02/24/2012 04:04 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2012

Kofi Time

With Kofi Annan chosen to be the joint UN/Arab League Special Envoy and today's Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis, the stage is set for a more serious diplomatic effort to bring the Syrian crisis to a close. Kofi's marching orders include:

The Special Envoy will provide good offices aimed at bringing an end to all violence and human rights violations, and promoting a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.

The Special Envoy will be guided in this endeavor by the provisions of the General Assembly resolution A/RES/66/253 and the relevant resolutions of the League of Arab States. He will consult broadly and engage with all relevant interlocutors within and outside Syria in order to end the violence and the humanitarian crisis, and facilitate a peaceful Syrian-led and inclusive political solution that meets the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people through a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition.

This broad mandate, which the five permanent members of the UN Security Council have approved, implicitly points in the direction of the Arab League plan that Russia and China previously vetoed, even if it does not explicitly mention the need for Bashar al-Assad to step aside. The ambiguity is intended to hide the differences of view on the UNSC, but clearly no political solution can meet the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people with Bashar still in office.

Kofi will surely meet with Bashar al-Assad. The question is whether he will be able to tell him that the P5 want him out. Colum Lynch notes that in his last trouble-shooting effort Kofi arranged for power-sharing in Kenya. Bashar has spilled far too much blood in Syria for the opposition to accept sharing power with him. The Russians should by now be wondering whether their best bet for holding on to port access and arms sales in Syria is Bashar. Once they decide differently, Kofi will have the support he needs for defenestration.

Anne-Marie Slaughter today in the New York Times calls for "no-kill" zones established by the Free Syria Army (FSA) near Syria's borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. This would require a major effort to arm the FSA and provide it with special forces advisors. The notion that this can be done "to protect all Syrians regardless of creed, ethnicity or political allegiance" without precipitating the chaotic ethnic and sectarian civil war that Anne-Marie herself recognizes as the worst outcome is unrealistic. And doing it without taking down Syria's air defenses would condemn the effort to failure.

Only the U.S. can quickly and effectively destroy Syria's Russian-supplied air defense and severely damage his artillery, which is bombarding his opponents. At yesterday's Syria event at the Center for National Policy, colleagues evoked the image of President Clinton reacting to the shelling of Sarajevo, suggesting that President Obama might do likewise.

We too readily forget that Clinton waited three and half years -- until Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole started taking him to task for not carrying out his campaign promise to bomb the Serbs -- before initiating the military action that ended the war in Bosnia. I doubt even a Republican candidate bemoaning what is happening in Syria would get the White House to drop other priorities in favor of another Middle East war.

The Syrian opposition doesn't have years, or even months. It needs protection quickly. The best bet is a vigorous diplomatic effort by Kofi Annan.

Today in Tunis the Friends of Syria called for a ceasefire, humanitarian relief to the cities under attack, deployment of UN peacekeepers and the beginning of a dialogue process aimed at a political settlement. They also named the Syrian National Council "a" legitimate representative of the Syrian people and promised further sanctions and diplomatic isolation of Damascus. They did not call for arming of the opposition, which has been left up to individual states. The Saudis made it clear they thought it a good idea (and they will presumably do it).

Few believe Bashar al-Assad will cave. I won't be surprised if he eventually does, though I'm not prepared to predict when. His army and other security forces are exhausted and won't want to enter the cities they have been shelling from afar. If Bashar can get the international community to accept responsibility for feeding the inhabitants and maybe even maintaining law and order, he may count himself lucky. His security forces could then lick their wounds and prepare to fight another day, while blaming the internationals for anything that goes wrong.

Syria is showing us the limits of military force. It is a blunt tool that in this instance is likely to bring about the civil war that we should most want to avoid. Diplomacy won't be pretty. It will require negotiations with Bashar al-Assad and acceptance of compromises that are odious. But it is our best bet for the moment. Kofi time.

Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a Scholar at the Middle East Institute. He blogs and tweets @DanielSerwer