Annan’s Mission Impossible

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The world is learning hard lessons in Syria. The United States has already admitted that the mission of UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan is likely to fail, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that Washington is preparing to take other measures against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. She pointed out what is clear to all: UN observers cannot operate effectively while Assad refuses to abide by a ceasefire.

Let’s be clear about why Annan’s mission has been unsuccessful. It is not failing because the U.N. observers have been slow to deploy, or even because Assad has yet to implement a single point from Annan’s six point plan. The fundamental reason for Annan’s failure is more basic than that: His plan is flawed because it was formulated on the misguided belief that the Assad regime will ever stop using violence against domestic protesters and negotiate with them in good faith.

It is high time to debunk once and for all the popular myths about the Syrian regime. People have believed for too long — whether out of naïveté or cynicism — that Assad has been willing to initiate political reforms and will do so in due time. He has not and will not. Nor will the regime stop its violence. Doing so would hasten its demise, as Syrians took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to protest freely and assume control of large parts of the country.

And yet, the world still clings to the hope that the Annan plan will somehow bring an end to the violence. It seems that we have lost our moral compass, unrealistically hoping that Annan will succeed — and largely doing so because we are too timid to contemplate seriously other options to assist the Syrian people.

Assad’s behavior during the 14-month long uprising shows that he has never seriously considered a “fundamental change of course,” as Annan has demanded. Instead, Assad has sought to solve his problems through intimidation and brute force. The estimated death toll of more than 11,000 Syrians since the beginning of the uprising serves as a bloody testament to that fact.

Annan’s plan relies on the hope that Assad will negotiate in good faith, perhaps under pressure from his Russian backers. He will not, and the regime will not accept any credible opposition to its rule — regardless of Moscow’s preferences. The regime’s war crimes — including the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, the forced displacement of civilians from cities, and the sanctioning of a mass campaign of rape against women by security forces, including paramilitary shabiha brigades — speak for themselves. While the international community continues to focus on Annan’s efforts, it is unbelievable that Assad and his regime are still not seen as international pariahs. The Syrian government has lied to the international community at every turn. When will the world realize that any attempt to negotiate with Assad is utterly futile?

The Assad regime has so far successfully employed a strategy of buying time, agreeing to the Annan plan while doing everything it can to undermine it. Meanwhile, the international community has played into Assad’s hands by buying into the fanciful logic that the introduction of unarmed U.N. observers will establish calm inside Syria and moderate the regime’s behavior. Indeed, it was only a few short weeks ago that French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé declared that the Annan mission was “our last chance to avoid civil war.” In a rare moment of clarity, the head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, admitted that not even 1,000 observers could end the bloodshed.

The only surprise here is that the U.N. Secretariat, which had grown increasingly risk-averse following the al Qaeda bombing of its headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003 that killed 22 of my former U.N. colleagues, has now embarked on one of its most dangerous missions since then. Its brave blue berets have been thrust into a situation where they are simultaneously in grave danger and do not have the capability of fulfilling their mandate. This latest mission shows that the United Nations has not learned the lessons of its failures in Bosnia in the 1990s, when the initial peacekeeping mission did not have sufficient capabilities to stop the slaughter in Srebrenica.

Not even the Syrian regime’s international protectors can convince it to abide by the terms of the Annan plan. Russia, and to a lesser degree China, have indeed leaned heavily on Assad in this regard, and there are signs from senior diplomats and those close to the foreign policy communities in both countries that Moscow and Beijing are getting fed up with Assad, and even consider his eventual demise to be inevitable. But these frustrations have amounted to naught. Neither country has convinced Assad to implement the Annan plan, and they have not placed greater pressure on him to remove his heavy armor from Syria’s main cities. Instead, the Syrian army has resorted to placing sheets over some of its tanks in a transparent ploy to trick the world that it is abiding by the terms of the ceasefire.

Perhaps Russia and China, like the Syrian regime itself, know that Assad would quickly lose control of large parts of his country if he did so. Ironically, Moscow’s fears — of losing its closest strategic ally in the region, of what comes next, and of being frozen out of a new Syria, as was the case in Iraq and more recently in Libya — are taking it further from its strategic objectives. Assad’s game of buying time is losing Moscow valuable friends in the region. Working toward a post-Assad Syria remains the only way to strengthen these fragile ties.

Even as Syria’s death toll has mounted and the Annan plan increasingly looks like a lost cause, decisive international action has been hard to come by. For all the anti-Assad rhetoric coming from Ankara, Turkey has been reluctant to act without U.S. and NATO backing to establish the much-hyped “safe zones” inside Syria. Ankara has its own problems to deal with:As Georgetown University professor Birol Baskan explains, Turkish reluctance is due largely to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s fraught ties with his nation’s secularist military establishment, as well other domestic vulnerabilities. And despite all the talk of arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Gulf states — Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular — have hesitated, too.

