x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Annan's mission in Syria is a matter of appearances

Annan's diplomatic junket coincides with the Arab League meeting and the Friends of Syria discussions. At this point, however, talking is about all that can be done to alleviate Syrians' suffering.

Two high-profile meetings in the Middle East suggest that the region is at a pivotal point. The Arab Summit meeting in Baghdad - the first there for a generation - is dressed up as a coming-out party for the Shiite-led government after the departure of US troops. And on Sunday in Istanbul, the group of countries called the Friends of Syria is meeting for what they hope will be a funeral for the Baathist regime in Damascus.

Neither of these grand occasions is quite as billed. Attendance at the Baghdad summit is sparse, and no breakthrough on the Syrian crisis is on its agenda. But no one was expecting any. In the political turmoil following last year's uprisings, the idea of Arab collective action at this stage is absurd.

The point of this summit is different: to show that Iraq will one day return as a power in the Arab world. The coming out party is premature, but the intention is clear.

As for the Istanbul meeting, if it were to have any real meaning the Syrian opposition would by now have united and be forming a government in exile, with a recognised leader supported by some reputable generals.

Despite the urgings of the western powers and Gulf states, the Syrian opposition is merely inching towards a semblance of unity. It is not in a state to take control in Damascus. It is not clear what influence it wields over the fighting men inside Syria.

The embattled Syrian president Bashar Al Assad delivered his response to these two meetings in advance. He toured the blasted remains of the Baba Amr quarter of Homs, the former stronghold of the opposition, like, in the words of one Lebanese newspaper, Saladin at the gates of Jerusalem.

Ignoring the startling comparison between the former ophthalmologist and the great warrior, the message of the visit was obvious: in this battle only force counts and the eye doctor is the one using it.

The president's victory stroll through Homs is not totally unfounded. Looking at the region and beyond, it is hard to see a mailed fist which is going to depose him. Neither the United States, nor the Nato alliance, nor Turkey, nor the armies of the Arab world want the responsibility of open intervention in Syria and getting embroiled in a civil war that would make Lebanon look like a sideshow.

Thus all eyes are on Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, who is now the peace envoy of that organisation and the Arab League. Mr Annan is a man of goodwill who has taken on a task that will be long, hard and probably futile.

The job of UN secretary-general is to be a servant of the member states, and to listen to all, not to bully. A man such as Mr Annan is not going to bulldoze all the parties to the conflict in the manner of, say, the late Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat who extracted a peace deal from the Bosnian factions in 1995 through sheer force of character. A second Holbrooke is not going to emerge in Washington at a time when the White House's main aim is to steer clear of new Middle Eastern entanglements - and keep the petrol price down - ahead of the November election.

Reluctantly, one must conclude that Mr Annan is the right man for the job - if the job is a process that at the moment merely gives the impression of something being done. His six-point plan calls for a UN-monitored ceasefire and for the government to allow peaceful demonstrations. There is no mention of Mr Al Assad stepping down.

The problem here is that Mr Annan could succeed only if all the powers, in the region and outside, were lined up behind him. This is clearly not the case: Russia and China have stated their opposition to US plans for toppling the Assad clan. Moscow and Beijing do not want to give the Americans another easy win such as Nato secured in Libya through blatant abuse of the UN Security Council authorising to protect civilians.

In their self-serving defence the Russians say they do not see how the divided opposition is going to remove the Baathists from power, and therefore see no point in fomenting a civil war that is not so far from their unstable southern border.

How then is Syria going to get a new start? The Alawite clique who control the security forces are not going to retire quietly. After decades of repression, the Alawites - about 12 per cent of the population - can expect only one thing from rule by the majority Sunnis: vengeance, swift or slow. The example of Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein is clear. When the oppressed majority take over, life for the previously ruling minority becomes uncomfortable.

Against this background, Mr Annan's diplomacy will be exploited by Damascus to crush the opposition and drive its fighters into exile or underground. The calculation in Damascus is that Mr Al Assad can still repeat his father's trick of staying in power after crushing the uprising in Hama in 1982.

For those who cannot stand the idea of the same brutal regime continuing, there is another recourse: secret arms supplies to the opposition. While the Syrian security forces remain intact, it is hard to see how this would topple the regime, except perhaps at the end of years of civil war. As long as the regime can claim to be protecting its supporters from the vengeance of Sunni jihadists, it will have some claim to their loyalty.

The logic of Mr Annan's mission is simple. While he is on the scene, he embodies a faint hope that he can stave off these two bad scenarios - endless civil war or the survival of the regime. A more positive outcome for Syria is at the moment beyond him.



On Twitter: @aphilps