The five-point programme agreed upon in Cairo on March 10 between the Arab League and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicates that Moscow is re-thinking its position, very slowly, vis-a-vis Syria. High hopes are being pinned on former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan who landed in Damascus on Saturday, mandated by all sides to hammer out a solution for Syria. By no means is it a breakthrough nor is it yet a U-turn. While many in the Arab world hailed it as bringing the Syrian crisis one step closer to conclusion, the Cairo meeting, and Annan's diplomacy, are nothing more than an illusion that the international community is holding onto.
After a heated debate between him and the foreign ministers of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Lavrov came out endorsing a work plan based on five points to end the violence in Syria "from all sources". Additionally, the two sides pledged to bring humanitarian aid to embattled cities and towns, along with a proper observation mechanism. They also strongly refused any foreign military intervention in Syria and supported the efforts of the joint Arab League/U.N. envoy to Syria, Annan. The last point is probably the most important, and it sums up the change in the upper echelons of power in Moscow, one week after Vladimir Putin was re-elected president. The terms of reference for Annan's visit, after all, are all decisions reached at the U.N. General Assembly last month, and the Arab League Initiative, which calls on President Bashar Al Assad to delegate powers to his Vice-President Farouk Al Shar'a.
Annan's mission to Damascus had Russia's fingerprints all over it. They were the first to welcome his appointment, and then push the right buttons in the Syrian capital, to make it happen. Annan was apparently mandated to achieve in Damascus what the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) achieved in Sana'a, a win-win scenario for both Al Assad and the Syrian Street. The U.N. Resolution for Libya, for example, did not mention a full-scale war to bring down Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. All it did was refer to protection of civilians -- yet the international community used that resolution to justify the Libya endgame. Staunch opponents of the Syrian regime in Doha, Riyadh and the EU are hoping that the same 'constructive ambiguity' can be used in the Syrian crisis to hammer out regime change in Syria, after Moscow accepted the Arab League initiative.
This apparently is what they wanted Annan to achieve in Syria, which is very contrary to what the Russians wanted -- a 'soft landing' for the Syrian regime, based on dialogue, rather than a violent or abrupt overthrow. The differences between Russia and the Arab League, which were briefly muted at the Cairo meeting, will explode following Annan's departure from Damascus. The Russians did not want him to negotiate regime change in Damascus; their benchmark is power-sharing with the opposition.
Different stakeholders in the Syrian crisis, therefore, are expecting different results from Annan. That is why the former U.N. Secretary-General has had a slim chance of success, from day one. The Syrians are saying that no dialogue will succeed so long as "armed terrorist groups" are freely roaming the Syrian streets, insisting that military operations come first, and then go parallel with a political track. Far from being in the mood to end the operations, which is the crux of the Annan mission, they are carrying out an extensive campaign in Idlib, similar to the one implemented in the embattled Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs.
So long as there is no U.N. Resolution mandating implementation of the Arab League Initiative -- especially one not under Chapter 7 -- then they will continue to ignore any calls for Al Assad to stop the operations or delegate powers to the vice-president. The Americans, busy with election year, are not in a hurry to solve things in Syria and apart from calling on Al Assad to step down, have provided no roadmap as to how that can happen, and what the transition would look like in Syria. The Arab League still thinks, however, that it can make it happen, just as the GCC did in Yemen, in complete denial of how helpless it stands at making that a reality. Blue helmets are no longer on the table for Syria. Nor is a coup, and certainly not an Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya-like scenario.
Heavyweights like Qatar and Saudi Arabia are most interested in arming the Syrian opposition, which is being vetoed by the Americans and Europeans, who fear that these arms can find their way into the hands of Al Qaeda. Additionally, neither the hardline Syrian opposition abroad, like the Syrian National Council, wants Annan to succeed nor does the Syrian regime.
Optimists, therefore, should not over-estimate the Cairo outcome or Annan's diplomacy in Damascus. His success in solving the Kenyan crisis in 2008 does not qualify him for Syria in 2012. First, while Annan was navigating familiar territory in Africa, he is now venturing into a Syrian labyrinth that he knows nothing about. The power-sharing formula he hammered out for Kenya involved firm backing of the U.N., the EU, and foreign governments while to date, many players in the Syrian scene remain divided on what they want from Syria, and the U.N. Security Council has repeatedly failed -- thanks to two double vetoes from Russia and China -- at coming out with a coherent resolution to end the violence.
All sides put efforts into bringing Annan to Damascus, pathetically trying to show the world that they were "doing something serious" about Syria, after the U.N. failures, and the fiasco at the Friends of Syria Conference in Tunisia in February. Moscow needed it to ward off accusations that it was siding with the Syrian regime against ordinary Syrians, thereby justifying the horrific death toll in Syria. The "seriousness," apparently, ended there. Back in 2008, Annan threatened to walk out on the Kenyan negotiations if they failed. If he does the same today, nobody would lift a finger to stop him -- not in Cairo and Riyadh, or in Moscow, and certainly not in Damascus.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Damascus, Syria. This article appeared in Gulf News entitled, "Annan's Mission Doomed to Failure" on March 12, 2012.