The United States also has little appetite for a more aggressive role in Syria. It is clear that President Barack Obama is running for re-election on the narrative that America’s wars in the greater Middle East are coming to an end. “As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America,” he declared during a speech last week in Afghanistan. Washington has accordingly been willfully slow to take advantage of the strategic opportunity presented by regime change in Syria. Instead of pressing its advantage and further isolating the regime’s backers — in particular, Iran — the United States has taken the seemingly safer course of increasing the economic pressure on Assad’s regime.

In the absence of clear and determined U.S. leadership, trying to make the doomed Annan plan work will take the international community through the summer and the U.S. presidential election, making any decisive international action unlikely until the middle of next year at the earliest. This will be fatal for the future of Syria, leading to more bloodshed, more radicalization on both sides, and a heightened risk of ethnic and sectarian conflict.

The consequences for international security will be dire. Syria’s descent into chaos is increasingly dividing the country and may even threaten its future as a unified nation-state. Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which is increasingly flexing its political and economic muscles, has demonstrated that borders cannot be taken for granted in this highly volatile region. Syria’s crisis may do for the Levant what the Iraq war did for Mesopotamia, unraveling the post-World War I political fault lines of the Middle East. Worse, continued conflict in Syria will likely spill beyond its borders and could re-ignite smoldering sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon, threatening the stability of the entire region.

With the stakes so high, the international community cannot afford to pin its hopes on the Annan plan. Instead, it should accept the hard lessons of the past 14 months and redirect its efforts toward changing the balance of power on the ground.

Those countries with a stake in Syria’s future should do their utmost to help Syrians organize a broad-based national movement that unites people on the basis of opposition to the regime and commitment to a democratic Syria. This will require undoing the Assads’ 42-year old “divide and rule” strategy, bringing together key groups of Syrian society such as minorities and tribes. These groups now have a crucial role to play to hasten the regime’s demise and place Syria on a path to a democratic future.

There are indications that such a strategy would meet with success. Over the past few months, I have conducted extensive roundtable discussions with many Syrian constituencies — such as tribal figures, members of established families, religious leaders, and representatives of the Kurdish community — whose interests are often poorly understood by the outside world. From these conversations, I have found that there is a growing desire among tribal groups from the strategically important eastern and northern areas of Syria to resist Assad, including through military means, and to unite with other groups, particularly the Kurds. In turn, some Kurdish leaders have indicated their willingness, in ongoing private conversations with the tribes, to engage with these groups. Although the Kurds are divided in their stance toward the revolution, all want their culture and rights recognized in a post-Assad Syria. Other communities, such as the Christians and Druze, have largely stayed on the sidelines in the absence of a Syrian national project in which they have confidence.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), an anti-Assad opposition body that operates largely outside the country, has assumed international importance as “a legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” in the words of the “Friends of the Syrian People” group. However, my conversations with tribal and minority figures clearly reveal that they have little confidence in the SNC. Many point to the fact that it has no presence on the ground, and most are suspicious of the influence that the Muslim Brotherhood and its perceived patron, Turkey, wield within the organization.

These groups express greater support for the fragmented FSA, even if it has struggled to establish a clear command-and-control structure inside Syria from its Turkish base. Tribal figures have stated that they want the international community to support the FSA by providing expert assistance and help with communications and specific armaments. They worry that the uncoordinated, steady trickle of arms through private sources and the determined efforts of jihadists to enter Syria through Iraq will lead only to further chaos. They also point out that many FSA leaders and ordinary soldiers are “sons of the tribes,” and that more would join its ranks if the FSA had greater external support. Notably, there is also increasing talk of a military alliance between the FSA — in collaboration with the SNC — and the tribes and Kurds.

The world should abandon the fiction that the Assad regime can be persuaded to reach a political accommodation with its adversaries. Rather, it is time for a renewed effort to forge a genuine united front, including all groups in Syria’s social fabric, dedicated to Assad’s downfall and the establishment of a pluralistic, democratic state in the aftermath. This effort needs stronger international backing today — opposition leaders inside and outside the country do not have the resources to unite their ranks alone. If an endeavor to create a genuine grand opposition coalition were to succeed, the Assad regime would face a greater political and military challenge than ever before, stretching its forces to a breaking point. With Annan’s peace plan in tatters, that’s a goal the international community should embrace.