GENEVA - Kofi Annan must strike a deal with the devil to end the sickening atrocities being committed by the Syrian Army. But the devil Annan has in mind is Russian President Vladimir Putin, not his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad.
That is what Annan, whom I first met in Africa four decades ago, seeks to achieve by pursuing a desperate strategy centered on the Russian president-in-perpetuity.
The former U.N. secretary general is no naive Boy Scout who believes in Assad’s worthless promises. He is prolonging his stymied U.N. peacemaking mission to give Assad enough rope to hang himself.
That is, Annan awaits the moment when not even Putin will be able to stomach the shame of aiding and abetting the crimes against humanity being ordered by his protege in Damascus. (It is through the Syrian massacres that Assad has become Putin’s Man in Damascus. The televized image of Russia’s U.N. ambassador voting repeatedly to block pressure on Assad establishes a link in history that would not otherwise exist.)
There are times when, as degrading as it is, you have to deal with devils. But you must be sure that your devil can deliver. That is, I think, where the bet by my friend Annan will go wrong. Even if Putin would — a huge if — I doubt he could force Assad to give up power to save the regime his Alawite clan runs.
This is the “Yemeni variant,” named after the strategy the United States employed in helping to push Ali Abdullah Saleh out of the presidency in February. The most intricate refinement I have heard would have the United States and Russia agree on a list of acceptable Syrian generals to take power. The generals would promise a new constitution and elections to make peace with opponents they have been systematically murdering for 18 months.
But Putin’s grip on power is eroding at home as his economy stumbles. He shows no sign of knowing what to do about it. And for all the disappointments and shortcomings of U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy record, it looks commanding next to the absence of serious Russian initiatives in world politics for a decade. No one listens seriously to Putin on international affairs. Not even blood-stained dictators who use his country’s weapons to stay in power. Nor Iranian ayatollahs pursuing their nuclear ambitions.
It is either Annan’s sense of desperation, or of historical irony, that has brought him to the Putin variant. The desperation would spring from two brutal realities that are now clear:
• Assad is personally in charge of the bloody campaign of atrocities. His internal position is too weak for him to have allowed anyone else to take charge. His departure for Moscow is essential to ending the killing.
• The U.S., Europe, Turkey and the Arab League will not intervene militarily to stay Assad’s murderous hand by enforcing the principle of the international community’s Responsibility to Protect, applied with great effect in Libya. (Turkey is the key actor in determining whether humanitarian intervention could succeed in neighboring Syria. But the civilian government in Ankara does not trust the loyalty of its army enough to give it important new responsibilities.)
The burial of the Responsibility to Protect in the ruins of Homs and Idlib would be a serious blow to Annan’s reputation. He was instrumental in getting the United Nations to adopt the principle in 2007 that states could not gravely abuse their own citizens with impunity.
“Kofi will not go on forever providing cover for others,” a European diplomat here told me. “His resignation would allow the world to see very clearly what Russia is doing — and what the United States is not doing — that makes them both complicit in the killing of a nation. But he also knows resignation is a gun with only one bullet.”
As for the irony that may underlie the Putin variant: The Russian leader is an expert in counterrevolution, which Assad wages with brutality. It was Putin who unraveled the Russian revolution of 1990, which seemed to herald a new era of constantly expanding freedom for the world’s oppressed.
Instead, counterrevolution has become the dominant political force of our time, as events in Ukraine, Belarus, Yemen, Egypt and Syria demonstrate. While Tunisia and Libya remain unfinished works in political transformation, authoritarian regimes elsewhere have re-emerged to dim or extinguish the liberties revolution had promised.
For every action there is reaction, in politics as well as physics. Syria’s brave opposition is underlining that universal law in blood for all with eyes to see. The most significant accomplishment of Annan’s mission may well be determined by when, and how, he decides to end it.
Jim Hoagland is a contributing editor to The Washington Post.