Syria: has Annan been set up to fail?

Kofi Annan is briefing the Security Council on his efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis today.  As I wrote in a piece for Foreign Policy on Friday Annan – originally welcomed as a potential savior – has been coming under increasing criticism for his peace plan:

At first sight, Annan’s proposals don’t seem so contentious. The main pillars are an “inclusive Syrian-led political process,” an “effective United Nations supervised cessation of armed violence,” and “timely provision of humanitarian assistance.” Other points include the release of political prisoners, letting journalists move freely, and permitting peaceful demonstrations. While these are unquestionably urgent priorities, however, the plan will ultimately be judged on the implementation of its political and military aspects.

The standard line of attack on this blueprint is that it appeals to all the wrong people. Unlike the previous Arab League peace plan, it does not call for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down. Russia and China, having stopped the Security Council from backing the League’s proposals, welcome this softer approach. When Annan announced this week that President Assad had accepted the plan, skeptics accused Damascus of using the diplomatic opening to buy time. Assad, they allege with reason, is a congenital breaker of promises and probably views this war in existential terms: nothing short of total victory can guarantee his continuation in power. So his support for Annan’s plan is proof that it must be flawed.

Still, it’s unfair to criticize Annan for engineering a diplomatic consensus. He was chosen precisely because he could help soothe fraying tempers at the United Nations and avert calls for an ill-conceived military intervention in Syria, as I noted in a recent piece for World Politics Review. He has done a far better job in these terms than initially seemed possible. But he faces a far worse context for peacemaking inside Syria than when he took the job.

Conflict resolution experts argue that combatants negotiate seriously when facing a “mutually hurting stalemate”: a situation in which both sides grasp that victory is unachievable. In February, it seemed possible that Syria was headed for just such a stalemate, with anti-government forces holding significant urban areas and the army losing confidence. If this situation had continued, Annan’s basic concept — a U.N.-supervised cessation of hostilities to create space for political dialogue — could have been workable.

But the security situation has changed significantly. The army got the better of the opposition in Homs and Idlib. Rather than break under the strain of fighting in built-up areas, the military has kept up its offensives while rebels say they are running out of ammunition. In this context, even as intense fighting continues, Assad has less incentive to talk in good faith. Yet the Security Council and Arab League can hardly reverse themselves and say that they no longer believe negotiations are worthwhile.

Over the weekend, however, quite a few Western leaders began talking about the potential failure of the Annan plan.  At the meeting for the Friends of Syria in Turkey, Hillary Clinton cast doubt on Assad’s sincerity and William Hague argued that “there isn’t an unlimited period of time for this, for the Kofi Annan process to work before many of the nations here want us to go back to the UN Security Council.”  There is an argument going around that if Annan’s plan demonstrably fails, China and Russia may find it hard to veto any future UN resolution on Syria.  Frankly, I think that’s optimistic.  But Annan should be careful: he may find that Western and Arab hawks are now looking for his plan to fail, while the Assad regime continues to play for time…