Kofi Annan will Visit Syria, But Will that Make a Difference?

Word today that the UN’s top humanitarian official will visit Syria on Wednesday. You may recall that she was blocked from visiting Syria last week, which lead to Syria’s first rebuke by the Security Council since August.  There is also late breaking news that Kofi Annan will make his first trip to Syria on March 10. This will follow a few days of consultations with the Security Council.

So what might be the upshot of these developments? The first thing will be that we might see increased humanitarian accessed to besieged civilians populations.  That will undoubtedly be a good thing. The cynical take, though, is that Damascus is only letting in the humanitarians now that Homs has been fully sacked. For example, the Red Cross has been denied entry to the Baba Amro neighborhood of Homs ever since the rebels fled and it is not unreasonable to think that the Red Cross will be permitted entry only after Syrian authorities have covered up evidence of war crimes.

This is the situation into which Kofi Annan will be thrust when he visits Damascus later this week. Between now and then his top priority will be securing Russian support for some sort of negotiated political settlement. A new report from the International Crisis Group explains

Enter Kofi Annan: if the former UN Secretary-General can persuade Russia to back a transitional plan, the regime would be confronted with the choice of either agreeing to negotiate in good faith or facing near-total isolation through loss of a key ally.

Changing Russia’s approach will not be easy. But it might not be unfeasible. Moscow’s priority appears to be less upholding the existing Syrian leadership per se than en- suring some institutional continuity by preserving both the state apparatus and what can be salvaged of the army…

If the proposed transitional plan addresses those concerns and gives Russia an important role in guaranteeing its implementation, it conceivably could be brought on board – all the more so if Moscow can be convinced that its cur- rent course maximises the risk of producing the outcome it professes to fear most: chaos, civil war and, over time, the empowerment of more extreme Islamist forces.

Annan faces very long odds. The regime seems determined to crush the protest movement and views any concession as a first step toward its downfall. After months of vicious repression, the opposition appears in no mood to negoti- ate. To engage the regime without a clear mandate, definite framework for negotiations or the kind of international backing that can sway Syria’s leadership would make it virtually certain that Assad would use the Special Envoy’s visits to present himself as an indispensable interlocutor, issue empty pledges and play for time.

Unless he secures Russian backing, it would be unreasonable to expect that Kofi Annan can conjure up some political compromise in Syria.