It's just over a month since U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon chose Kofi Annan to represent the United Nations and Arab League as their envoy for Syria. Annan has moved quickly to create a diplomatic framework for dealing with the crisis, putting together proposals for a ceasefire and "Syrian-led" talks that both the Security Council and Arab League have endorsed. But the last week has seen mounting criticism of this plan.
At first sight, Annan's proposals don't seem so contentious. The main pillars are an "inclusive Syrian-led political process," an "effective United Nations supervised cessation of armed violence," and "timely provision of humanitarian assistance." Other points include the release of political prisoners, letting journalists move freely, and permitting peaceful demonstrations. While these are unquestionably urgent priorities, however, the plan will ultimately be judged on the implementation of its political and military aspects.
The standard line of attack on this blueprint is that it appeals to all the wrong people. Unlike the previous Arab League peace plan, it does not call for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down. Meanwhile, Russia and China, having stopped the Security Council from backing the League's proposals, welcome this softer approach. When Annan announced this week that President Assad had accepted the plan, skeptics accused Damascus of using the diplomatic opening to buy time. Assad, they allege with reason, is a congenital breaker of promises and probably views this war in existential terms: nothing short of total victory can guarantee his continuation in power. So his support for Annan's plan is proof that it must be flawed.
Still, it's unfair to criticize Annan for engineering a diplomatic consensus. He was chosen precisely because he could help soothe fraying tempers at the United Nations and avert calls for an ill-conceived military intervention in Syria, as I noted in a recent piece for World Politics Review. He has done a far better job in these terms than initially seemed possible. But he faces a far worse context for peacemaking inside Syria than when he took the job.
Conflict resolution experts argue that combatants negotiate seriously when facing a "mutually hurting stalemate": a situation in which both sides grasp that victory is unachievable. In February, it seemed possible that Syria was headed for just such a stalemate, with anti-government forces holding significant urban areas and the army losing confidence. If this situation had continued, Annan's basic concept -- a U.N.-supervised cessation of hostilities to create space for political dialogue -- could have been workable.
But the security situation has changed significantly. The army got the better of the opposition in Homs and Idlib. Rather than break under the strain of fighting in built-up areas, the military has kept up its offensives while rebels say they are running out of ammunition. In this context, even as intense fighting continues, Assad has less incentive to talk in good faith. Yet the Security Council and Arab League can hardly reverse themselves and say that they no longer believe negotiations are worthwhile.
The fissiparous Syrian opposition is anyway divided over whether to talk with the regime, though it's likely that at least some parties will eventually come to the table, if only to outflank rival factions. There are few harder tasks for a mediator than guiding talks between an aggressive regime and a disunited opposition. One reason that the Darfur conflict has dragged on for so long, by comparison, is that the anti-government forces there are splintered into multiple movements. When the United States and Britain brokered a peace deal in 2006, only one of the rebel groups signed up and the rest kept fighting.
In the Syrian case, Qatar and Turkey -- public opponents of Assad -- have this week been trying to get the opposition to unite. They are yet to succeed and there is a risk that Assad will be able to play his various opponents off against each other, especially if his forces retain their predominance.
If the "Syrian-led political process" envisaged by Annan is likely to be compromised, what of the "effective United Nations supervision mechanism" to oversee ceasefires by both government and anti-government forces? This is also a potentially dangerous clause. The Arab League lost a huge amount of credibility with its ill-conceived monitoring mission in Syria launched in December. As I argued in these pages at the time, the League mission helped focus attention on the crisis. But it also came under fierce scrutiny for the dubious quality of some of its personnel and their debilitating lack of freedom of movement. A U.N. observer mission now that suffered similar defects would alienate Syrian citizens and opposition alike.
But again, it is hard for the Arab League and United Nations to back down from the call for a supervision mechanism of some sort. Some Western officials lament that the League withdrew its original monitors when they could at least have at least acted as the basis for a U.N.-led mission. So Annan and the organizations that back him are stuck with two initiatives -- the political process and ceasefire supervision -- that could both prove self-defeating. Other elements of Annan's proposals still need to be implemented urgently, above all its call for the "timely provision of humanitarian assistance." But if the Syrian government manages to distort the political and security aspects of the plan, it is dead.
Annan must therefore move with deliberate caution, even if the Security Council and Arab League want to see initial results quickly (U.N. monitors on the ground or a schedule for political talks, for instance). While a U.N. mission should deploy to Damascus and selected sensitive urban centers and military bases to track events, Annan should nonetheless aim to keep it as small and agile as possible. The bigger the operation, the easier it will be for Syrian security forces to obstruct and manipulate. But the mission can be kept small if Security Council members are prepared to supply such a team with information from drones and satellites.
Meanwhile, Annan can give the opposition some time to agree to a proper political platform by stipulating that he will not recommend face-to-face talks among all parties for some weeks or months. He and his advisers should spend this period continuing the pain-staking process of probing the parties' positions in individual dialogues (when, for example, Annan negotiated an end to Kenya's post-electoral violence in 2008, he demonstrated mastery of the sequencing of his discussions, and hopefully he can repeat this).
A small mission and gradualist approach to talks may not sound like the formula for peace in Syria. As time passes, the army may be able to consolidate their gains -- even under the cover of a ceasefire -- while the rebels can rearm. But if Annan is to retain his credibility as an impartial mediator -- as is demanded by the mandate which he has been given -- he should not rush to get peace talks going too soon or negotiate the deployment of a large-scale international monitoring on Assad's terms. Annan is not a miracle-worker, but he is a professional: he should be given the chance grind out a peace deal. Given the current balance of forces both inside and outside Syria, there are tragically few alternatives.
Richard Gowan is Associate Director for Crisis Diplomacy and Peace Operations at New York University's Center on International Cooperation and a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.