For months we have been told that Syria is “on the brink of civil war.” Now the head of United Nations peacekeeping has admitted the obvious. Civil war of the most ruthless kind is already there.
President Bashar Assad is not ready to leave, and still has significant support – both inside the country, mainly among minorities who fear that the sequel to his fall will be similar to what Iraq has gone through since 2003, and among foreign powers ranging from Russia to Iran and its satellites in Iraq and Lebanon.
The Syrian opposition, for its part, believes things have gone way beyond the point where dialogue with the regime is possible or acceptable – and it too has powerful foreign backers in the region (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar) as well as more hesitant ones in the West.
So the mediation attempt of the United Nations-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, came too late to prevent civil war, and too soon to end it. But Annan himself is not to blame. On the contrary, he should be praised for his willingness to try and halt the appalling violence to which the Syrian population has been and is being subjected – a task which was probably hopeless, and certainly thankless, from the start.
The impatience of some critics, including my friend Chibli Mallat (“Coddling dictators is Annan’s bad habit,” The Daily Star, June 8) has led them to distort Annan’s past record, repeating some of the slurs to which he was subjected in the United States after the U.N. refused to endorse the invasion of Iraq, and adding some new ones. So let me put the record straight.
Annan was not “silent” about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. As head of U.N. peacekeeping at the time, he approached more than 80 countries in search of reinforcements for General Romeo Dallaire’s tiny mission there, which saved many lives in spite of being neither mandated nor equipped to engage in hostilities. Alas, none were willing to provide these reinforcements after Belgium had pulled its soldiers out.
In 1998 Annan, by then U.N. secretary-general and backed by the Security Council, negotiated with the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, an agreement under which, if implemented, U.N. inspectors would have had access to Saddam’s palaces and “presidential sites.” Asked on his return whether he could do business with Saddam, he replied – understandably under the circumstances, though in hindsight injudiciously: “Yes, I think I can do business with him.”
Saddam failed to keep his word, with the result that, after a three-day token U.S. bombing of Iraq, sanctions remained in place – and with them the Oil-for-Food Program set up at the behest of the United States and the United Kingdom to try and reduce the human suffering that they caused. Annan was mandated to implement this program and did so as best he could. His son Kojo had nothing to do with this: A company which had a contract with the U.N. to inspect goods imported into Iraq did employ him for a time, but in Africa.
In 2004 Annan proposed a plan to reunify Cyprus, which a majority of Turkish Cypriots accepted. Unfortunately, the European Union had already offered full membership to a Greek-Cypriot government which controlled only two-thirds of the island, and which therefore had little incentive to compromise. Encouraged by that government, the majority of Greek Cypriots rejected the reunification plan.
After the Kenyan election of December 2007 Kenya was on the brink of civil war and genocide. President Mwai Kibaki was no more about to admit defeat and leave office than was Bashar Assad last February when Annan accepted his current mission. In Kenya he was able to negotiate a power-sharing agreement, under which the president’s powers were greatly reduced while his rival Raila Odinga became prime minister. Parts of the country were becoming killing fields before Annan arrived. Mercifully, by the time he left the bloodshed had stopped.
Annan has never denied Assad’s responsibility for the bloodshed in Syria, nor has he had lunch with him. He has consistently said that all parties should cease violence but that “the first responsibility lies with the government.” If the international community had had a strategy for removing Assad quickly from power without plunging Syria into a long sectarian conflict, Annan’s mission would not have been necessary.
The current U.N. military observers in Syria are unarmed. Alas, they can only observe and not protect the Syrian people. To do the latter they would need to be armed, vastly more numerous, and have quite a different mandate from the Security Council. That would indeed be a military intervention, with all the risks this entails. It may be there is now no better solution. But it is far from clear that the “international community” is ready to endorse it, and still less clear that it has the will to carry out such an intervention.
Edward Mortimer was director of communications at the office of the U.N. secretary-general from 2001 to 2006.