Syria: The unassuming enemy

Kofi Annan deserves condemnation for delaying collective action while the regime’s killing escalates.

UN international envoy Kofi Annan in Syria
The death toll in the country has tripled since international envoy Annan, left, launched his peace plan [EPA]

The ravaging of Syria by Bashar al-Assad and his coterie has produced a death toll that is now over 17,000. When the numbers are this astronomical, the totality of the devastation is not immediately apparent to onlookers. This is because much of our exposure to the carnage is sanitised through sources whose declared objectivity has shrivelled in such outrageous times to what feels like moral complicity. Whatever our sources, the organised killing of thousands of people by artillery, helicopter gunships, summary executions and snipers should produce a fury that is as total and relentless as the depravity that moves Syria’s killers.

But such fury is in seemingly short supply. Nor is its deficiency helped by the fact that the road to a post-Assad Syria is long and fraught with enemies – the most insidious of whom are polite and mostly unassuming, those whose international respectability shields them from the public condemnation they deserve. They are the ones whose bona fide efforts prolong and distract from the barbarism of those from whom they claim to protect the victims.

Chief among such urbane gentlemen in the Syrian morass is former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Annan’s peace plan for Syria was launched in February 2012, and is the only one that has attracted and sustained the attention of the international community. Since February, the death toll has risen by more than 11,000, almost tripling the number reported by the UN at the outset of his involvement. The number of forcibly displaced civilians from places like Hama and Homs has long been lost, but it is undoubtedly in the hundreds of thousands.  

These are not just numbers. Generations of children have been deprived of anything that resembles normality. What is left of their shortened lives will be wracked with poverty and all the material deprivations that attend its vicious cycle. And the mental health of almost every single one of these children has been scarred with loss and extreme trauma of the kind the reader will have only ever heard about. And this is to say nothing of the dead and maimed, or the painful voids that they have left behind for their loved ones.

Another ‘never again’

The atrocities that are being committed today in Syria are twice as staggering as Srebrenica – another modern “never again”, and whose victims we are still being buried today. The death toll there was 8,373, less than half of today’s Syria. In the subsequent undertakings that attempted to understand how and why the world, and Europe especially, had yet again failed to prevent the mass killing of innocents, Annan wrote in a 118-page report that “more decisive and forceful action to prevent the unfolding horror” was needed. “The cardinal lesson”, he continued, “is that a deliberate and systematic attempt to terrorise, expel, or murder an entire people must be met decisively with all necessary means, and with the political will to carry the policy through to its logical conclusion.”  

These words are as astonishing to read in the context of the UN’s breathtaking incompetence in 1995 as they were a couple weeks ago when we marked the seventeenth anniversary of Srebrenica. They are even more astonishing in the context of today’s Syria, and the cravenness that has characterised our response.

Though to say that Syria is also a matter of the UN’s incompetence is to just scratch the surface of the malaise. It is not enough to resign ourselves to the submission described by Rudyard Kipling about another generation of children violated by war as, “Our statecraft, our learning / Delivered them bound to the pit and alive to the burning.”

What is needed today is a confrontation with the immeasurable moral and material loss that has entailed Annan’s undertaking – what one might in cleaner, less bloody settings call the opportunity cost. The unassuming enemy is dangerous precisely because he is respectable, which prevents us from seeing how he has stifled our ability to oppose al-Assad’s murdering with the needed resolve. The unassuming enemy is dangerous precisely because his efforts offer a deceptive kind of procedural comfort that something is being done, when in fact we have simply provided the killers with time to extend the killing threefold.

For that is the consequence – the dirty opportunity cost – of Mr Annan’s polite procedure, and it demands reckoning.

Assuming responsibility

In matters of mass and organised killing, there is no ‘at least he tried to make it stop’. There is only profound moral failure when one’s efforts sustain and contribute to the system of collective inaction that is at the heart of a threefold increase in deaths.”

The operation of the machine, to appropriate one of Mario Savio’s speeches from the 1960s, has become so odious that it is time for the United Nations to put its bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and make it grind to a halt. Because that is what it means to implement the “cardinal lesson” of Srebrenica, Rwanda, and all the other modern moments of “never again”. The time has come for the United Nations to deliver on its 2005 promise to assume responsibility to protect and prevent mass murder.

The principle of universal responsibility for the protection of innocents is arguably the greatest achievement in recent legal history. It required that we dismantle the superstition that had historically hedged sovereignty – the idea that the state, no matter how wrong, is by right inviolable. That meant that sovereignty became a privilege, not a right, and that states which turned on their people could expect condemnation from the rest of humanity.

But the path to collective action of the kind seen in the Libyan Revolution – first and foremost the establishment of a no-fly zone – is today partly barred because Annan is amusing himself with the idea that he is being useful at a juncture when so many of us feel useless. In matters of mass and organised killing, there is no “at least he tried to make it stop”. There is only profound moral failure when one’s efforts sustain and contribute to the system of collective inaction that is at the heart of a threefold increase in deaths.

The entire charade is Kafkaesque. Annan’s inappropriately sedate diplomacy takes him to Moscow and Beijing to barter lives with reactionary regimes whose interests are anathema to a Syria without Assad; they know if his regime crumbles, so too will their moneyed interests. These are the same reasons why both Russia and China sold all sorts of arms to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir at the height of the massacres in Darfur, in which 300,000 were killed and almost three million displaced.

Even more preposterous was Annan’s recent visit to Tehran, the regional capital of shameless politics, where he met with the Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. One said that Iran was “part of the solution”, and the other that it “could play a positive role” in what must be one of the most baffling and confusing spectacles of the entire Syrian calamity. What did Annan think he could accomplish in the company of the very same Iranian government that paraded its own brutality less than two years ago when it eviscerated the Green Movement, Iran’s inspiring democratic uprising?

“May God protect us from our friends”, Immanuel Kant once prayed, “from our enemies we can try to protect ourselves”. Indeed, Assad’s only virtue is that he is an enemy, and no one in their right mind pretends anything to the contrary. Annan, on the other hand, has many virtues but his vice is that he is the friend of whom Kant warned – the unassuming enemy – and he has cost Syria very dearly.

Binesh Hass is a doctoral candidate in legal philosophy at the University of Oxford. He is also chief editor at Oxford Transitional Justice Research.