The appointment of another African, the former Foreign Minister of Algeria, Al-Akhdar Al-Ibrahimi, as the new UN and Arab League special envoy on Syria comes after Kofi Annan announced his intention not to renew his contract when it expires at the end of August. Ibrahimi’s mission has been greeted with excitement only amongst those in favour of peace and with subtle disdain amongst those dead-set to bring about a regime change by military means.
For this reason, he has an unenviable job and he will most likely quit in exasperation, not because of lack of ability, but because there is no adequate appetite for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis amongst key UN Security Council members and other powerful states.
Kofi Annan was appointed in February this year as a joint UN-Arab League special envoy to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis when the conflict was already just about a year old. While some including those for whom a military solution was the way Annan’s mission came a little too late in Syria, while others thought the drawn-out military stalemate signified that the situation was actually ripe for a political solution. The appointment had the backing of the most democratically constituted organ of the UN, the 193-member General Assembly, through its resolution on 16 February where it called on the Syrian government and rebels to cease hostilities in order to give a UN-Arab League process a chance to lead them towards lasting peace. Annan’s mission started with aplomb as he shuttled between Syria, key western powers, Russia and China, amongst others, find sufficient consensus on a framework for a peace process in Syria. He used his prestige as an accomplished international public servant and his knack for diplomatic solution to find a middle ground between the positions of a hawkish west and a belligerent east in the hope of arriving at peace for the Syrian citizens. Out of this came the 8-point plan in which Syrian parties including government were required to cease hostilities immediately. It committed them to a “Syrian-led inclusive political process” to address the “legitimate aspirations” of Syrians. The even-handedness and the intention to render a military solution by insiders and outsiders obsolete, the militarisation of the conflict on the ground and the deep divisions between the west and the China-Russia front in the Security Council would combine to render Annan’s peace mission dead.
Now, this context casts a shadow of bad omen on the appointment of Ibrahim. He is an accomplished diplomat and peacemaker. He served as a UN envoy in Iraq just after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US and in Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in 2003 where he had to trumpet peace against the big push for war as a means to solve largely political problems. He is being posted to Syria just after the US and the UK announced increased support for the rebels, which will help to exacerbate the very conditions that had rendered Annan’s mission impossible.
The majority position in the Council is in favour of a military intervention against the Syrian government.
Western powers are said to be mooting a no-fly zone over Syria ostensibly to prevent the use of military planes against defenceless Syrian people. They are on the verge of deciding to get involved militarily in a much more direct fashion than they have so far. The failure to get the UN Security Council to legitimise some form of military intervention due to vetoes by China and Russia seems to have caused them to contemplate intervening on their own and without a façade of multilateral sanction.
China and Russia, on the other hand, have joined the chorus of countries that are pushing for a political solution and support the efforts of the UN’s good offices. But they do not seem to have a plan to shift from checkmating the hawkish west to take their own initiative to accelerate a political solution. This is why theirs has become a strategy for blocking the hawks rather than assisting Syrians that are victims of both sides in the conflict.
The overwhelming vote on 3 August for an Arab League-sponsored UN General Assembly Resolution, which heavily criticised the Security Council for dithering in the midst of worsening conflict suggest two contradictory developments in the international response to the Syrian problem: Firstly, there is a growing unanimity amongst the general membership of the UN that a united Security Council is needed for effective international response to the Syrian debacle. The majority position in the Council is in favour of a military intervention against the Syrian government. Secondly, the resolution shows that the General Assembly is dead-set to speak firmly on the need for both sides to cease hostilities in order to allow space for a Syrian-led political solution to the Syrian crisis.
Therefore, chief amongst Ibrahimi’s challenges will be how to manage the divisive power politics between the west and others that has been brought to the fore by this crisis. It is how he will balance the need to take advantage of the Assembly mandate to be even-handed and the need to respond to the push by the trio of UK, US and France in the Council for a military solution. With a weakened UN central organ under Ban-Ki Moon, fading voices of the south and a divided Arab world, Ibrahimi has a very complex task to accomplish in no time. It is not impossible, however, provided all sides accept that it is the Syrians who will ultimately live the consequences of whatever course of action is taken; so it is better that they get the chance to lead the process of ending the current conflict.
Siphamandla Zondi is the director of the Institute for Global Dialogue and an honorary professor of politics and development studies at UNISA. He writes this opinion piece in his personal capacity.