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Syria – the Failure of Three Wise Men: Kofi Annan

For more than four years now Syria has been one of the the most blazing trouble spots in the world. Especially due to the emergence of ISIL and their high degree of violence, the ongoing mediation initiative of the United Nations seems to have been forgotten by most observers. Therefore this series deals with Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi and Staffan de Mistura, three men who have been trying to bring peace through diplomacy in a conflict that transcends most people’s imagination of violence. The following article briefly analyzes the mediation of Syria’s first Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and Arab League, Kofi Annan, from February 23rd until August 2nd 2012.

Kofi Annan, Press Conference of the Action Group for Syria, June 30th 2012

By Felix Troeltzsch

Kofi Annan does not have to be introduced. The diplomat from Ghana, who spend his entire career in the United Nations (UN) became most famous as the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations. Nevertheless, already before that, during his numerous positions in the world organization, he developed a reputation as excellent diplomat, mediator or like one of his most famous biographers puts it, “A Man of Peace in a World of War”. Although his tenure was not flawless, Kofi Annan is one of the most popular UN Secretary-Generals and one of the most acknowledged diplomats of our time. Having this in mind, it is easy to understand, why Ban Ki-moon picked Kofi Annan to solve the knotty and complex crisis in Syria.

Appointment, Budget and Team

The former UN Secretary-General was appointed as Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and League of Arab States (JSE) on February 23rd 2012 by the United Nations and Arab League, just shortly after a new UN report attested that the Human Rights situation in Syria had worsened significantly. During the appointment Ban Ki-moon, the current Secretary-General of the UN, and his counterpart from the Arab League Nabil Elaraby, described that the “Special Envoy will provide good offices aimed at bringing an end to all violence and human rights violations, and promoting a peaceful solution to the Syria crisis”.  Accordingly, from the very beginning on, Kofi Annan took over the job as mediator in Syria with the clear task to not only confine the violence, but to solve the conflict in its entirety.

For its ambitious peace mission the UN estimated a budget of more than US$ 7,4 million, whereof about US$ 3 million alone were intended for personnel costs. The rest of the money was supposed to cover the travels, technology, equipment and all other expenses of the operation. In doing so, compared to other UN peacemaking efforts, that most of the time do not exceed US$ 2 million, Kofi Annan had been granted an unusually big budget by the United Nations and Arab League.

The Joint Special Envoy used a large share of this money to assemble old companions, mediation experts, regional experts, communications experts and experts in international law, creating one of the most elite mediation-teams one can imagine. Eventually Kofi Annan was supported by one Under-Secretary-General, two Assistant Secretary-Generals and eight employees whose experiences ranged from 15 to at least five years of relevant work in the  United Nations. Moreover, all team members were not only highly experienced in their fields, but, more importantly, they were Annan’s personal picks. In the fashion of a Hollywood action movie, he had known and had worked with all of them before his mission in Syria and insisted on personnel matters. Thereby, his communication officer Ahamad Fawzi, his two deputies Nasser Al-Kidwa and Jean-Marie Guehnno and his personal advisers Allan Doss and Ruth McCoy accounted for Annan’s most important staff members. Before their engagement in Syria each of them had a distinctive diplomatic career in the UN or in  foreign services.

Four Phases of Mediation

While in office, the go-between tried all he could to solve the conflict in Syria through diplomatic means and in terms of that continuously sought the direct contact to all relevant actors. During the his mediation, Kofi Annan went on 17 trips to Syria and all important regional and international players like Iran, the USA, Russia, China, Turkey, Jordan etc. He talked three times to Bashar al-Assad in person and maintained steady contact to Syria’s opposition leaders.  Moreover, if he could not attend them in person or via video-chat, he was always represented during the meetings of all relevant international organizations by one of his deputies.

Broadly speaking Kofi Annan’s mediation effort can be divided into four phases. Firstly, from February 23rd until April 21st the go-between established his contacts and prepared everything for his mission. During this period he developed his Six-Point-Peace-Plan[1], traveled to the United Nations in New York, the Arab League in Kairo, visited Syria and all its bordering countries except for Israel. Thereby the JSE explored the international support for his mission and tried to set the basis for peace. He convinced the UN Security-Council to support his plan and to establish an observer mission in Syria. Moreover, Kofi Annan even negotiated a ceasefire between the conflicting parties, which came into effect on April 12th 2012. Although this first phase of his mediation was the most successful one, it was soon marred by new battles in North and West-Syria and because the ceasefire did not hold longer than a single day.

In the second phase of his mediation from April 13th until the Massacre of Houla on May 26th, the JSE tried to implement his peace plan. Despite emerging violence, he still stated that his plan was “on track” and positively acknowledged all peace efforts of the conflicting parties. Annan did not travel at all during this period of his mediation and belittled violence as isolated incidents. Only after UN staff members got attacked during routine controls on May 10th May 15th and after 108 women and children were killed during the Massacre of Houla on May 25th, Annan started to criticize the Syrian government vehemently and seemed to notice that his current approach on the conflict did not work out.

