The Middle East Channel

Is it time for Kofi Annan to give up in Syria?

Is it time for Kofi Annan to declare that his bid to resolve the Syrian crisis has failed? A growing number of Western diplomats argue privately that he should. U.S. officials have stated publicly that Annan's peace plan "is failing," and the Saudi foreign minister has said confidence in his efforts is "rapidly falling." Syrian security forces continue to target dissidents, rebel forces remain active, and there have been attacks on convoys carrying U.N. monitors -- reinforcing the case that Annan should admit defeat.

The former U.N. Secretary-General has made it clear that he knows his mission is close to failure. But it's very difficult for him to call the whole thing off. While violence has continued in Syria at what Annan calls "unacceptable" levels, the death-rate has generally been lower than prior to the "ceasefire" he engineered in April. But whoever is attacking the U.N. observers probably wants to foment a full-scale war, and fighting appears not only to be on the rise again but also to be spreading into Lebanon.

If Annan were to quit now -- precipitating the withdrawal of U.N. military personnel from Syria -- he could risk a further escalation. This presents an ethical dilemma: Is it better for the United Nations to oversee, and arguably provide cover for, the current violence or retreat and open the way for something potentially worse? 

Annan, previously pilloried for the U.N.'s failings in cases such as Srebrenica and Rwanda (some of which have been rehearsed by Western hawks who dislike his role in Syria) is deeply sensitive to attacks on his own performance and that of the U.N. In dealing with other conflicts, such as that in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he has argued for patience and persistence in the face of continuing violence. He can hardly turn away from that philosophy now, and is unlikely to admit defeat quickly.

Even if Annan wants to quit, the political implications of doing so might be destructive. Russia, which approved his mission to win breathing space for its allies in Damascus, would accuse him of having given up too early. The Western members of the Security Council could push for a new U.N. resolution imposing new sanctions on Syria. Russia and China (which has made sincere-sounding statements about backing Annan) would almost certainly then use their vetoes against the West for a third time on Syria.

This would mean the end of U.N. diplomacy over Syria, over a year after European members of the Security Council first proposed a resolution censuring Damascus. In theory, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could find a replacement for Annan. But Ban has taken a much harder moral line on the conflict than Annan, and Syria has accused him of "outrageous" bias. It is hard to see how he could credibly re-launch talks. It is equally difficult to think of any international mediator with enough prestige and drive to take on Assad where Annan failed.

So Annan is trapped: he cannot keep up his peace process indefinitely, but nor can he resign peremptorily. If the Syrian situation deteriorates, he has one chance to escape this quandary. In late July, the Security Council will decide whether to renew the mandate for the U.N. monitoring mission. U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, has stated that she will veto the continuation of the mission if there is no improvement on the ground. Technically, Annan could continue his diplomatic efforts after the monitors went home. But the U.S. veto would be a vote of no confidence that he could not survive.

But Annan presumably does not want to be humiliated. So, with his original peace plan fraying, he needs some sort of Plan B, both to alleviate Syrian suffering and safeguard his reputation. He hasn't been coy about this, telling the Security Council at the start of May that he would "jump" at new ideas. 

One Plan B -- calculated to please Western commentators -- would be for Annan to throw caution to the wind, declare that the Syrian government is irredeemable, and call for a major international intervention. There has been a lot of talk about a no-fly zone and creating safe areas or humanitarian corridors. But Annan and his team know that these are politically or operationally impractical. Even if Russia and China weren't primed to veto proposals for any U.N.-mandated military presence in Syria, there is very little evidence that NATO powers want to send in forces. While Western officials may think that it's time for Annan to announce that he's failed, they don't really want him to tell them what to do as a result.

A lower-risk alternative would be for Annan to state that, on the basis of reporting from the U.N. observers, he believes that it is time for a strategic pause in his diplomatic efforts. He could request the Security Council to keep the peacekeeping mission in place to track violence, and then lay out a series of conditions he needs to see met before renewing his mediating role. Some of these would be based on his initial peace plan, such as a lasting diminution of violence and the release of political prisoners.   

