Kofi Annan was too diplomatic to say it in public, but his meaning as he "briefed" the United Nations General Assembly Thursday on the continuing strife in Syria was unmistakable: Russia has failed.
Annan's plan to halt the fighting that has convulsed Syria for fifteen months was crafted to Moscow's specifications. It made no mention of ousting president Bashar al-Assad and leveled no accusations of responsibility for atrocity crimes. Looking resolutely and positively to the future, it demanded simply an end to the violence and aid and protection for the population. Russia would just have to deliver Damascus in complying with the plan's six points.
Russia has not delivered.
This failure is deeply disappointing, though not unfamiliar in this part of the world. Even the United States has proved itself unable to deliver its ally next door to halt the colonization of occupied Palestinian territories. True, the lethal leveling of rebellious neighborhoods is qualitatively different, and much more immediate, than slow-motion dispossession of a population, but in neither case has the distant great power been able to rein in its determined regional ally, least of all when the ally claims a mortal threat from terrorists.
Annan's account of the status of his efforts was shrouded in diplomatic subtleties. In contrast to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who opened the Assembly session with a blunt declaration that "President Assad and his government have lost all legitimacy," Annan reported evenly that he had met with Assad last week. Annan said he urged the Syrian leader to "make a strategic decision to change his path."
"Yes," Annan acknowledged, "some detainees have been released, and agreement has been reached on modalities for humanitarian assistance. But the hour demands much more. And President Assad has not indicated a change of course in his recent address to the National Assembly." Annan called upon member states to make clear "there will be consequences if compliance is not forthcoming."
The head of the Arab League, Nabil ElAraby, who addressed the Assembly before Annan, ticked off a list of comprehensive sanctions under the U.N. Charter's Chapter 7 enforcement authority that the League advocated if Syria continued to resist compliance with Annan's plan. But ElAraby was quick to add that the League has specifically not endorsed any "resort to military force" or any kind of armed intervention -- keeping the door open to a Russian deal.
Annan too dismissed calls in some quarters for intervention: "Individual actions or interventions will not resolve the crisis." Despite his discouragement with Damascus to date, Annan still puts his faith in the power of a united international community that will "speak with one voice" -- for the moment, presumably his. Cryptically, he said the time had come to consider "other options," and highlighted the need to "chart a clearer course for a peaceful transition."
Washington sources say that what Annan has in mind is an international contact group of the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus neighboring countries with ties to the government or its opposition (such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey), to hammer out a transition plan for Syria and then present it to the battling Syrians. This, they say, would assure the Syrian government's closest allies that they would secure their own interests in a transition, which the hard landing they may fear from Assad's seeming intransigence puts very much at risk.
Perhaps this does accurately reflect Annan's vision to "take that unity to a new level"; we don't yet know what he has laid out in private to members of the Security Council. As published, the account may be refracted through a self-referential Washington lens that envisions a plan of action so attractive to Moscow that Russia would impose its own arms embargo to bring a recalcitrant Assad to heel. In any event, the scenario would rudely discard the Security Council's pious devotion to the mantra of "Syrian ownership" of a "Syrian-led" political process.
Thursday's General Assembly debate revealed the growing support among member states for the human rights high commissioner's call to refer the reports of atrocity crimes in Syria to the International Criminal Court for investigation and trial. Russia has nixed earlier iterations of this idea, but at this stage a limited referral -- say, for atrocities from June 2012 on -- could give Russian diplomacy strong leverage to bring Assad to rein in his security forces. The ICC is certainly far more credible and impartial than the Russian-Chinese investigation team that Syria has proposed.
Some representatives in the Assembly debate suggested that Western media were playing up the Syria drama while ignoring far deadlier conflicts in Africa and elsewhere -- a point with which New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof seemed to concur in devoting his weekly column to the Sudanese government's ferocious campaign against its citizens fleeing to the Nuba mountains for refuge.
But Syria's agony is legitimately a top-tier global concern, in which major powers are keenly interested, even if none has a ready answer. As Annan noted, "The longer we wait, the more radicalized and polarized the situation will become." And we are all still waiting to see if Russia can deliver.