Mr. Kofi Annan, the distinguished diplomat, has resigned as peace envoy to Syria. Upon leaving, he issued a blistering broadside that blamed divisions among the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council as much as the combatants in that troubled country for the sad state of affairs. Mr. Annan’s departure is another reminder of the limits of international institutions in the quest to secure peace and the basic divide between governments about how the world should be governed.
Mr. Annan took up the job as U.N.-Arab League special envoy in February. It was a mission many would have refused, seemingly destined to fail. Yet for the man whose life was spent as a U.N. diplomat — he joined the World Health Organization in 1962 and his career ended after serving as U.N. secretary general from 1997 to 2006 — the call was irresistible.
Mr. Annan developed a six-point peace plan to resolve the Syrian crisis, including a ceasefire that was supposed to take effect in mid-April. Hundreds of U.N. monitors were dispatched to the country, but the ceasefire was never implemented.
On June 30, Mr. Annan got the permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — to agree on a political framework for a political transition in Syria, one that acknowledged that Syrian President Bashar Assad would eventually have to leave office. Securing formal approval of the plan, however, was beyond his reach.
The death toll has continued to mount. According to human rights groups, more than 19,000 people have died since the fighting began in March 2011.
The rebellion is now an all-out civil war, with the government accused of using indiscriminate violence and committing massacres against its own citizens. Meanwhile, the rebels are taking up increasingly powerful weapons. Last week, they used a captured tank to shell a Syrian air base, and there are reports that rebels have received antiaircraft missiles.
Bowing to the inevitable, Mr. Annan announced his resignation last week. As he left, he rightly blamed all parties for his failure: an intransigent regime in Damascus that puts its survival above all other concerns, rebels who are increasingly militant, and a divided U.N. Security Council that is unable and unwilling to back his diplomacy. It is that last element that empowered the first two: The refusal of Russia and China to take firm steps against Mr. Assad emboldened the Syrian government and encouraged its vicious response against its own citizens.
Western governments are believed to be supplying the rebels with ever more powerful weapons to supplement those they have stolen from the Syrian armed forces.
Mr. Annan is right. He cannot force peace on parties that are determined to wage war. An envoy is always in a weak position, but he has no power at all if the organizations that he represents refuse to back him. The repeated vetoes of Security Council resolutions by Moscow and Beijing demonstrated to combatants that Mr. Annan’s authority was very limited and that they were free to ignore him.
Russia and China objected to Security Council action for a variety of reasons. They both object in principle to the authorization of the use of outside force against a sovereign government. They believe their acquiescence to a similar resolution against Libya was exploited and used for purposes to which they did not originally agree. Moscow seeks to retain its influence with a long-standing ally that hosts its only military base outside Russia. Both Russia and China complain that the resolutions were unfair, putting too much blame on Mr. Assad’s government and should have put equal pressure on the rebels.
In truth, it is Mr. Assad who should shoulder most of the responsibility, as it was his government that has been indiscriminate in its use of force and the perpetrator of the most savage acts in the conflict, including the massacre of over 100 people in Houla a few months ago. The former U.N. secretary general is thus right to argue that Mr. Assad must leave office.
While the foundation of the Damascus regime is cracking — each week there is news of the departure or defection of another top official — Mr. Assad has shown little indication of a readiness to put his country’s interests ahead of those of his own. This week Prime Minister Riad Hijab, a Sunni Muslim appointed to the position two months ago, is reported to have defected from the Assad government and fled with his family.
Mr. Assad also knows that he has the backing of other regional powers, Iran in particular but also the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, which see his survival as critical to their own interests. The prospect of their involvement in the fighting — there are already rumors, denied by Tehran, that it has dispatched forces to help the Syrian government — is sobering. Turkey too is closely watching the conflict and is providing help for the rebels. The possibility of a wider regional conflict is not fantasy.
That nightmare scenario should motivate the permanent Security Council members to find common ground for a solution that ends the fighting as well as the suffering of the Syrian people. Without consensus, Mr. Annan’s successor, whoever he or she may be, will fare no better.