But Annan could also test the goodwill of some wavering international backers by asking for concrete signs of progress in bilateral efforts by the U.S., Russia, and others to prepare the ground for peace talks. If Annan is struggling, nobody else seems capable of pulling off a diplomatic coup either, as the Arab League's recent inability to convene Syrian opposition groups for a unity conference demonstrated. Annan could state that he remains willing to act as a mediator in the future -- but only if he is sure that the Security Council's members and regional powers can cajole or compel their clients in Syria to bargain.

A strategic pause might allow some facts on the ground to change to Annan's advantage. There have, for instance, been some signs of rebel forces regaining momentum in recent weeks. Peaceful protests also continue, having spread to previously quiet Aleppo this week. If these trends continue, the Syrian regime may begin to rethink its position on talks (the U.S. and its allies can continue to keep Damascus off-balance with gestures such as this week's war-games in Jordan.) Even the much-maligned U.N. observers, who have deployed faster than peacekeeping experts thought likely a month ago, may make a difference if they can switch from reporting on violent incidents to giving public warnings of upcoming Syrian offensives.

The odds against Annan succeeding remain daunting. But on balance, the risks of him quitting outright are too great for him to do so yet. By declaring a strategic pause, he could show that he is not willing to be treated like a fool by the Syrian regime -- and stay on standby for a better opening to mediate later.

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.

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Could an Israeli attack on Iran promote peace?

U.S. President Barack Obama might prefer to give the "green light" for an Israeli attack on Iran (if the diplomatic talks on Iran's nuclear program fail) if he were convinced that it "could get the job done," as recently assessed by Walter Russell Mead. Is it really a bad idea? Absurd as it sounds, is there a logic to America letting Israel strike Iran's nuclear installations rather than dissuading the Israelis? Could an ill-conceived war actually be a way to achieve a net-positive impact?

In the past, diplomatic breakthroughs for Israel have come after intense and prolonged periods of violence. Ironically, therefore, Israel's attack could probably be an effective way to break the deadlock in the Middle East peace process that shows no signs of going anywhere on its own. While this path is certainly not a desirable option, it is worth considering how it might play out.

Even if a successful Israeli attack delays the Iranian nuclear project by four years at most, it will certainly leave an enduring imprint on the political culture in Israel. Any attack will incite Iran to retaliate by launching long-range missiles on Israel's cities. The Israeli home front, however, is unprepared to be hit by thousands of missiles and rockets. In this case, the Iranian response could overshadow Israelis' sense of victory buoyed by an impressive attack and invalidate the initial support given to the government's act of war. A deadly and costly war of attrition is on the horizon. Furthermore, most Israelis are not really concerned about this nuclear threat. As shown by the Peace Index -- an ongoing public opinion survey project aiming to systematically follow the common public opinion trends in Israel concerning the Israeli-Arab conflict -- in November 2011, a sizable majority (61 percent) believed Israel should come to terms with the fact that Iran would ultimately have nuclear weapons. In February 2012, 19 percent believed that once Iran has nuclear weapons, there are high chances it would indeed use them against Israel and 63 percent opposed a unilateral Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. It is therefore safe to assume that even a successful attack would only create short-term euphoria, and most Israelis would not view it as a real relief from real danger.

Most importantly, unlike Hamas' and Hezbollah's attacks from Gaza and Lebanon, Tel Aviv would be targeted in the case of this scenario, the home of the Israeli elites and the cultural and economic capital of the country. Most likely, a scenario similar to that of the Gulf War in 1991 would repeat itself (only this time it would be worse), when a high proportion of citizens left town temporarily because of the Iraqi missiles that rained down on the city. This time the population might find refuge in less inhabited regions that may not be as targeted by the missiles, or simply remain shut in their homes. Unlike in 1991 (when 40 rockets targeted Israel), however, hundreds if not thousands of missiles would be launched. Then, only one civilian was killed, while according to Israel's optimistic projection, a war with Iran would cause Israel to suffer about 500 civilian fatalities if not more. However, in contrast to the residents of Israel's periphery, who have periodically been targeted by Hamas' and Hezbollah's rockets, the Israeli privileged and powerful elites would not tolerate a prolonged disruption of their lives.

