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World

Opinion: The end of diplomacy

The resignation of Kofi Annan as UN special envoy to Syria is another sign that conflict will be decided militarily. The West can not just sit back and watch, says DW's Dennis Stute.

The resignation of Kofi Annan has hardly taken anyone by surprise. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate wa cutting an ever more tragic figure in recent weeks. Even though the West as well as Russia, China, Iran and even the Syrian leadership had in principle agreed to his peace plan for an end to the fighting and a beginning of dialogue - the reality always looked very different.

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad made what may have looked like concessions yet ordered that his security forces use more and more violence against rebels and civilians. Russia and China vetoed any attempt at a UN Security Council resolution that might have stepped up the pressure on the regime in Damascus. Saudi Arabia, with the West's tacit consent, delivered weapons to the rebels. Turkey granted the rebels room for withdrawal into Turkish territory to the north of Syria. Western diplomats hinted at the US having little faith in Annan's hope that the conflict could be resolved through dialogue. And the Syrian opposition groups had from the very beginning ruled out engaging in talks with the Assad government.

Gloomy prospects

Little remains from Annan's efforts. The ceasefire that rebels and government agreed to in spring never really came into effect. A continuation of the UN observer mission beyond August 9 is still uncertain. But even here it would be more consistent if it would end. After the UN obserers got repeatedly caught up between the front lines, they've been largely confined to their hotel rooms since June.

Kofi Annan's resignation is yet another sign that the attempts at a peaceful resolution have failed. Syria's future most likely will be dediced by military means. In the current situation, two scenarios are possible: Either the conflict would get so violent that both sides eventually will be forced to start negotiating, or - the more likely scenario - the Assad regime will fall. Then, though, the fragmented country would most likely face a continuation of the civil war along ethnic and religious lines. A prolonged conflict would destroy the country's infrastructure and society in a way that would destablize Syria for a long period - with devastating consequences for the entire region. The UN estimates that some 16,000 people have already died. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees - the entire country is affected.

NATO remains hesitant

With diplomacy having failed, the calls for military intervention will be getting louder and louder. Yet the West is hesitant; after the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, it does not want to be drawn into yet more asymmetric warfare. NATO would be wise to reject the Libyan path - attacking the government forces from the air while letting the locals do the fighting and dying on the ground. Air raids always lead to civilian casualties. And it couldn't be ruled out that Western countries might eventually be drawn into a ground offensive after all. Even with air raids only, NATO would find itself supporting a rebel army that violates international law and also is guilty of human rights violations - albeit to a lesser extent than the government troops.

US President Barack Obama is surely aware of the potential domestic consequences in store should he bomb the opposition to power, which could then lead to revenge against the Alawi and Christian minorities that the Sunni view as supporters of Assad. Many Sunni have not forgotten that Bashar Assad's father killed some 20,000 Sunni in 1982. There are several old scores to settle, and they're getting larger by the day.

Smart US policy

Yet it will be the rebels who will determine the future of Syria even if as of now, no one can say what that future will look like. In order to have some influence on the post-Assad structures, the West has to support the opposition to some extent. The US policy therefore is carefully deliberate - so far, they only support the Free Syrian Army with communications technology. Washington leaves the arms supplies to others but it seems that the US is indirectly participating in it. Reportedly there CIA agents in Turkey who are overseeing the weapons trade, trying to ensure that the arms don't end up in the hands of al Qaeda terrorists.

Even if military intervention is not an option, this does not mean that the international community has to sit back and simply watch. There are many ways it can help. Supplies for the Syrian refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries are often lacking. This needs to change so that the suffering civilian population of Syria can leave the country and escape the fighting. Displaced people within Syria need help too. Some three million Syrians could be in need of help in the next 12 months.

Making this possible is the task for Annan's successor. Annan himself is confident that someone will take over the job from him. While that indeed might be the case it's doubtful whether the UN can find someone with the same international standing and reputation to pick up the mission.

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