Why Annan’s Syria plan is doomed to fail

Kofi Annan’s six-point plan for Syria, providing for a military withdrawal by Syrian forces by tomorrow, never had a chance of success. The reason for that is because of the wiggle room afforded to the Syrian government, which lost its legitimacy long ago.

Annan, the envoy of the United Nations and Arab League, should have known better after his experience with Saddam Hussein in February 1998, which resulted in a deal on the inspection of so-called presidential sites. I covered his peace mission to Baghdad as a reporter and was there when Annan returned to New York describing Saddam as a man he could “do business with.” (The deal with Saddam collapsed after the first (farcical) inspection.) Mercifully, Annan has refrained from describing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the same terms. But the issue of “sovereignty” that was so important for Baghdad (not to mention Moscow and Beijing) will doom the Annan plan in Damascus as well; the Syrian authorities know that, short of an invasion, which would require U.N. authorization to be legal, the international community is obliged to deal with the Assad regime to obtain a negotiated solution.

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The Obama administration, whose policy is to support Assad’s ouster while holding back from direct military intervention in support of the Syrian opposition, is at odds with the Annan plan. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, the permanent representative to the U.N., has made it clear from the outset that she is skeptical about its chances of success, repeating that the Syrians will be judged on their actions, not words.

The classic U.N. model for conflict resolution looks for a “balanced” solution. U.N. diplomats always look for a “ladder” for dictators to climb down. In the Bosnian conflict, for a long time the Serbs and Muslims were given equivalence. The Annan plan specifically mentions an “inclusive” Syrian-led political process that recognizes the authority of a government that has violated all the norms of civilized behavior and should be called to account by the International Criminal Court.

In the case of Syria, unfortunately we are beyond such a solution. This is a war — not only a civil war but a proxy war with huge strategic stakes — and there will be winners and losers. Assad set a trap for Annan, which has given the Syrian leader more breathing space. He might think now that he is holding out against the “terrorists” and the armed Syrian opposition, but his days are surely numbered.