Syria: The evil results of doing good

The Annan Plan is ‘worse than feckless’, because it buys the Assad regime time and precludes more effective options.

In Rwanda, 'Annan's forbearance provided evil men with an opportunity they should not have had', says Grenier [AFP]

Washington, DC – Kofi Annan is a good man. We know that. We have all watched him for years. Where there is conflict and misunderstanding, whether among individuals, groups, or nations, he seeks conciliation. When two parties are in armed conflict, he does not take sides; instead, he tries to make peace.

But we also know that his instincts, however noble, have sometimes served him badly. That was true in Rwanda, when Annan’s forbearance provided evil men with an opportunity they should not have had. It was also occasionally true at the UN, where the corrupt and the abusive sometimes found sanctuary in the nurturing environment of the then-Secretary General’s tolerant understanding. And now, once again, we see Kofi Annan on a world stage, following, as usual, his noble instincts.

 Annan urges UN unity on Syria

Annan was a logical choice for the UN and the Arab League to serve as their joint envoy to Syria. The UN Security Council is at loggerheads. Its permanent members cannot agree on a course of action regarding Syria. China, burdened by its ongoing mistreatment of Tibetans and Uighurs, will not support any action which could set a precedent for international interference in domestic repression. Russia has its own interests in the preservation of the Assad regime, and can cite its abhorrence of protracted civil war to forestall concerted international action against it.

The Arab League, for all that it has dealt sternly with Assad, has its own preoccupations and divisions, and collectively flinches from aiding and abetting violent insurrection in an Arab nation.

Professional peacemaker

Yes, all this makes Kofi Annan a logical choice as emissary. He is, after all, a professional peacemaker. He will not choose sides, and his six-point interim peace proposal for Syria is a model of even-handedness, both as between the regime and the rebels, and as between their respective allies. When circumstances will not permit distinctions between oppressor and oppressed, between aggressor and victim, or between right and wrong, Kofi is your man. The patient Ghanaian will deal impartially with anyone. He will sit, as he did over the past weekend with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, to discuss his peace proposal, as though the latter were earnestly seeking justice in the Levant.

But does anyone honestly think that the Syrian regime, committed as it is to a programme of violent intimidation and collective punishment, will provide “full humanitarian access”, or a daily “humanitarian pause” for those whom it suspects of aiding its adversaries? What are the chances that the tender Mr Assad will release detainees who may promptly rejoin the struggle against him, or that he will permit foreign journalists to freely document his atrocities? Who would want to bet his life, or the lives of those dear to him, that Bashar and his generals will honour a ceasefire, or engage in good faith in a “political dialogue” with those who are challenging their power?

Pursuing such “solutions” is worse than feckless, for it forestalls other, potentially effective actions. By permitting the Syrian regime added time, it is morally equivalent to aiding and abetting Bashar al-Assad.

Diplomats at the UN embraced the Annan proposals – not because they had any chance of implementation, but because they demonstrated “progress”. Diplomats love a process, and that’s what the Annan Plan provides them. The hope is that when – not if – the proposals are effectively stymied by Syria, the unanimously approved UN “statement” by which the Annan proposals were launched might then be passed as a “resolution”. More “progress”. But a feckless statement will not be any more effective for having become a resolution. This is the diplomatic equivalent of Zeno’s Paradox, for each progressively smaller step forward slowly converges on, but can never pass the hard barrier of Sino-Russian obduracy.

Violence continues

Meanwhile, the Syrian Army that devastated Baba Amr continues its brutal shelling of al-Khalidiya and its offensive in Hama Province. And the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, who are rapidly running out of arms and ammunition, are being progressively forced to flee to Turkey and Lebanon.

There are no clean and morally unambiguous options in this conflict, which has already become a civil war with sectarian overtones. In the best of circumstances, there will be considerable bloodshed and much violence and injustice done to innocents. Those countries willing to engage effectively and realistically with the opposition will have the opportunity at least to influence them, however marginally, in positive directions, as some are trying to do in advance of the “Friends of Syria” meeting scheduled for April 1 in Istanbul.

But such good as can be done in these circumstances will only be done by those who are willing to climb metaphorically into the ring, and to dirty themselves in the process of providing such assistance as is possible to the oppressed of Syria as they struggle to liberate themselves from an unspeakable regime. It will mean taking sides.It was therefore encouraging to see the agreement reached this past Sunday between US President Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to increase the flow of non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. This is doubtless but an early step in a process, yet another process. Let us hope that the process continues quickly. For what the situation needs is not high-minded sentiments, but effective, lethal aid to Syrians willing to fight for basic freedoms against a regime that has shed any pretense of legitimacy or respectability.

Edmund Burke famously said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. The good and high-minded people, the Kofi Annans if you will, who vote on statements and pass resolutions, who promote quixotic peace proposals, who hold earnest parleys with implacable dictators, may appear to have clean hands in the end. Those who engage, who try to do good in an evil world, on the other hand, will be compromised. But when ultimately the smoke has cleared, both literally and metaphorically, and the final accounting is made, and judgments are passed on all those implicated, either for their action or for their inaction, it will be upon the shoulders of the “good” that the weight of moral opprobrium should fall.

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.