03/17/2012 01:00 pm ET Updated May 17, 2012

Annan Is Assad's Final Life Preserver

New York -- The most difficult dance has begun between regional and international players, with former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan entering the ring to lead the tango, to the tune of negotiations on the issue of Syria.

European strategies have begun to fragment and branch out, while American strategies have taken to backtracking -- this under the pretext of gathering under the banner of Annan's mission. Russia is at ease because the first round of Annan's strategy as joint Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States has been to Moscow's advantage. Indeed, his opening stances were nearly identical to those of Russia in terms of how to start looking for solutions and ways out of the Syrian crisis.

The League of Arab States, through Secretary-General Nabil El-Araby, raised the banner of negotiations as Annan wants them, leaving him enough space to define his tasks as he sees fit. And suddenly, the frame of reference of Annan's mandate is shrouded in obscurity, after the principal notion had been that this mandate was established on the basis of discussing mechanisms for the transition of power in Damascus through a political process. Such convenient obscurity coincided with many European and American intellectual centers mobilizing themselves, either to reject "getting implicated" in Syria and settle for withdrawing away from what is happening there, or to follow the lead of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) -- which put forward a strategy "that gives Moscow the lead role in formulating a ceasefire, and accedes to its demand that negotiations with the regime [in Damascus] not be preconditioned on Assad's demise." The author of this policy memo, Julien Barnes-Dacey, himself describes this proposed strategy as one characterized by "deep unpleasantness," but adds that "it is hard to conceive of any other way of stopping the current bloodshed."

Such a transformation in the policy, feelings and thinking of important sectors on the European and American scene requires the Arab countries that oppose such proposals to develop their strategies and to radically reformulate some of them. The tactic of political confrontation with Russia or tough talk with Kofi Annan remains a mere tactic, and does not form a strategy. Similarly, the methods of shaming or of waiting for failure to occur do not represent a strategy.

Indeed, if the countries that reject maintaining the regime in Damascus and keeping Bashar Al-Assad in power cling to such a stance, they must formulate a strategy that takes into account the fact that there are now those who oppose their insistence on the end of Bashar Al-Assad's rule a fundamental condition of negotiations, especially those conducted by UN-AL Envoy Kofi Annan. They must formulate a strategy that would take into account the fact that they will be confronting not just Russia and China, but also in effect the United States and Europe.

Indeed, arming the opposition is also a tactic, not a strategy. And what the current phase requires is to think of the nature of the alternative in power in Damascus, and of its identity as an essential component of the possibility of coming to an understanding primarily with Russia. The language of interests is no longer the traditional one restricted to oil, money and military presence in the Middle East, as dignity and offense have become an important element of Russia's considerations after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this aside from the seriousness of Russia feeling directly threatened if Islamists continue to rise to power -- something which those who call for change in Syria are required to examine carefully and seriously.

Kofi Annan considers himself to be Bashar Al-Assad's final life line, and he is determined to be a negotiator not on the local Syrian scene alone, but also between major leaderships, and most prominently those of the United States and Russia. Annan wants his mission to succeed, naturally, and he believes that there is no way for him to succeed if he enters the ring of political solutions while carrying the death penalty for the regime to give to Assad to sign. The exact opposite is true, as Annan realizes that if Assad decides to commit political suicide, he will not be going down alone. He realizes that presenting Bashar Al-Assad with a political death penalty will close the door to political solutions. And the question is: what does Annan have in mind?

Most likely Annan holds several cards he is prepared to burn, as well as several cards he is prepared to trade off. His priority is premised on the necessity of opening a direct channel between himself and Bashar Al-Assad in person, and he would prefer for the channel to remain at this level and not drop to that of one between Kofi Annan and Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem, the architect of Syrian policy with international parties. Indeed, Kofi Annan wants Bashar Al-Assad to take personal responsibility for the failure of his mission -- if it were to fail -- and he wants to offer him the incentives of success -- if the elements of such success were to become available.

Kofi Annan has always been known to be a man skilled at the art of navigation, a perseverant and experienced negotiator. Annan does not like to fail and hates to be the object of criticism. He has a smooth personality, but a solid core. His relations with the Syrian government and its leaders have been characterized by friendship and he had been quite lenient with Damascus during the confrontation between Syria on the one hand, and France and the United States on the other, resulting from the role played by Syria in Lebanon, especially prior to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and in its wake, back when Annan was Secretary-General of the United Nations.