Due to the catastrophe of Houla, Kofi Annan accepted the temporary failure of his peace plan and started to negotiate again. In the third phase of his mediation from May 28th until June 30th the go-between visited Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar and the USA to create united pressure on the Assad government. In the wake of these efforts the “Action Group for Syria”, consisting of all relevant international parties, passed its “Final Communiqué”, later known as the Geneva I declarations, in which it called for a peaceful solution of the Syria conflict and a democratic process in the country. Having in mind the strategic and diplomatic discrepancies  between Russia, the USA and China in the UN Security-Council at this time, this agreement clearly was a hard-earned diplomatic victory by Kofi Annan. Especially Russia, who had been backing Bashar al-Assad since the beginning of the civil war, seemed to lose patience with the Syrian dictator and thus created new hope for a peaceful solution of the conflict.

Unfortunately for the Syrian people and Kofi Annan’s efforts however, the demands of the Action Group for Syria were not implemented at all and strong fighting spread even further to Syria’s two biggest cities Aleppo and Damascus. Therefore, in the last phase of his mediation, Annan tried to follow through with the decisions of the Action Group for Syria without success and, after hundreds of civilians died again during the Battle Tremseh on July 13th and since Russia and China vetoed a strong resolution of the UN Security-Council on July 19th, bore the consequences of his failure to stop the fighting. Eventually Kofi Annan laid down his office on August 2nd 2012.

Styles of Mediation

After this very broad view of Kofi Annan’s peace efforts in Syria, the decisive question of this series can be approached: How did the Joint Special Envoy mediate and which styles of mediation did he use? The last article already constituted the three variables of scope, method and focus originating from Svensson and Wallensteen’s famous book “The Go-Between” as basis to analyze the mediation style.

  • Scope: inclusive mediation

Kofi Annan clearly used an inclusive scope during his entire mediation effort. He made sure to include all relevant regional and international actors as well as Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition. He spoke personally to leaders from the USA, Iran and Russia and seemed to emphasize the importance of the international community and especially of regional actors like Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon to pressure Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition. Thereby, he did not reject talks with the Syrian government, even after their troops had broken the ceasefire and massacred hundreds of civilians in Houla and Tremseh. The only relevant country that Kofi Annan never visited was Israel, presumably to keep his credibility in front of his irreplaceable Arab allies.

  • Method: fostering mediation

The go-between mediated mostly in a fostering manner. Especially during the first weeks and months, he tried to create trust and positive dynamics instead of threats. Annan even coordinated the deadline for the first ceasefire on April 12th with Bashar al-Assad, before he informed the UN Security-Council and the Arab League about it. Only after the truce in Syria failed and the violence erupted again, the go-between criticized the Syrian dictator openly. However, besides open criticism, the JSE did not use any forcing tools like threads, direct pressure or strict deadlines – not even after the massacre of Houla or the Battle of Tremseh.

  • Focus: wide peace

Already the mandate made clear that it was not only the job of the Joint Special Envoy in Syria to stop the violence, but also to end human rights violations and to initiate a political process of democratization in Syria. Furthermore, this clearly wide focus was reflected in Annan’s Six-Point-Peace-Plan, where he also demanded a democratic process in Syria, the freedom of movement for journalists, an amnesty for political prisoners and the free passage of humanitarian aid.

Added together, Kofi Annan used an inclusive, fostering and wide style of mediation until his resignation in August 2012. In doing so, he most probably intended to calm the situation in Syria and create trust between him and the conflicting parties. However, as a result of this light strategy his peace mission lacked sufficient pressure, which is why neither Assad nor the Syrian opposition was ever forced to stop fighting or to implement Annan’s peace plan. Therefore, after the ceasefire was broken, the fighting intensified and no party implemented the Six-Point-Peace-Plan, it remained the former UN Secretary-General’s only tool to lay down his office and to clear the way for a new mediator with new ideas. This put new pressure on all regional and international actors, who were interested in a peaceful solution of the Syria crisis and therefore may account as one of Kofi Annan’s smartest decisions during his five and a half months in office.

[1]    The six main postulations of Annan’s plan were: 1) starting a democratic political process in Syria; 2) ceasing all fights and violence; 3) ensuring humanitarian assistance for refugees, fighters and internally displaced persons; 4) releasing political prisoners on both sides; 5) ensuring the freedom of movement for journalists; 6) ensuring the freedom of assembly in Syia.

Author Biography

Felix Troeltzsch is a regular contributor at the Global Pubblic Policy Watch. He recently graduated from the University of Jena with a master’s degree in Political Science, focusing on International Relations and Peace Studies. Before that, he studied International Relations and American Studies at the University of Leipzig and University of Warsaw. Felix is mainly interested in international conflicts, security policy, human rights, the European Union and the Middle East. During several stays abroad he has dealt intensively with the Balkans and the Black Sea region.

Picture Credit: United Nations Geneva under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license


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