15 APRIL 2012

ANNAN'S MISSION by Samir Sanbar

When Secretary General Kofi Annan designated former U.S. President Bill Clinton as U.N. Special Envoy for the Asian Tsunami, New York Congresswoman Hillary Rodham Clinton thanked him during a Berlin conference "for giving my husband a job." The brilliant lady had a flicker of a smile. It was actually her husband who initially gave the grateful Ghanian civil servant the top international job. Now, the U.S. Secretary of State would wish to join an impressive list of heads of state, like her President and his counterpart in France, who are facing uncertain re-election, and a multitude of stakeholders, including Russia and China, for accepting a seemingly impossible mission on Syria. Any positive accomplishment could be proudly shared while failure would focus only on the African diplomat who learned from experience that "SG" also stood for "ScapeGoat."

Kofi Annan, with his cautious instincts, attentive patience, and determined commitment to human dignity, is uniquely qualified to deal with an increasingly deteriorating tragedy. His formidable contacts will help explore through open and discreet channels practical options -- if feasible --- while maintaining the moral high ground. Particularly on Syria, he has equally close links with all leaders of conflicting countries; for example, he was the first Secretary General to be officially celebrated by a consensus of Israeli politicians at U.N. Headquarters, while the first official proposal for his second term renewal came from Egypt's President Mubarak at an Arab Summit in Jordan.

Iranian officials competed in inviting him to visit, particularly after arranging for exchanged courtesies between President Khatami, advocating dialogue among cultures and U.S. President Clinton during a U.N. Millennium Summit. Speeches were re-arranged with enough proximity for both to attend and reciprocate in quiet applause. Oil Gulf countries, agitated players in the current conflict, had offered him unprecedented logistical support including habitual use of airplanes on special missions. Most likely, upon taking over the new task, he would have quietly consulted most -- if not all -- stakeholders whom he enjoys addressing by their first name; and no doubt Barack, Nicholas, David, Angela, Sergei, Shimon, Ali (Larijani), Hamad (Bin Jassem) have encouraged him when Nabil and Ban offered it. Bashar agreed exclusively for the U.N. not Arab League designation.

What would he actually do? Cutting through the terminology of official communiques he is expected to: a) Arrange a ceasefire ("stop the killing"); b) allow for immediate emergency relief; and c) establish a negotiation format to include regime, opposition, and independent personalities. The most challenging is to lay down the ground rules on who stops the shooting first, where and how. If the devil is in the details, there are devils aplenty in that tortured land, including those exploiting God's name as a cover. There are also some "sub-contractors" who may feel their role eroded with a peaceful resolution of the conflict. With the passing of the Ides of March, April may be a crucial month when the U.S. takes over as President of the Security Council. Would it work closely with its former ally, the joint U.N./Arab League Envoy or would its aspiring Ambassador play up to the Washington political gallery?

When no one is winning, a prolonged bloody stalemate means more people dying as a pivotal state in a strategic region bleeds in an existential crisis. The most that Kofi Annan could do is offer a practical ladder for every side to climb down -- and a fig leaf. The fact that he took on the assignment indicates that some influential powers -- two, at least -- had told him it would be possible. How quickly is a matter of life and death.
(Samir Sanbar is Executive Editor of www.unforum.com and former U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Public Information.)
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