Kofi Annan: A Wise Choice for a Near Impossible Task

Word is trickling out that Ban Ki Moon has asked former Secretary General Kofi Annan to serve as a joint United Nations/Arab League special envoy to Syria.  He would make an excellent pick, though he faces a near impossible task: to secure the immediate humanitarian access to besieged cities in Syria while mediating a political solution to the crisis.

His first job is the most urgent. Yesterday, Ban Ki Moon told reporters that the top priority of the new envoy would be to encourage a ceasefire that would permit humanitarian aid to finally flow.  The city of Homs has been sacked now for nearly three weeks. Food, medicine and heating oil is running dangerously low.  Groups like the Red Cross/Red Crescent need assurances that they will be able to deliver aid without being targets.

Over the longer term, Annan will now be seen as the chief mediator between Assad and Syrian rebels, and between the West/Arab League and Russia/China.  He does have some post – UN experience that may inform his work. In 2008, after 1,300 people were killed in election related ethnic violence in Kenya, Annan swept in and used his considerable clout, popularity and mediating skills to secure a negotiated solution to this conflict. (This is purely anecdotal, but I’ve been told that around that time “Kofi” became a very popular baby name in Kenya.)

Finding a negotiated settlement in Syria will be a much more daunting task. The key to his success will be the extent to which Russia has his back.  So far, the signs are not good at all. Russia voted against the General Assembly resolution that directed Ban Ki Moon to create a special envoy for Syria in the first place.  If Syria believes that Russia is not much interested in Kofi Annan’s intervention, it could simply refuse to cooperate with him — and there wont be much of a price to pay for the Assad regime.

So, once again, Russia is the key player in this all. The extent to which Russia backs Annan will be a key determinant of Annan’s success.