The hope that special envoy Kofi Annan would manage to establish a ceasefire in Syria was unrealistic. But his trip was still important, says DW's Daniel Scheschkewitz.
Whenever a Nobel Peace Prize winner travels to a conflict zone, the expectations are rather high. And that also was the case this time: Kofi Annan was sent by the UN and Arab League as a special envoy right into the "Lion's Den" at Damascus. That's where Annan was to talk to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the country's opposition into agreeing to a ceasefire. But Assad remained stubborn - with more and more blood on his hands. He claims those involved in the uprising are merely terrorists and that he cannot give in to them.
From the outset, Kofi Annan's mission seemed doomed. Instead of a ceasefire, the Syrian dictator sent his troops into a major offensive in Idlib province, a focal point of resistance in the northeast of the country; a move indicative of Assad's lack of willingness to enter into a dialogue. The chances for a real ceasefire were slim to begin with. Assad, over the past months, has shown himself to be obstinate as well as unyielding. So far, no one has managed to convince him to change course.
Annan's international reputation
The task of an international mediator like Annan is first to get across to Assad that his regime is politically finished. It's on the cards, even if it might still take some time until Assad falls. The direction is clear: once more and more soldiers desert his armed forces, once the economic plight of the population grows and once Russia in particular changes its position, this will send a signal to Assad. Only then, the dictator will realize that there's no way back to how things were before the uprising began.
Annan's visit might have helped a little in getting that point across to Assad. Annan has enough of a reputation to be able to be frank with the dictator, telling him straightforwardly that his time is up. After all, Annan's mandate came both from the United Nations and the Arab League.
Assad's cynical plan
Even though Assad's time as the sole man at the top is fast approaching, he continues his violent crackdown. Aside from going into exile, it is his only remaining chance. He gets his confidence from the fact that the international community has not even managed to get a UN Security Council resolution condemning the brutal violence. He knows that the US and the West hesitate to interfere in Syria, since it would likely throw the entire region into chaos - with unpredictable consequences for the entire Middle East.
Most of all, the US is currently not willing to back military action against Syria. The high risk that Israel might attack Iran would force Washington to stand by Tel Aviv and there would simply be no resources for yet another conflict in the region. The price tag for those wars would spiral out of control - and that's not what a US president needs in an election year.
Bashar al-Assad can therefore test his luck. He can safely assume that the West has its hands tied and that Russia for the time being will stick to its position of backing Damascus.
Not in vain
Kofi Annan also spoke out against a military solution to the conflict. Even the Arab League has agreed to pursue this course, after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last weekend. All that is also part of Assad's cynical plan. He knows that the further his country descends into civil war, the riskier any outside military intervention would be. Even a UN blue beret mission would be likely to fail.
Despite all that, Annan's trip to Damascus was not in vain. His talks with Assad may increase the chances of humanitarian aid getting into the areas with heavy fighting and high casualties. In light of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria, even this would be a precious success.
Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz / ai
Editor: Richard Connor