Annan Calls for Syrian Contact Group, Including Iran

The Syria envoy’s latest diplomatic scheme is one that everyone can sign up for.

Former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan at the University of Ottawa, Canada, November 4, 2010
Former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan at the University of Ottawa, Canada, November 4, 2010 (gazetteUO)

Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general who was appointed in February by the Arab League and the United Nations to lead a diplomatic effort to end the conflict in Syria, probably knew all too well when he accepted the job that it wouldn’t be easy. Indeed, sensing that the uprising in Syria was quickly changing from a peaceful protest movement to a civil war between supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, Annan wasted no time getting to work after he was nominated.

The signing of a ceasefire agreement by the Syrian government and the rebel Free Syrian Army on April 12 was the most significant achievement that Annan could produce with the consent of all of the parties, including the regime. The international community subsequently endorsed the move while the United Nations Security Council followed suit by affirming Annan’s initiative through a resolution.

Yet more than two months after the plan was put into effect, the Assad regime’s security forces have done nothing to abide by the charter’s six points which include the release of political detainees arrested in government sweeps, the end of shooting from all sides, the withdrawal of loyalist tanks and soldiers from populated areas and free access for emergency workers and journalists.

Absent the release of a few hundred people from prison, Assad has all but sidestepped the agreement, claiming that his government needs to respond to what is fast becoming a more lethal and capable insurgency movement seeking his ouster. Syrian troops are nowhere near leaving the cities, understanding that doing so would allow their armed opponents to expand their operational reach.

Instead, what we have seen is an acceleration of violence and the deployment of heavier weapons, not only from the Syrian army but from the rebels as well.

Government security forces have stepped up their military offensive this month in an attempt to flush out neighborhoods that have been converted into rebel headquarters. Far more often than not, the Syrian army has conducted those operations in the most indiscriminate way possible, lobbing mortars and shells onto residential areas before allowing the regime’s supporting militias to sweep them.

Assad has begun to use his arsenal of helicopter gunships as an offensive tool in the fight, a response to the insurgents’ greater capability in targeting Syrian tanks with rocket propelled grenades and anti-tank weaponry.

Annan has long recognized that his original peace agreement has failed in its main effort, even if the longtime diplomat refuses to acknowledge that fact in the public eye. Other United Nations officials, including the organization’s head of peacekeeping operations, have started calling Annan’s effort all but dead.

With the skepticism growing, Annan is back to the drawing board, pitching another idea that would bring any state with a major stake in the outcome together for an international conference. The purpose, as Annan has made clear, is to take advantage of every piece of leverage that the outside world has to stop the bloodshed before the conflict reaches the point of a full civil war.

The proposal, first reported by The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius, calls for an international contact group, without the Syrians, to lay out a framework for a post Assad political transition. The permanent members of the UN Security Council would attend as would Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — four countries that hold their own interests in Syria. If all goes as planned, the consultations would result in a unified document signed by all of the parties outlining a transitional phase for Syria’s politics.

Much like the process in Egypt and Yemen, timelines would be given on electing a new president, creating a new constitution and forming an interim national assembly that is made responsible for administering the state before the seating of an elected parliament.

The catch is that President Assad and the Syrian opposition would have to agree before the document could be given any chance to succeed, permission that Assad is unlikely to give unless he is absolved from any war crimes that have been committed in his name during the course of the sixteen month rebellion.

The idea is an interesting one, for it draws Iran, seen as Assad’s only ally in the region, in from the cold. The United States have already reached the conclusion that inviting Iran would be unwise and contradictory to the conference’s stated mission. It is easy to see why Washington has taken that view: Tehran is widely believed to be supporting Assad’s crackdown by sending weapons, technology and advisors into Syria. Iran’s rhetoric remains solidly on Assad’s side, despite his multiple crimes and isolation from most of the world.

Regardless of Iran’s public statements, excluding it from discussions about the future of Syria could hardly make the transition any easier. Despite its bombast, Iran is a rational power that may be willing to support President Assad’s removal if its core interests are taken into account. American officials may not like it but allowing Tehran to have a stake in the outcome could push them to be more constructive.

Much like the Syria conflict in general, nothing in Kofi Annan’s new diplomatic tact guarantees success. Iranian participation could simply elongate the process, resulting in more casualties. Nor is it certain that Assad would be willing to leave if he is assured exile. But an international conference could be worth a try. Every other option on the table seems ineffective, dangerous or politically unattractive.