units in the FSA to determine whether they are patriots, or terrorists -- a determination that has prevented the West from fully getting behind the armed opposition and supplying them with weapons that could spell the difference on the battlefield.

With diplomatic efforts now officially dead, the world's gaze turns to the conflict itself and the growing power and ability to resist of the FSA, as well as President Assad's escalation of indiscriminate attacks on civilians. A shocking BBC report tells of government soldiers going from house to house in Aleppo demanding to see resident's papers. At least 70 were killed in the operation, while opposition activists claim that many people were dragged out of their homes and summarily executed.

The FSA is also apparently not above committing war crimes. A video has surfaced that shows FSA fighters leading Syrian soldiers outdoors and placed against a wall. After shouting some slogans, the prisoners are murdered in a hail of gunfire.

The increasing ferocity of the fighting has made the city of Aleppo -- a modern, cultured metropolis -- into a shooting gallery and potential humanitarian disaster of nearly unthinkable proportions. The quarter of a million refugees who have fled the fighting are in danger of starvation and death by exposure to the elements. An FSA colonel, Abu Hamza, told the Guardian newspaper:

"We can't feed them," he said. "We need help. We don't even have food for our own families, or for ourselves. We cannot survive for much longer under these conditions. We are talking a few weeks."

There is no realistic way to get aid to those people. Even the Red Cross is powerless to move as long as Assad's troops prevent them from doing so. With the rebels now having captured several tanks and perhaps supplied, via Turkey, with shoulder fired anti-aircraft weapons, the battle for Aleppo is shaping up to be a long, drawn out affair. And the longer the battle lasts, the more dire the humanitarian situation will become.

Did Annan's mission ever have a chance of succeeding? “Bottom line on Kofi’s mission. D.O.A. from the get go,” Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Wilson Center, a research group in Washington, said in an e-mail to the New York Times. “Too much blood spilled for a negotiated settlement between the Assads and the rebels, and not enough for foreign intervention to pressure the Assads to leave.”

Perhaps Annan was partly right; he was never going to succeed unless Russia and China relented in their opposition to strong measures to force Assad to the bargaining table, and the US and other "Friends of Syria" put pressure on Vladmir Putin to change his policy. But the US and the Arab League worked at cross-purposes at times, and much of Europe hung back awaiting a clearer picture. At the end, there was only Annan's ridiculous "peace plan" that all sides in the conflict ignored and only the well meaning diplomats at the UN who believed still had a chance of working.

And as the debate in the General Assembly is revealing, not all diplomats are "well meaning." The resolution, written by Saudi Arabia and pushed by the Arab League, was weakened to the point of irrelevancy when, as an AP dispatch relates, "Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Algeria, Argentina and other Latin American nations...had problems with a resolution calling for regime change or for sanctions. The new draft no longer asks other nations to place sanctions on Syria." One might inquire what's the point of passing a resolution that has no force behind it and that doesn't call for any pressure to be placed on President Assad. The answer is, there is no point. The resolution does take a swipe at Russia and China (not by name) by "deploring" the failure of the Security Council to act. But there is no specific call for action by the Assembly for the Security Council to take any meaningful steps to end the crisis.

Thus are consciences assuaged at the UN as the escalating violence in Syria threatens to spill over into neighboring countries and engulf the region in war.

What are men with good intentions to do in the face of such evil and hate? Good intentions didn't stop Hitler, or Tojo, or any other penny-ante thug since the end of World War II with murder in their heart and mayhem on their minds. President Obama is probably correct in trying to keep the US out of the conflict. But a little more realism should be forthcoming from the administration. If this is to be a proxy war, we should probably do more to see that our proxies win it. The worst case scenario is to have President Assad eventually triumph which would strengthen Russia, Iran, and China in the region. Anything we can do to prevent that -- including expending the same amount of energy in supporting the rebels that the Russians are using to prop up Assad -- would be a welcome change in policy.

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