Kofi Annan does the best he can. At least he’s back in harness, doing what he does best: trying to make peace where there is no hope of peace. The rest of them do the best they can, too, give or take the odd Russian. Well, not exactly the best they can, but at least they do enough to make it look like they’re trying. And you can’t really blame them for faking it, because they all know it that it can’t work.
Saturday, Kofi Annan, ex-United Nations Secretary-General and now special UN envoy for Syria, announced that a special “action group” meeting in Geneva had come up with a plan to stop the carnage in Syria. Or at least a faint hope. Or not, as the case may be.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council were there, plus some of the biggest regional players (but not Iran, which backs the Syrian regime, or Saudi Arabia, which supports the rebels). They condemned “the continued escalating killing” and agreed that there must be a “transitional government body with full executive powers.” Then they all went outside and spat into the wind, just to show how determined they were.
I made up the last bit, but they might as well have done that. The final communique said that the transitional government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed victory, saying it clearly signalled to President Bashar al-Assad that he must step down. But it didn’t, actually.
An early draft of the communique said that “those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transitional government” — Bashar al-Assad, in other words — should be excluded, but that wording was gone from the final document. So Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was delighted with the outcome, since “no foreign solution” was being imposed on Syria.
Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council, the most coherent opposition group, said it would reject any plan that did not include the unconditional departure of Assad, his family, and his close associates. Assad himself told Iranian television that no amount of foreign pressure would make his government change its policy. And on Friday, the day before the Geneva meeting, an estimated 190 people were killed in Syria, most of them by the government.
Assad’s regime has now killed around as many people — 16,000, by last count — as his father did in suppressing the last revolt against the regime in 1982. He must take hope from the fact that his father, in the end, terrorised all opposition into silence, and ruled on until his death in 2000. Bashar might win, too — and besides, what choice has he, at this point, but to fight until the last ditch?
So many people have already been slaughtered by Assad’s troops and their Alawite militia allies that there is no forgiveness left among the opposition. There is so little trust that a negotiated handover of power could not succeed even if Assad wanted that. His only remaining options are victory, exile or death.
It bears repeating that this is not how the Arab Spring ended up. It’s just how Syria has ended up, after eight months of non-violent demonstrations in the face of extreme regime violence gave way to armed resistance. The other Arab revolutions have not been drowned in blood (with the exception of Bahrain), and some of them, like Tunisia’s and Egypt’s, have already wrought huge changes. There’s even another one starting up in Sudan right now.
Two things make Syria different. One is its extreme religious and ethnic complexity, which makes it hard for protesters to maintain a united front against a regime that is adept at playing on inter-group fears and resentments. The other is that Assad heads the Syrian Baath Party, an utterly ruthless machine for seizing and holding power that copied much of its organisation and discipline from the Communists.
Why, then, would we expect it to behave any better than its former twin, the Iraqi Baath Party that was led by Saddam Hussein? Even the party’s role as the political vehicle for a religious minority was the same: Alawites in Syria, Sunni Muslims in Iraq. So if you were wondering how Saddam Hussein would have responded to the Arab Spring, now you know: just like Bashar al-Assad is responding.
(At this point in the argument, the American neo-cons will be getting ready to claim that the US invasion of Iraq was a blessing for Iraq after all. Not so fast, boys. Iraq is still not a very democratic place, and at least 10 times as many Iraqis as Syrians have already been killed in the process.)
How long will the killing in Syria last? Until the rebels win, or until they are crushed. Are they going to win? Nobody knows. Will the neighbouring countries get dragged into the fighting? Probably not, although Lebanon is seriously at risk. Can Kofi Annan, the United Nations or the great powers do anything about this? Not a thing.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.