By Chris Brown, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Chris Brown is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The resignation of Kofi Annan from his role as U.N. envoy to Syria does no more than recognize what has been clear for most of the past three months, namely that in this case, the standard peacemaking model of a ceasefire followed by talks between the parties to produce a compromise has no chance of success.
A year ago, such an initiative might have worked. But too much blood has now been spilled, and, crucially, the conflict has become overtly sectarian in a way that wasn’t the case in its early stages.
Annan, in his valedictory message in the Financial Times yesterday, is still inclined to blame disunity in the Security Council for the failure of his plan. “Only a united international community can compel both sides to engage in a peaceful political transition,” he argues. This should, I think, be revised to “not even a united international community can compel both sides to engage in a peaceful political transition if neither side conceives it to be in their interest to do so.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad knows very well that “peaceful political transition” means, at best, exile for him and his family. His supporters fear that such a transition could only empower the Sunni majority in Syria at the expense of Druze, Christian and Alawite minorities, while the opposition clearly believes it can win outright without sharing power with regime elements. This is a recipe for a fight to the finish.
The key question is just how bloody this fight will be, and this is something that the external supporters of the parties can actually still influence – there’s still a role here for the international community, although not one that can be exercised via the U.N. Security Council. Interestingly, the shift of emphasis to action in the U.N. General Assembly may actually be a good thing, given that one of the goals of international action should be to push Russia and China towards ending support for al-Assad. Russia in particular has a lot of political capital tied up in Syria, and it isn’t going to change tack unless the costs of supporting the current regime are increased substantially.
Western disapproval can’t achieve this outcome because Russia automatically discounts Western criticism. Criticism from the “global south” is another matter. For the last two decades, Russia and China have generally opposed “humanitarian interventions” and the operation of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine as expressions of modern imperialism, and have usually received support in the global south for so doing. Syria has been different; they didn’t enjoy being on the wrong end of a 13-2 vote in the Security Council earlier this year, and the overwhelming passing of the Saudi resolution in the Assembly today will have increased Russian and Chinese discomfort.
Talk of the influence of “global public opinion” may seem rather old-fashioned, but it’s certainly the case that Russian diplomats will have been watching how global opinion leaders such as Brazil (yes), India (abstained) and South Africa yes) voted today. Russian President Vladimir Putin may enjoy defying Western public opinion, but he won’t relish being locked in the same room diplomatically with Venezuela, Iran, Cuba and the other members of the international awkward squad.
External supporters of the opposition to the Syrian regime have a different task, which is to help this opposition develop a coherent identity, and in particular to produce a plausible “government-in-exile” based on the Free Syrian Army, preferably including some substantial non-Sunni representation, and excluding jihadists.
It may well be that the fighting in Syria degenerates into a stalemate, with de factor opposition control of much of the countryside, while the regime controls Damascus and Aleppo. Alternatively, the regime may suddenly collapse from within as more and more army units decide to switch sides. Either way, the existence of an alternative government would be a game changer, potentially stabilizing part of the country or, in the latter case, all of Syria.
The role of Turkey is going to be crucial here: no other country has equivalent standing within the region or the muscle to make an alternative government effective. And, of course, the geography of the region means that Turkey is going to be in the middle of the action whether it wants to be or not. The United States, Britain and France would be well advised to let Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan make the running in this matter, offering support and guarantees of security, but not trying to control the game.
All this ultimately means that although one phase of diplomacy may have ended, there is still a role – or even many roles – for the international community. Indeed, it may well be that the scrapping of the Annan peace plan actually clears the path for a less coherent, messier, but ultimately more fruitful kind of diplomacy. The people of Syria will certainly hope for better than what they’ve seen so far.