The Gulf War did not generate political protest, as the Israeli government had not been held accountable either for the Iraqi attacks or for its inability to stop them. Yet the hit on Tel Aviv played a major role in helping the Israelis later internalize the limits of the use of force. Hence, this war provided backwind to the Oslo Accords two years later. Considering this aftermath to the Gulf War, we could expect a much more significant impact this time around if the Israeli government was viewed as bearing responsibility for the damage and death inflicted by an Israel-Iran war of attrition, with pointed questions surely raised by many Israelis regarding the war's justification. After all, a vague threat is displaced by an immediate danger. Furthermore, with the ongoing rift between the elected leaders and the defense professionals over the urgency and effectiveness of an independent Israeli strike -- which has recently become more apparent with the public announcements of Meir Dagan, Yuval Diskin and Benny Gantz -- any military failure may further ignite criticism leveled against those who did not listen to the professionals' advice.

It is in this moment of attrition, proving the fallacy of the assumption of "getting the job done," where American diplomats could step in and offer a new package deal: an Israel-Iran ceasefire, monitoring of the future Iranian nuclear project and Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank, as well as possibly the Golan heights if the situation in Syria is stabilized. This equation might compensate both the Israelis and Iranians for their losses, and especially imbue meaning and purpose to the Iranian sacrifice and thus help it to accept the equation.

It is most likely that public opinion in Israel would be more receptive of political compromise that eliminates a tangible threat, especially if this initiative could be tied to something like the outstanding Saudi peace initiative, which, despite the bitter antagonism between Iran and Saudi Arabia, could be part of a template proposal for new regional order. This proposed order may ease the mind of Israelis regarding possible future threats. With a new but also removable price tag attached to Israel's control of the West Bank and the Golan Heights, fewer Israelis than ever may be inclined to subject their interests to the will of the local settlers of these territories. After all, there is consensus in public opinion in Israel around the so-called "two state solution" and the settlement project is not highly favored. With the current perceived low-cost rule on the West Bank, however, Israeli elites appear to lack the sufficient political energy or interest to induce the government to alter the status quo, but this could change if the cost rises. And the U.S., backed by European governments, may have both the ability and the motivation to impose its will in order to reduce collateral, primarily economic damage caused by any Israel-Iran war.

True, the costs are immense; however, as the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict shows, diplomatic endeavors have not brought about political breakthroughs, but only costly wars. It was Henry Kissinger who came to realize in 1973 that only a new round of Egyptian-Israeli war would persuade Israel to give up the Sinai Peninsula after six years of political stalemate.  Apparently, therefore, he did not work hard to prevent the war, delayed crucial aid to Israel once it had begun, and prevented Israel from gaining a clear-cut victory, all of which aimed to drive Israel to be more willing to compromise, culminating with Israel's full withdrawal from Sinai in exchange for peace. A similar logic may be at work now, though with a more complicated equation.

If all of this sounds a tad far-fetched -- well, in a way it is. There is of course a much more practical option that would not involve the death and destruction of the preceding scenario.

The Israeli leadership can embark on a different strategy: With the current formation of a new "national unity" coalition with the opposition centrist Kadima Party (under the new leadership of Shaul Mofaz, who has seemed critical of a belligerent Iran policy at times in the past), it can withdraw from the option of attacking Iran and promote a peaceful agenda with the Arabs in line with the neglected Saudi peace initiative. True, Israel can be better united to deal aggressively and immediately with the Iranian threat without fearing electoral consequences, but the government may also have more latitude to make concessions on the Palestinian front. Israel may even try to combine both options by encouraging the negotiations with Iran to expand the equation in order to increase Iran's willingness to stop the nuclear military project. In a similar manner, Iran itself may put the expanded equation on the table and thereby justify its abandonment of its nuclear program, just as much as the U.S. and EU can play a more active role in promoting this more balanced state of affairs and thus encourage a trust-building process with Iran. In the end, when working through how events might proceed, an Israeli strike on Iran is simply not an acceptable option to achieve any kind of regional peace, and a tremendous effort should be done to guarantee that this path will not be the last resort in the Middle East.

Yagil Levy is associate professor at the Open University of Israel and currently Aaron and Cecile Goldman visiting professor in the department of government at Georgetown University. He is the author of 6 books on civil-military relations in Israel.  

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