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Kofi Annan in Syria: Mission Impossible... Or?

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Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general once known as a diplomatic rockstar, is trying to start meaningful talks to end the brutality in Syria that has claimed at least 8,000 lives over the past year.

Chosen as an envoy by the United Nations and the Arab League, Annan may offer the last chance to rescue negotiations, which might entail Syrian President Bashar al-Assad excluded from the process so the many Syrian opposition groups could work out a deal.

(The Arab League also chose Nasser al-Kidwa, a Palestinian diplomat and nephew of Yasser Arafat as his deputy. But Syria would not allow him to enter the country, presumably to express its opposition to the Arab League's condemnation of Assad, diplomats said last Monday. Ahmad Fawzi, a former U.N. spokesman from Egypt, among others is accompanying Annan.)

But like most dictators, Assad is not giving an inch. His troops are buying time, rooting out purported enemies and firing into opposition neighborhoods while there is still time to do so.

He is blaming the violence as a response to armed groups. But so far their weapons are not the heavy ones that can combat Assad's army, backed by out-of-control militia. The death toll has increased in recent weeks.

Speak with one voice
Annan told the divided U.N. Security Council on Friday by video-conference from Geneva he wanted them to speak with one voice. In a follow-up news conference, he also warned that any major escalation of the crisis "will have an impact in the region which will be extremely difficult to manage" much more so than in Libya.

At minimum, Annan is telling Assad he can't stop change with guns. "I have urged the president to heed the old African proverb: 'You cannot turn the wind, so turn the sail,'" Annan, a native of Ghana, said. "The realistic response is to embrace change and reform."

"Our discussions focused on the core objectives of this process: an immediate stop to the violence and the killing; access for humanitarian agencies, and the start of a political dialogue. I presented a set of concrete proposals which would have a real impact on the situation on the ground and which will help launch a process aimed at putting an end to this crisis. The transformational winds blowing today cannot be long-resisted."

He will be sending in a technical team this weekend to look at monitoring mechanisms and then decide when to go in again. So far the Assad government has insisted "armed groups" declare a cease-fire, neighboring countries pledge to stop arming them and all nations pledge not to finance protestors, according to the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, confirmed by diplomats.

Still no Council resolution
Two previous resolutions were vetoed by Russia and China, in part because of an Arab League plan for Assad to delegate power during negotiations. The new resolution, diplomats said, might paper over this disagreement but U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said she still "counted eight sticking points."

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé made clear on Monday, at a Security Council meeting called by British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, that a "red-line" would be Moscow's insistence on equivalence -- that the Syrian government and the rebels were equally responsible for the destruction and the rebels had to disarm first.

At the same meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the crisis in Syria as a revolt against a dictatorial regime. "We reject any equivalence between premeditated murders by a government military machine and the activities of civilians under siege driven to self-defense."

Respecting Syria's sovereignty, she said, did not mean "this Council should stand silent when governments massacre their own people."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov conceded that Syrian authorities bore a "huge share of responsibility for the current situation" but said they were fighting combat units that included Al Qaeda.

He rejected the Arab League's call for Assad to delegate power, saying regime change or sanctions imposed by many countries were "risky recipes of geopolitical engineering."

Syria is backed by Iran. Tehran's opponents, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have been accused of arming rebels. Both deny it.

If diplomacy fails, then what?
Turkey, housing thousands of fleeing Syrians, wants a humanitarian zone in Syria to protect endangered civilians. But who would send a security force to protect them?

The United States is in no mood to launch any kind of invasion, despite claims to the contrary by Syrian apologists that NATO is eager to duplicate the Libyan intervention. Wars have unintended consequences, especially in an election year.

So experts repeatedly turn to Russia, which supplies Damascus with weapons, as the only nation that could pressure the government. If Annan, aided by Russia, does not make any progress "only an intensifying military one will remain, with dire consequences for all," said the International Crisis Group.

Asked by this reporter, about Moscow's power, Lavrov said, "I would love to see such a situation for the Russian Federation in world affairs. We all understand that today's problems of the world cannot be resolved by the desire or efforts by one country alone."

He maintained that his government was in regular contact with Syria and had persuaded them to accept the now-aborted Arab League observer mission as well as other diplomatic interventions. But he said, "The more we insist government must do something, the more people get killed."

What is not debatable is the suffering of civilians, most of them at the hands of the government and its allies. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has been outspoken on the crisis, raised the number of dead to over 8,000.

Children shot and jailed
A U.N. Commission of Inquiry and Navy Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, have described the conflict as crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch interviewed survivors and journalists who have entered the country, reported atrocities, including the shooting and jailing of children.

They cannot all be wrong.

Valerie Amos, the chief U.N. relief official, visited Syria earlier this month and will send staff to participate in a government-led assessment mission. But she said this was a far cry of arranging for aid groups to help those needing food and medicine and evacuate the wounded.

"I was told that some 50,000 to 60,000 people used to live in the (devastated Baba Amir area of Homs). We need to know what happened to them, where they are now, and what they need," she said.

Not everyone in Syria opposes the government, fearing anarchy and an enlarged civil war. Some are apprehensive of retaliation against Assad's minority Alawite sect and many Christians fear rule by a Sunni Muslim majority.

But the bottom line is that a massacre is taking place and few know how to stop it. Frustrated, Portugal's foreign minister, Paulo Sacadura Cabral Portas, asked, "How many more thousand dead will it take for this Security Council to meet its responsibilities? How long will we sit silent while the Syrian regime pushes the country into bloody sectarian conflict and civil war?"