The resignation of Kofi Annan as the U.N.-Arab League joint envoy to Syria on Aug. 2 effectively marks the end of U.N.-led diplomatic efforts to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to leave office peacefully, setting the stage for a new and deadlier phase of the Syrian crisis and heightening pressure on the United States and its allies to now step up military support for an armed opposition movement that they don't know well or entirely trust. But it also raises questions as to what extent the United States ever believed the peace process would succeed and whether it misplayed its hand in attempting to convince Syria's longstanding Russian ally to back a cessation of violence and Assad's removal from power. In explaining his refusal to approve a Chapter VII resolution threatening sanctions against Syria and opening the door to additional unspecified measures, President Vladimir Putin told Annan in a closed-door meeting in Moscow: "We have been bitten by the West before, and we won't let it happen again," according to an account by a diplomat present at the meeting.
From the earliest stages of the Syrian uprising, the Obama administration harbored reservations about the wisdom of confronting Russia at the U.N., anticipating that Moscow would block any meaningful action to pressure Assad. But with little stomach for intervening militarily in Syria, the administration ultimately backed a European- and Arab-led drive to pursue Assad's negotiated departure through the United Nations while publicly denouncing Russia for protecting a dictator. Some observers charge, however, that the U.N. strategy ultimately provided diplomatic cover for an administration in Washington that feared getting embroiled in another Middle Eastern war.
"Washington's primary goal has been to avoid getting dragged into a military operation in Syria," said Richard Gowan, an analyst at New York University's Center for International Cooperation. "And to some extent the high-profile diplomatic clashes with the Russians let the Americans look tough and active but without them actually having to invest militarily. In a sense, the angry diplomacy of the Security Council has been an alibi for military inaction in Syria."
Indeed, the Obama administration has been widely criticized for proceeding too cautiously in its response to the Arab Spring, and even today it continues to resist calls to arm the opposition, limiting its support to humanitarian assistance, communications equipment, and intelligence, much of it channeled through Jordanian and Turkish agents. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed a "finding" authorizing the CIA to provide indirect military support for the rebels, but the administration has refused to provide lethal assistance, according to news reports this week.
It has been almost a year since Obama first called on Assad to "step aside," proclaiming "the future of Syria must be determined by its people." But his strategy for dislodging the Syrian leader -- which hinged in large part on a U.N. diplomatic effort to push Assad out voluntarily -- finally ran aground in the Security Council last month, leaving Assad clinging to power and raising the prospect that Syria's fate will be settled on the battlefield. How did we get to this point?
The story begins not in Syria, where protests broke out in earnest in March 2011, but in Benghazi, Libya, where the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, was poised to deliver a decisive blow to the insurgency, raising fear among Arab and Western governments that thousands of civilians could be slaughtered in the process. "We are coming tonight," Qaddafi warned on state television as his forces prepared for their final assault. Buoyed by a call for action from Libya's own diplomats, the United States and its European and Arab allies drove through a resolution that granted NATO sweeping powers to protect civilians from imminent threat of violence. Confronted with support from the Arab League and the African Union, China and Russia grudgingly allowed the resolution to pass, casting abstentions along with Brazil, Germany, and India. But Russia and other critics reacted angrily after NATO and a handful of Arab countries entered the conflict on behalf of the rebels, targeting the Qaddafi family's homes from the air, while providing intelligence - and, in some cases -- arms to the insurgents. Even South Africa, which had voted in favor of the resolution, complained that NATO had overreached.
The dispute would poison the atmosphere in the Security Council just at a time when it was seeking to forge an agreed response to the violence in Syria. Libya "did create some bad blood" which has spilled over into the deliberations on Syria, Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin told me back in January. "The worst way to achieve [your] goal in the Security Council is to mislead and manipulate.... We are going to have a tougher look at all of the sort of draft resolutions we are considering in the Security Council because we have to take now into account the scope of misinterpretation."
Indeed, Churkin has made good on that warning, vetoing three resolutions aimed at ratcheting up pressure on the Syrian regime, and insisting that Assad's government must be at the center of any political deal on the country's future. In a sense, it was Russia's demand for a role for Assad that paved the way for the appointment in February of Kofi Annan, who flew to Damascus shortly after his selection to hammer out an agreed plan for a political transition that did not explicitly require Assad's departure. But Annan was never able to convince Russia to apply sufficient pressure on Assad to implement his plan while Washington's Gulf allies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, continued to arm the rebels, undercutting their incentive to participate in talks.