15 JUNE 2012


Thursday, 7 June, seemed a busy day at U.N. Headquarters in New York. Despite a dispersal of Secretariat staff around Manhattan during its reconstruction, a meeting was held at the General Assembly Hall in the morning, followed by another in a basement conference room where the Security Council holds its interim meetings. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his predecessor -- now Envoy on Syria -- were in both meetings, speaking and listening; but mostly positioning themselves -- and the U.N. -- to accomplish at least one tangible outcome in an increasingly tragic situation. While some parties needed prodding to act more forcefully, others needed a clearer request to refrain from unhelpful meddling, like paying cash, sending arms, and agitating eventually uncontrollable elements.

Forget about the General Assembly meeting, important as it is. It was mainly a keen attempt by its President, a diplomat of Qatar, to display his political usefulness to his bosses in Doha. It was the Security Council meeting that attracted serious attention. Perhaps for the first time since Ban Ki-moon took over, there were so many cameras and assembled reporters in their assigned area under the stairs of the delegates' entrance (in the old Viennese Cafe), they had to be separated from unseen diplomats by a security barrier. Ban Ki-moon had promised the media that he and Mr. Annan would respond to their queries after the meeting. "What more could you ask for?" he asked with his "slippery eel" smile.

Indeed they did -- only to add to the confusion. A glaring divergence was between a statement by the current U.N. Peacekeeping Under-Secretary General, French diplomat Herve Ladsous, that there was a civil war in Syria, and a differing interpretation by the "alternative" French diplomat, Jean-Marie Guehenno, who is Annan's Deputy with the rank of U.N. Assistant Secretary General, and had also served as U.N. Peacekeeping Chief with the former Secretary General. An official clarification a day later wiggled between the two, explaining that the U.N. will not characterize the conflict; but worldwide media headlines had already splashed the gloomier position.

The Secretary General speaks on points of principle; he has taken the same line since Tunis, Egypt, Libya, and now Syria, though he sounds irritated at times as the declared adversary remains in place. The Envoy, a former Secretary General himself, needs to at least sound more conciliatory in order to persevere in his mediation and salvage his Six-Point Plan -- "the only game in town." Ban Ki-moon no longer telephones President Bashar Assad, almost withdrawing his legitimacy; Kofi Annan met the Syrian President in Damascus just before coming to New York. Those who know both will tell you that Ban Ki-moon would not have spoken out so forcefully if certain key powers did not embolden him to hold forth; and that Kofi Annan would not have taken on the assignment if he was not encouraged by the same powers to do so.

Is it a duel or a dual role? Or is it what New Yorkers describe as a "Good Cop - Bad Cop" approach?

None of the above, perhaps. Most likely it is a difference in approach to an assignment. Not merely a matter of style, but also of perception. This is the first time a former Secretary General operates as Special Envoy of an incumbent Secretary General. It requires more patience and perhaps self-effacing from both. The difference is that Mr. Ban is the Secretary General while Mr. Annan is on assignment. As Mr. Annan knew only too well, the machinery is fully under the first. If Mr. Ban wished to take the central podium after the Security Council meeting when facing an assembled press, the priority is his.

However, Kofi Annan has built a special stature for himself regardless of his current status. The way he was viewed in Washington, particularly by Secretary Clinton, Moscow, and elsewhere indicates a helpful world-wide network of potential support. He is uniquely qualified to handle the mission on Syria and needs all the help he can get. His decision on his team selection could be argued; excellent on General Moore and Ahmad Fawzi, unwise on the Geneva fellow who had to resign from a fund for fraud accusation, vague on his two Deputies -- Al-Kidwa (of whom no one seems to hear from), and former Peacekeeping officer Guehenno. But, if he's comfortable with them, it's his mission -- and his legacy. At least he is making an unyielding, courageous effort.

While the current U.N. Secretary General and his predecessor could work out their relationship in the best interest of their joint objective, what really matters is an agreed arrangement between the United States, Russia and China, with Europe among others. Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov have repeatedly "refreshed" that relationship over so many other issues, from North Korea to Nuclear Iran, and -- by the way, to Iraq and Afghanistan. A "refreshed" agreement or a "refreshed" Annan plan would be a welcome outcome. A basic need is to do so as swiftly as possible. More to the point, it is the position of the people of Syria, with all its components, that should be of utmost consideration. This should certainly include the middle class, active women, business communities in cities like Damascus and Aleppo, and minorities like Christians and Kurds. One reason Bashar Assad remains after over a year of conflict as President of Syria is the fear of a thuggish militia alternative.

Any step forward -- if any -- would only be accomplished if it is clearly and widely perceived that there is only ONE collective international initiative under UNIFIED U.N. leadership.