UN’s Syria Envoy Kofi Annan Resigns as Fighting Escalates

Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of United Nations. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan abandoned his effort to mediate a cease-fire in Syria, saying his task was thwarted by “finger-pointing and name-calling” in the UN’s most powerful body.

Annan blamed both sides for the increasing militarization of the conflict, and said that a “clear lack of unity” in the UN’s decision-making body -- where Russia has used its veto three times to protect the Assad regime -- has “fundamentally changed” his ability to be effective. His resignation as the special envoy appointed by the UN and Arab League is effective Aug. 31, and talks are under way to find his successor.

“The world is full of crazy people like me, so don’t be surprised if someone else decides to take it on,” Annan told reporters yesterday in Geneva.

His departure after less than six months is a blow to international efforts to broker a diplomatic solution to the increasingly violent conflict between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents. What began in March last year as a largely peaceful protest movement has morphed into a civil war amid growing apprehension that Assad may resort to using Syria’s large arsenal of sarin and VX nerve gas and other chemical weapons.

Hours after Annan’s announcement, Western powers wasted no time in blaming Russia for the failure in the peace efforts.

The “highly regrettable” and “very unfortunate” series of vetoes “place both Russia and China on the wrong side of history and on the wrong side of the Syrian people,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on board Air Force One en route to Florida.

‘Mission Impossible’

In Geneva, Annan expressed his own frustrations.

He said that, while some had labeled his job as a “mission impossible,” the “clear lack of unity in the Security Council” compounded the difficulties he already faced because of “Syrian government intransigence” and also because of the “escalating military campaign of the opposition.”

Annan’s action “reflects the reality that the center of gravity in this crisis lies on the ground within Syria, and international diplomacy has become largely irrelevant,” Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said in a telephone interview. “Annan was dealt a very weak hand and had very few cards to play.”

With the UN powerless to act, the survival of the four-decade Assad dynasty will probably be decided on the Syrian streets. Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, is shaping up as the biggest test yet of opposition fighters’ capabilities against artillery and air power, with thousands of civilians slipping across increasingly porous borders to seek refuge.

Extremists Threat

At least 130 people were killed across the country yesterday, Al Jazeera reported, citing the opposition Local Coordination Committees in Syria. They include 15 dead in Damascus and its suburbs, where fierce clashes were reported, the group said.

As the fighting has escalated, U.S. and European military and intelligence officials are growing increasingly worried that a fight to the death between Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime and the largely Sunni opposition could strengthen Islamic extremists in Syria and neighboring states.

While that would hurt Iran and Hezbollah, longtime allies of the Assad regime, it also could leave Israel facing more hostile regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, one U.S. and one European intelligence official said yesterday.

Symbolic Gestures

The 22-member Arab League, which suspended Syria last year, is trying to keep diplomacy alive at the UN by calling a vote today on a largely symbolic resolution “expressing grave concern about Syrian authorities threat to use chemical or biological weapons.”

Passages in the text demanding that Assad step down and calling on states to apply economic sanctions were removed in a bid to gain more than 100 votes in the 193-member assembly.

Russia, which sells arms to Syria, won’t back the largely symbolic resolution because it’s “one-sided and unbalanced,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement yesterday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday in London before heading to see a judo match at the Olympics. While the two leaders discussed Syria, Cameron failed to get Putin to change his mind on backing tougher measures to hold Assad accountable, according to a UN Security Council diplomat who asked for anonymity because diplomatic talks are private.

“Of course there have been some differences in the positions we’ve taken over the Syrian conflict,” Cameron told reporters after the meeting at his Downing Street office. “We both want to see an end to that conflict and a stable Syria, and we’ll continue to discuss, with our foreign ministers, how we can take this agenda forward.”

As for Annan, Putin expressed regret at his departure and said the former UN Secretary-General is “a very decent man and brilliant diplomat,” according to comments reported by Interfax.

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