Syria Presents Another Predicament for Kofi Annan and His U.N. Legacy

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Kofi Annan has seen a lot of genocide. He hasn’t been the monster pulling the trigger, or ordering the deaths. But to hear his critics tell it, as head of the United Nations Peacekeepers in 1994 and 1995 he failed to prevent the Rwandan genocide and the massacre at Srebrenica in former Yugoslavia. The 2003 Darfur genocide began during his tenure as UN Secretary General. In 2004, 10 years after the Hutus massacred 800,000 Tutsis, Annan said, “I could and should have done more to sound the alarm and rally support.”

Maybe it was these experiences that drove Annan to volunteer to be UN Special Envoy to Syria. Although he won the Nobel Peace prize in 2001, Annan, 74, surely wants to be remembered for more than the Oil for Humanitarian aid program that under his tenure funneled billions to Saddam Hussein and Syria, or sexual harassment scandals that plagued some of his top aides, whom he defended even when the evidence mounted against them.

This isn’t Annan’s first act since completing his second term as UN Secretary General. He successfully helped end the violence surrounding elections in Kenya in 2008, which displaced 600,000 people. But Syria is certainly his highest-profile assignment. And this assignment, his friends argue, is a no-win situation that could do more harm than good for his legacy; thus far it isn’t going well. “[Annan] is doing the best he can do given the marching orders,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution. “But it’s been a failure to date for sure.”

Perhaps seeking to avoid the missteps of the Arab League, which bullied Syrian strongman Bashar Assad and leaked almost everything he said to the press, Annan has chosen to be press shy on this mission, refusing all interview requests. It hasn’t gotten Assad to treat Annan any better than he treated the Arab League, and Assad, who told Barbara Walters that diplomacy is a game, has bought himself time even as the violence continues. Syria this week remained defiant after Annan’s visit, during which he publicly chastised its leaders for recent bloodshed. “The Syrian people do not want their future to be one of bloodshed and division,” Annan said Tuesday after two days in Damascus. “Yet the killings continue, and the abuses are still with us today.”

When Annan took the job in mid-April, he convinced Assad to sign on to six basic points: 1) Syrian pledges to work with Annan to build “an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people.” 2) Syria commits to stop fighting, troop movements and use of heavy weapons in populated areas. 3) A daily two-hour “humanitarian pause” to allow aid to be delivered and the injured to be evacuated. 4) Syria will quicken the release of “arbitrarily detained persons” and provide a list of all such people. 5) Journalists can move freely through Syria and obtain visas. 6) Syria commits to “respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed.”

At the time, Russia, which is one of Assad’s few remaining friends in the world, seemed pleased that Syria, unlike Libya, would not be submitted to forcible regime change by western powers. The plan included “no talk of Assad’s departure,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. It has by no means been a success, but the simple plan is becoming “a wedge between Moscow and Damascus,” says Dennis Ross, until November President Obama’s top adviser on the Middle East. “The more Assad fails to live up to those points, the more embarrassed the Kremlin becomes.”

Assad clearly is failing to live up to his pledges. At first, opponents reported that the violence stopped when 300 UN monitors assigned to Syria arrived, but started back up again the minute they left, presenting a Potemkin peace to observers. But Assad’s forces two weeks ago abandoned all pretext of hiding hostilities and last weekend’s reported massacre of 108 civilians in Houla, most of them women and children, is the latest evidence yet that Assad just doesn’t care what the world thinks of him.

He may not care what most of the world thinks – the U.S. on Tuesday joined Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Britain, Canada and Australia in expelling Syrian diplomats in response to the massacre – but Assad should care what Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks. Russia has consistently vetoed resolutions allowing for an expanded UN or international role in Syria, home to Russia’s last remaining military facility on the Mediterranean. But over the weekend, Russia endorsed a UN resolution condemning the Houla massacre. “It still remains unclear what happened and what triggered what,” Russia’s Deputy UN Ambassador Igor Pankin told reporters in New York. “It is difficult to imagine that the Syrian government would not only shell… but also use point-black execution” against women and children. Assad should note Moscow’s stance with alarm. Putin, say most analysts,  is just about the only thing that stands between Assad and the fate of Libya’s late dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

There are many differences between Libya and Syria: the opposition in Syria remains disjointed, almost as much at odds with one another as they are with Assad. Western nations are warily eyeing the emergence of fundamentalist, jihadist elements fighting on the rebel side against Assad’s ostensibly secular state. There is also little political will in the U.S. during an election year to engage in Syria; Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s call for action in Syria this week was met with a divided response from the GOP base. Most observers believe Assad will successfully be able to draw out this process, potentially for years. After 14 months Assad has already outlasted almost every other leader targeted by the Arab Spring. Meanwhile, more of his people die every day – a genocide in slow motion that Annan seems as unable to stop as past violence in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 600,000 Kenyans were killed in 2008.