In his first extensive remarks on the Syria crisis, Kofi Annan, the former U.N. chief and current U.N.-Arab League envoy, made no mention of what has become the centerpiece of the Arab League's diplomatic strategy: a political transition to a government of national unity.
The omission may be a bit of diplomatic wizardry by the U.N. veteran, a shrewd effort to downplay a provision that Damascus finds objectionable, easing the path to face-to-face talks with Bashar al-Assad, and ultimately a deal that would compel the Syrian president to yield power.
But Annan's remarks have also served to reframe the debate over the Arab and Western approach by placing Assad at the center of any potential diplomatic settlement, and defining the immediate goals as relief and stability. He also chided governments who are seeking to use the current crisis to topple the regime by military means.
"The first thing we need to do, as the secretary-general has said, is to do everything we can to stop the violence and the killing, to facilitate humanitarian access and ensure that the needy are looked after, and work with the Syrians in coming up with a peaceful solution which respects their aspirations and eventually stabilizes the country," Annan said late Wednesday, at a press conference with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
"I know there are people who have other ideas, that dialogue may not be the way to go and one should use other means," he added. "But, I think, for the sake of the people -- for the sake of the Syrian people who are caught in the middle -- a peaceful solution, through dialogue and a speedy one is a way to go."
Radwan Zaideh, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), told Turtle Bay that the group is concerned that the focus of the international community has shifted since a high-level meeting of Western and Arab governments in Tunisia, from the need for a speedy political transition to the need to step up humanitarian assistance to Syrians displaced or injured by the violence. "We should not only focus on the security aspects of the Arab League plan but political aspects," he said. "Assad has to step down."
But Zaideh said that the SNC thought Annan was a perfect candidate for the job because of his stature as a leading international diplomat and because he has the credibility to bring China, Russia, and Iran on board for a political settlement.
Indeed, Annan tried to draw together all the competing diplomatic strands, including a high-level Russian initiative to prod the opposition into engaging in talks with Assad's government. "If we are going to succeed, it is extremely important that we all accept there should be one process of mediation -- the one both the U.N. and the Arab League has asked me to lead," Annan said. "When you have more than one and people take their own initiatives, the parties play with the mediators. If one mediator says something they do not want they got to the other. So, one single unitary process, and it is when the international community speaks with one voice, that voice is powerful."
For now, the problem is how to get to Damascus.
Annan maintained cordial ties with Assad when he served as U.N. secretary general. President George W. Bush, seeking Syrian backing for a 2006 ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, looked to Kofi Annan to persuade Assad.
"I feel like telling Kofi to get on the phone with Assad and make something happen," Bush said in a conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that was inadvertently picked up by a live microphone. In her memoirs, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would credit Annan with persuading Assad not to stand in the way of a final ceasefire deal ending the war.
Asked about his relationship with Assad, Annan said, "We haven't been in touch for a couple of years and so I will not presume anything. We will make the demarches and time will tell. But I would plead with him that he should engage, not only with me, but with the process that we are launching today."
Richard Gowan, a specialist on the United Nations at New York University's Center for Global Cooperation, said Annan's most important assets is his relationship with Assad, and that it is only natural that he would tread cautiously in his first days to preserve prospects for exploiting it.
"In Syria, it's not a situation like Kenya, where he can claim legitimacy as a great African statesman," Gowan said. "He has a personal history of talking with Assad and he may be able to have conversation that no else can have. The biggest challenge is what happens when he talks to the SNC or the rebels. He's not dealing with two coherent political parties, and he has no personal links to any of the rebels."
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