08/14/2012 12:55 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2012

Annan Steps Off His Road to Nowhere

The resignation of a visibly agitated Kofi Annan as the UN and Arab League's envoy to Syria on Aug. 2 was depressing as it was inevitable. Mediation between the two warring sides -- on one side, a regime that has been committing crimes against its own people for over 40 years, and, on the other, a popular army hell-bent on making them pay -- was always doomed to failure. As for Mr. Annan's catchily-titled "six-point peace plan," it was pretty much dead on arrival: The whole proposal was predicated on a cessation of violence, with the ensuing truce overseen by international monitors. However, although the monitors were dispatched, the truce never materialized, and in the end they seemed to spend the bulk of their time dodging bullets and bearing witness to the aftermath of massacres.

Mr. Annan's mission impossible was made no easier by the divided and toothless international approach. If the UN Security Council had invoked the UN's "Chapter VII" provision, Syria's compliance with his plan would have at least become obligatory (on pain of sanctions or something worse). Yet China, hiding behind its policy of non-interference, and Russia, which sought to portray the deepening violence as an internal affair (but in reality is wedded to the regime -- its closest ally in the region), extracted the plan's diplomatic teeth. Exasperated, Mr. Annan blamed the "disunity of the international community" for failing to bring the protagonists to heel, and a few days later the UN General Assembly took the unusual step of voting to condemn its own Security Council (a vote made all the more peculiar by the fact that the resolution was sponsored by several Western members of the Security Council itself).

However, strong words and UN self-flagellation do not a coherent strategy make. Although all sides at the UN Security Council expressed their regret at Mr Annan's resignation, their disappointment was probably made all the sharper by the fact that responsibility for sorting out the mess is now firmly back in their in-tray. And the crisis does not appear to be easing. In Syria, the war is moving towards stalemate, with the Syrian army locked in a deadly game of whac-a-mole with the amorphous and loosely-organized Free Syrian Army (FSA). Barring any sudden resignation/removal/rubbing-out of the president, Bashar al-Assad, the slaughter looks set to persist, adding to the horrific death toll of over 10,000 souls. In the face of such carnage, public pressure on regional and Western leaders to act will only grow, but the menu of options before them is decidedly unappetizing.

Most mildly, tighter international sanctions are unlikely, given that China and Russia will be opposed (and, in any case, imposing a further collective economic punishment on the Syrian population is perhaps morally dubious). Alternatively, the UN could instead mimic its relatively successful anti-Gaddafi strategy in Libya and impose a "muscular" no-fly zone -- an option backed in recent days by the Syrian opposition leader, Abdelbaset Sieda. However, this suffers from two major shortcomings: one, Russia is virulently opposed (it maintains that it was tricked into abstaining on the Libyan UN resolution), and, two, Syria is not Libya -- unlike Libya, Syria has a varied topography (Libya's flat, open desert stretches were almost custom made for attack aircraft), and its major population centers are not so handily located near a sprinkling of European NATO bases. Meanwhile, a full-scale land military intervention and occupation is clearly off the table, unless perhaps you happen to be Donald Rumsfeld's one-time intelligence chief, Stephen Cambone, who recently defiantly described the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as "one of the great strategic decisions of the first half of the 21st century." Similarly, the notion of a more modest NATO military intervention, involving the setting up of safe havens close to the Turkish border, would do nothing for those Syrians in the center and south of the country (where the country's capital, Damascus, happens to be located), and could escalate very quickly if it brought Western forces into direct conflict with Syrian troops.

So global powers great and small, near and far, are likely to persist with their present, haphazard strategy: namely, equipping and financing the disparate rebel FSA units, in the hope that if/when the regime falls, their proxies remain controllable (or at least biddable). However, in a post-Assad Syria, the country could find itself pockmarked with different armed groups, representing different localities, tribes, religions and ethnicities, and answering to different foreign paymasters. If those countries in the anti-Assad camp powers are hoping that the FSA will do the job for them, they should be careful what they wish for.

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