The background of the stances Annan had taken back then remains obscure to this day, and it is unclear whether he continues to cling to the rationale behind those stances or whether he has reconsidered. And that is an important element of his thinking towards his mission now as an envoy, not as Secretary-General. Current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stands in a different trench, at the forefront of those sharply critical of the regime in Damascus, and he has come to the conclusion that the fate of this regime was to disappear, after it has lost its legitimacy before its people and has dealt with its people by killing them. Ban Ki-moon has adopted a principle for himself which he intends to be the defining feature of his historical legacy -- the principle of non-impunity.

How will this fundamental difference between the two men work itself out? That is not yet known. Perhaps they will meet perfectly, if Bashar Al-Assad were to cause Kofi Annan's mission to fail. But if there were to be a deal or a political formula based on maintaining the president and the regime in power, then disagreements will most likely arise.

Ban Ki-moon is not dealing with the Syrian issue emotionally, but rather from the perspective of his assessment of the change that came to the Arab region a year ago. He thus considers that there is no way for things to go back to what they had been, and this in his opinion means that there is no escaping the end of single-party rule in Syria and no way for the Baath Party to continue monopolizing power there. This also means that as long as the Syrian President views the opposition as terrorism, there will be no way for a political settlement to be reached. If, on the other hand, the goal is to provide a formula for an acceptable exit strategy, even one that provides guarantees of immunity similar to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's exit from power, Ban Ki-moon will then most likely place realism at the forefront in the name of saving lives.

Kofi Annan's relationship with Secretary-General of the Arab League Nabil Al-Araby is not as complicated. Indeed, Nabil Al-Araby is not in confrontation with Annan, because Annan perhaps provides him with transitional salvation, knowing that Arab countries are now divided over how to deal with Syria. And perhaps Nabil Al-Araby has accurately interpreted the indications coming out of Western capitals and reached the conclusion that they seek "temporary relief" through Annan's mission, in order to resolve the issue of Russia, and not just Syria.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN and seasoned diplomat Thomas Pickering, now a member of the board of trustees of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP), at the NCAFP's gala awards dinner honoring CEO of the Coca Cola Company Muhtar Kent and former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, said that he did not consider viable any diplomatic mission like that of Kofi Annan "if it is based on preconditions," adding that he "agree[s] with the stance of principle, but do[es] not foresee any possibility for success if the mission is based on preconditions."

This is also the opinion of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The latter insists on there being no preconditions to negotiations with Assad, contrary to the stance of the Arab Gulf states, who say that a political transitional process is the precondition for negotiations. Ambassador Pickering considers that there is an urgent need for Arab leaderships, especially in the Gulf, to closely examine the reasons that have led Moscow to go as far as to "isolate itself from the Arab World" because of Syria. He considers all players to have no choice but to "take advantage of the opportunities" available in order to "achieve goals" on the long-term.

The thinking among the ranks of the countries that insist on Bashar Al-Assad leaving is that Assad cannot continue to follow the Russian method, because he is "surrounded, bankrupt, and facing armed resistance to his chauvinistic regime." Their wager is on the regime weakening from within as a result of the perseverance of the opposition and of those who are arming it. Their wager is on exhausting the regime by arming the opposition and surrounding it regionally and internationally. They consider the change of leadership to be a final decision and Assad leaving power to be inevitable. Most of this strategy seems to rely on "ifs," in the sense of wagers: if Turkey agrees to humanitarian corridors, if Washington stops wavering in its stance, if the Europeans tighten their ranks again, and if China considers it to be in its interest to distance itself from Russia's obstinacy. "Ifs" are a tactic too, not a strategy. The best strategy would be one that would delve deep into: why is Russia being obstinate? And what does it want? Indeed, everyone is now trying to entice Russia into cooperating, each for their own considerations.

The strategy of the Arab Gulf states towards Russia must include acknowledging the importance of Syria for Moscow as a center of strategic presence amidst the Western assault on the region through the gateway of the Islamists' rise to power. Of course, there is also the element of Moscow refusing to be insulted and excluded, as it is clearly saying: no matter what it may cost us, we are here and we will not be insulted. Yet the element of the Islamists rising to power is not a mere passing, marginal chapter within Russia's considerations. It is an existential issue. Russia is surrounded by five Muslim republics, and it considers it to be of the utmost foolishness for it to approve of funding and support from the Arab Gulf and from the West for the Muslim Brotherhood -- or the Salafists -- to seize power in the Muslim World. This in Moscow's opinion would be suicide, and this is what the Arab Gulf states must acknowledge before anything else.

Indeed, the key to change in Damascus is not just for the regime to leave. It also lies in reaching an agreement in advance, at the Syrian, regional and international levels, on the fact that the alternative will not be an Islamist one.