Date: August 04 2012
It is impossible to divine what effect Kofi Annan's resignation as United Nations-Arab League special envoy to Syria on Thursday might have on the complex internal struggle that is wracking the country at present. Nothing, in all probability, but there is an outside chance his sardonic observation about being unable to ''want peace more than the protagonists, more than the Security Council'' might yet provoke the five permanent council members into renewing their efforts at finding a viable solution. For that to occur, however, a far greater level of international co-operation will be required on the Syrian question than has existed since the crisis began in March 2011.
China and Russia have vetoed all UN security council attempts to censure President Bashar al-Assad's regime for its intransigence and refusal to implement Mr Annan's six-point peace plan, and while the US, Britain and France want Mr Assad to stand down, the other major protagonist, the Arab League, has been more or less missing in action - hostage to the widely differing views and interests of its membership. The refusal of the Syrian rebels to agree to mediation attempts has not helped either. Now well armed, and bolstered by defectors from the Syrian army, the rebels appear increasingly confident of their ability to bring down the President. A surprisingly effective military campaign against the army - they are now testing the Syrian military's control of the country's two major cities - suggests the rebels' confidence is not misplaced.
However, the regime, assured of the moral and material support of Russia, China, and Iran (and a significant part of Syria's population), appears equally determined to fight on.
As well intentioned as it was, Mr Annan's peace plan was never going to be easy to implement and to preserve. The Baathist regime's reaction to political opposition in the past has been to resort to violent repression, and it was never remotely possible that it would accommodate the demands of Syrians seeking democratic reforms as part of the wider Arab Spring movement. Indeed, the regime's hardline response to the demonstrators was probably driven in part by the tacit support of other Middle Eastern governments fearful of where the Arab Spring movement would spread next once triumphant in Syria.
But if there was uniform denunciation of Dr Assad by leaders in the West, and calls for him to go when he ordered the army to put down the demonstrations, no one evidenced much enthusiasm for more direct involvement, other than setting in train UN efforts to seek a peaceful resolution to the violence. Many governments have channeled money and arms to the rebels in the hopes of destabilising or toppling the regime, however.
Fears about the consequences of direct military intervention in Syria are well founded. In many respects, Syria's sectarianism and its ethnic and regional differences closely mirror in complexity those of Libya, subject of the most recent UN-sanctioned military intervention in 2011.
Though ultimately successful in helping rebels topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, many felt the result (lingering low-level violence and the election of an Islamist government) was a poor return on the expenditure of so much money and western authority.
History is replete with examples of the inadvisability of armies marching into other countries uninvited. In that respect, many western governments might secretly have been relieved at Russia's and China's refusal to countenance greater international intervention in Syria. There also a strong argument that the Arab League should have been the prime instigator of efforts to defuse the violence, and that if it was unwilling or unable to do so then there was little chance anyone else could resolve matters successfully without upsetting regional power balances or stirring yet more anti-western feeling in the Middle East.
Mr Annan's departure will force the major players in this episode, including the US and Turkey, to reconsider their options. There may be pressure on those countries with links to the rebels to supply them with surface-to-air missiles as a way of hastening the regime's demise. Unfortunately there is every indication the Assad regime is prepared to fight back, and not give up.
At this point, only Russia and China seem capable of shaping events to any appreciable degree, though neither show any inclination to put humanitarian concerns ahead of self-interest. The only likely circuit-breaker would be a significant increase in the number of civilian casualties.With Mr Annan's resignation, that is now a real, and disturbing, possibility.
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