Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy to Syria, is not discussing the departure of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad from office. What, then, is Mr Annan's mandate?
Annan's muddled diplomacy is a fig leaf for Syrian regime
Last week, Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, made a disconcerting revelation. Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy to Syria, is not discussing the departure of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad from office. "I can assure you that there was no talk about Assad's departure," Mr Lavrov declared in an interview, describing what Mr Annan had told him.
If that's true, then what precisely is Mr Annan's mandate? When the former United Nations secretary general was appointed, we were told that his assignment was to implement the Arab League plan for Syria drafted in January. This calls for Mr Al Assad to hand over power to his first vice president, which would be followed by the formation of national unity government that would seek to end the violence by withdrawing the army from cities and releasing prisoners.
Mr Annan is being buffeted by the bargaining all around him. Recently, Russia and the Arab League, after a tense meeting in Cairo, agreed to several principles for resolving the Syrian crisis. However, behind a facade of concord, the two sides had different priorities.
Mr Lavrov, at a press conference with the Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, listed the following principles: agreement to end the violence, whatever the source; the establishment of an impartial monitoring mechanism; the rejection of foreign intervention; and the removal of obstacles blocking the distribution of humanitarian aid to Syrians.
The last principle was by far the most ambiguous and open to contradictory interpretations. As the Russian foreign minister put it, Russia and the Arab League had agreed to strongly support the Annan mission so that it could initiate a dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition - as Mr Lavrov added, one based on references "accepted" by the United Nations and the Arab League.
Sheikh Hamad repeated the same principles, but used a slightly different formulation on the final point, mentioning the references "adopted" by the United Nations and the Arab League. Since only the Arab League has actually adopted decisions on Syria, while the Security Council has been stalemated, this could have been a subtle way of redefining the accord as Arab governments construe it.
Word games aside, what the Arab League and Russia agreed, like the Security Council statement being prepared to bolster Mr Annan in his task, will mean different things to different governments. Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with a large majority of the Syrian opposition, still consider his mediation as a lever to get rid of Mr Al Assad. Russia, in contrast, views it as a device allowing the Syrian president to regain legitimacy and remain in power.
Mr Annan will have to manoeuvre between these conflicting objectives, which reflect the substantial divergences between the United Nations and the Arab League. The envoy has a six-point plan of his own, which he presented to the Security Council last week. While it has not been made public, it appears similar to that outlined by Mr Lavrov and Sheikh Hamad, including a Syrian-led dialogue, an end to violence and a UN observer operation of some sort.
There are profound difficulties with this approach. The core of the problem is that once a dialogue begins, Mr Al Assad will necessarily represent the Syrian regime. The logic of such negotiations will ensure that the president stays in office, since what kind of national dialogue can take place that sets as a precondition the eventual exclusion of one of the parties? And if Mr Al Assad fails to vacate the presidency, then the Arab League plan is meaningless.
That is what the Russians are wagering on, and Mr Annan's remarks suggest he is closer to Moscow than to the Arab states. No wonder Mr Lavrov is so keen to assist Mr Annan, while advocating humanitarian aid. The Obama administration, as well, favours a political solution, ruling out arming the Syrian opposition. The French agree, while Turkey seems unsure of what to do. Ankara's warning last week that it might set up a safety zone inside Syria should be taken seriously, but without international cover, such a move could backfire.
If Mr Al Assad dominates the Syrian dialogue, and the opposition is made to participate, the president will regain the initiative. At best he will form a feeble national-unity government with opposition figures whom he selects. Only the president, bolstered by the security services, holds true power in Syria. That is why political dialogue is a byword for the successful repression of the Syrian uprising.
The large fly in the ointment of the dialogue delusion is that the vast majority of Syrians hostile to their regime refuse to deal with a president who has behaved with unspeakable barbarity. A number of powerful Arab states, too, are uneasy. Who can disagree? Mr Annan is close to selling out the Syrian opposition. If he is about to undermine the Arab League plan, then the Arab states should insist on tightening his terms of reference to their satisfaction. Otherwise, they must withdraw their endorsement of the envoy.
Of course, the Arabs won't dare openly do such a thing. Instead, they will arm the opposition, hoping to weaken Mr Al Assad on the ground. Mr Annan's strategy and that of all those pursuing the pipe dream of dialogue will not stabilise Syria. On the contrary, Mr Al Assad's political survival will just make things worse, and it will guarantee further militarisation of the conflict, without the benefit of a parallel political strategy to contain the consequences.
Professional negotiators adore talking, because it is the stuff of diplomacy. But many Syrians today couldn't care less about diplomacy. They see a mass murderer in Mr Al Assad and will pursue his ruin to the end. Mr Annan insults them by ignoring this reality.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut