The National Journal story today seeking to blame President Obama for missing an opportunity to end the bloodshed in Syria in 2012 is getting a lot of attention, but it does not deliver on its promise. The conceit of the piece is that the initial Geneva conference last summer, brokered by Kofi Annan (the reader’s first warning to have several grains of salt nearby), was close to a deal that would have ushered Bashar al-Assad out of power.
But the presidential election season was heating up and Obama felt cornered by Mitt Romney’s accusations that the president was not tough enough on the international stage. This, according to the sources for the story, prompted the Obama administration to call for Assad’s ouster publicly and keep military action on the table as a last resort. This angered Annan, who had somehow convinced himself he was more than a pawn in Assad’s play for time, and he quit. In an attempt to salvage their boss’s reputation, Annan’s former staffers give National Journal Annan’s version of events:
Former members of Annan’s negotiating team say that after then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on June 30, 2012, jointly signed a communique drafted by Annan, which called for a political “transition” in Syria, there was as much momentum for a deal then as Kerry achieved a year later on chemical weapons. Afterward, Annan flew from Geneva to Moscow and gained what he believed to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s consent to begin to quietly push Assad out. But suddenly both the U.S. and Britain issued public calls for Assad’s ouster, and Annan felt blindsided. Immediately afterward, against his advice, then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice offered up a “Chapter 7” resolution opening the door to force against Assad, which Annan felt was premature.
Annan resigned a month later.
The story refers to a joint communiqué signed on June 30, 2012 but as Laura Rozen reported on June 29, Annan had personally drafted a “non-paper” a couple days earlier that was to serve as a proposal for that political transition in Syria. And Annan’s own proposal excluded Bashar al-Assad from the new government that this diplomatic process would seek to establish. As Rozen wrote:
The national unity government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups,” the non-paper says, “but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine of [sic] the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation”–namely, Bashar al-Assad.
All the relevant parties clearly understood that at the time. Indeed, it was that demand that Assad personally be excluded from any “national unity government” after the “transition” that made the Russians hesitant to keep cooperating. Rozen followed up with a report on July 1:
Russia continued to oppose language in the statement calling for a political transition under which Bashar al-Assad would be required to leave power. But [Hillary] Clinton insisted the edits agreed on at the meeting convened by UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan Saturday did not alter that key demand.
That’s when Clinton said Assad had to go–the remark that supposedly angered Annan enough to quit. But the language of the dispute gives it away: the Russians “continued to oppose” the Syria working group’s demand for Assad’s ouster, which means both Annan and the U.S. were working under the assumption Assad would have to leave office–and willing to say so.
That means that according to the documentation released at the time, Annan was taking a hard line on Assad and the Russians got cold feet–presumably because Assad had told his Russian patrons the deal was a nonstarter. Even the National Journal story alludes to this; the report quotes Frederic Hof saying that the process was an uphill battle in part because “Assad had no interest whatever in being ‘transitioned.’ He was able to read the text of the Geneva agreement quite accurately.”
What exactly was Annan’s end game here? That he would pass a resolution vague enough to trick Assad into leaving office without realizing it? What kind of fantasy world was he living in? The Syria diplomacy was not derailed by President Obama trying to look tough to voters–who, by the way, do not want to go to war in Syria. There were three major states driving this process: the U.S., Russia, and Syria. Annan does not seem to have understood the political atmosphere in any of the three states, so it’s no wonder his efforts failed to achieve anything. But that failure is his, and he should stop blaming others.