The resignation of the Joint Special Envoy, Kofi Annan—effective on August 30th—and the likely demise of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) at the end of the month mark the closure of a chapter in the Syrian conflict. It is clear that Annan’s efforts were frustrated by insufficient support and divisions among members of the Security Council. This will, however, not be the end of the Security Council’s attempts to intervene in the crisis, but is certainly a good opportunity for Council members to face the facts and reflect on their failure so far.
The Security Council has not lived up to its responsibility to ensure peace and security. Division, spurred on by self-interest, has impeded any serious progress on a negotiated solution to the conflict in Syria. The resignation of Kofi Annan and the likely end of UNSMIS are not the end of diplomatic efforts to solve the Syrian crisis. A new Joint Special Envoy will be appointed and the Secretary-General of the UN will try to maintain the political apparatus of UNSMIS in place. This should be seen as an opportunity to correct the mistakes in the first chapter of diplomatic engagement. Those hoping for the regime to fall soon may be disappointed; there is no alternative to active diplomatic engagement.
There is little doubt that there will be a successor to Kofi Annan. Though a suitable candidate has not been found yet, Ban Ki-moon is engaged in consultation with his counterpart in the Arab League, Nabil al-Araby. In the meantime, the office that gave support to Annan, on which UNSMIS relies for political and strategic guidance, is still in place. Also, Annan will not be taking with him the Six Point Plan, which is still considered the template for any progress towards a political resolution. And even if the name of the plan was to change, its content is so generic that any new proposal should not veer far from it.
The continuation of UNSMIS is highly improbable after its mandate expires on August 20th—already a prolongation of the original timeline. The Secretary General has nonetheless made clear the need to maintain a UN presence in the country in order to continue engaging in the crisis and not be seen as abandoning the Syrian people. Therefore a political office will most probably remain in the country to maintain an open channel, composed of some of the staff that gave support to UNSMIS excluding the military observer component, which is seen to have run its course due to an inability to fulfill its mandate and to its exposure to high risks.
The political office, which could be framed as the liaison office of the new Joint Special Envoy in order to avoid having to go through the Security Council for approval, would continue to monitor human rights violations, promote dialogue, and, if the opportunity arises, mediate ceasefires. Perhaps most importantly, given the bleak prospects currently for political negotiations, it would work on preparing for the day after the prospective fall of the regime and would be able to expand if the need arose. The political office would not necessarily sit in Damascus exclusively but could also make use of the existing field stations in Aleppo, Homs, and Deir al-Zawr. The Syrian authorities could of course try to frustrate this move, as they have done in the past, with bureaucratic hurdles like stalling on the provision of visas to UN staff.
The message is one of continued engagement—a new envoy, maybe a reworked version of the Six Point Plan—but no new initiatives. Rather, due to the impasse in the Security Council, member states are looking to act in an increasingly explicit way outside that chamber. Many—see The Economist or former head of UNSMIS—consider that the demise of the regime will be imminent anyway, and so there is little to do apart from preparing for the transition phase. However, this is by no means certain. It is very difficult to estimate how strong the Syrian establishment is, and there seems to be a substantial difference between how the situation appears from outside, as it is filtered through mainstream media, and how it is viewed by people living in the country.
Despite the news of increasingly prominent defections, in Damascus the regime appears strong and confident as it continues to present a two-pronged strategy of determination to fight what it calls terrorists while at the same time proposing political dialogue with the sanctioned opposition. Though the opponents to Bashar al-Assad’s rule have clearly dealt remarkable blows to the regime, a pattern is emerging where they take over neighborhoods of key cities but are expelled soon after as the regime rolls out its heavy artillery. And even though the sound of explosions is often heard in Damascus at night, in cities like Homs, the situation is generally static with armed groups surrounded in isolated neighborhoods taking a constant pounding from the Syrian Army. The rebels have not managed to down a single helicopter, and the regime’s military machine appears to be pretty much intact. Young fresh-faced professional soldiers are still seen to be manning checkpoints around the country.
This means that the international community should not count on the Syrian conflict resolving itself, and that this point in time provides an opportunity for a new beginning. Countries that claim to care about Syria have clearly missed opportunities. The multiple conferences of opposition groups, occurring so frequently that sometimes participants simply do not have time to travel from one to the next, is a good example of the dire lack of coordination and potential for improvement. Fundamental divisions and lack of legitimacy further mar the effectiveness of these groups. Within Syria, there is a need for dialogue between the regime and a wider spectrum of opposition groups, and not just the official opposition. The new special envoy could help bridge this gap and the gap between the opposition outside the country by spending more time in Syria.
On the next round of consultations at the Security Council scheduled for August 16th, the Secretary-General will present a series of alternatives. Faced with the imminent end of UNSMIS as well as the departure of the Joint Special Envoy, the Security Council could use this as an opportunity to correct its course. It has to make a greater effort to agree on measures to achieve a diplomatic solution to the conflict. More importantly, member states should stop acting outside the Security Council in ways that contradict the initiatives within that chamber. A failure to do so will make this juncture seem like the end of diplomatic efforts and an encouragement to fuel the conflict with more weapons. Diplomatic action needs to be given a real chance to stop the violence. Unfortunately, it is hard to be optimistic.
Jose Vericat is an Adviser at the International Peace Institute.
About the photo: Kofi Annan (right), Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria, speaks at a press conference in Geneva. At left is his Spokesperson, Ahmad Fawzi.