NEW YORK // Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, was given perhaps the most challenging assignment of his career yesterday: end the violence tearing apart Syria.
Mr Annan was named as a joint envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League to Syria. He "will consult broadly and engage" with all sides inside Syria and out, "to end the violence and the humanitarian crisis," a UN statement said.
Mr Annan, who served as UN chief from 1997 to 2006, called on all parties to cooperate "to help bring an end to the violence and human-rights abuses, and promote a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis."
Mr Annan won acclaim in 2008 for his hard-nosed negotiations that resolved post-election violence in Kenya. But Syria will be a far more difficult task.
"About 90 per cent of the people will say that it is too late in Syria, even for Kofi Annan, but if there is a 5 per cent chance, you have to try," a western diplomat said.
Mr Annan, a Ghanian, is said to have kept good lines of communications open with the Syrian regime in recent years. He "will provide good offices aimed at bringing an end to all violence and human- rights violations, and promoting a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis," the UN said.
He is backed by a UN general assembly resolution and Arab League resolutions that support the league's plan for Mr Al Assad to delegate power to a vice president while a national unity government is formed ahead of elections. He will try to "facilitate a peaceful Syrian-led and inclusive political solution that meets the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people," the statement added.
It remains to be seen whether Mr Al Assad will receive Mr Annan in Damascus, however.
Russia yesterday welcomed Mr Annan's appointment, saying that it would be "ready for close cooperation with him in the search for mutually acceptable paths to solutions". Russia, along with China, vetoed UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Al Assad regime for its violence.
By picking a non-Arab household name rather than a lesser- known diplomat from the region, the UN and the Arab League are counting on Mr Annan's high profile to get Mr Al Assad to end the bloodshed.
A western diplomat said that efforts by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to find an Arab envoy had failed because of the difficulty in appointing someone acceptable to both Mr Al Assad and the opposition.
Algeria was approached but President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is said to have wanted nothing to do with the problem, a diplomat said.
Boutros Boutros Ghali, a Coptic Egyptian and also a former UN secretary general at 88 years old, was not seen up to the task. The Egyptian government also has joined the Arab League in opposing Mr Al Assad's continued rule.
A Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work on the Aids pandemic, Mr Annan challenged the US over its 2003 invasion of Iraq, calling it "illegal" for bypassing approval by the UN Security Council. An economist by training, Mr Annan is a UN veteran who began his career there in the 1960s and rose through the ranks.
As director of UN peacekeeping operations in Rwanda in 1994, he was criticised for withholding troops, and Mr Annan a decade later said he could have done more.
His reputation also took a blow towards the end of his tenure as UN chief when he presided over the oil-for-food scandal in Iraq. It was revealed that some corrupt UN officials profited from an aid programme designed to let Iraqis buy food and supplies with proceeds from oil sales.
The announcement of Mr Annan's appointment came before the meeting in Tunis yesterday of the Friends of Syria group.
So far, the UN Security Council has been powerless to stop the violence after Russia and China blocked two resolutions, one in October and other earlier this month, that condemned the violence by the regime.
* With additional reporting by Bloomberg and Agence France-Presse