Kofi Annan’s Multilateral Strategy of Mediation and the Syrian Crisis: The Future of Peacemaking in a Multipolar World?

In: International Negotiation
Author: Tom H.J. Hill1
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This article examines the multilateral mediation strategy attempted by Kofi Annan in Syria in 2012. In a world of fragmenting power, can international mediation in civil wars be effective at the new fault-lines of great power rivalries? If so, how? As territorial fault-lines between rival great power interests deepen with increasing multipolarity, this is set to become a growing minefield for civil war mediators. Addressing this question requires analysis of recent examples that are indicative of crises to come. Was the failure of the Annan mission in Syria inevitable because of the depth of international polarization? Or, did it fail for other reasons? This detailed examination reveals that the mission was fatally wounded most of all by a Western “illusion of unipolarity” over and above any inherent obstacles posed by geopolitical polarization. This suggests greater, not fewer, possibilities for peacemaking in the future in similar contexts – that is, if Western policy can be better calibrated for the emerging multipolar international system.


This article examines the multilateral mediation strategy attempted by Kofi Annan in Syria in 2012. In a world of fragmenting power, can international mediation in civil wars be effective at the new fault-lines of great power rivalries? If so, how? As territorial fault-lines between rival great power interests deepen with increasing multipolarity, this is set to become a growing minefield for civil war mediators. Addressing this question requires analysis of recent examples that are indicative of crises to come. Was the failure of the Annan mission in Syria inevitable because of the depth of international polarization? Or, did it fail for other reasons? This detailed examination reveals that the mission was fatally wounded most of all by a Western “illusion of unipolarity” over and above any inherent obstacles posed by geopolitical polarization. This suggests greater, not fewer, possibilities for peacemaking in the future in similar contexts – that is, if Western policy can be better calibrated for the emerging multipolar international system.

* Tom Hill is director of the Track ii Mediation Unit at King’s College London (kcl), and is a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs (sipa), Columbia University. In 2012, he was special assistant to Kofi Annan during the United Nations-Arab League mission to Syria. He is writing a doctorate at kcl on the evolution of civil war mediation strategy

Little in history has proven more dangerous to international peace and security than failures in intrastate peacemaking at the fault-lines of great power interests. Consider the 1618 “defenestration of Prague” over the rights of Protestants in Bohemia; 1914 and the failure to accommodate Balkan minority rights in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the geopolitical consequences of the Cuban civil war and subsequent “Missile Crisis;” the unresolved Chinese and Korean civil wars. These are all examples of failed intrastate peacemaking from multipolar or bipolar eras of international order that are long-gone. But approximately two decades of unipolarity are now rapidly giving way to a new multipolar system (Coy 2014; Posen 2009: 347; Schweller 2011) with recent developments in Syria and Ukraine signifying the return of these old dangers. In Syria in 2012, Kofi Annan attempted an innovative strategy designed for this emerging global context: a preventative, non-state led, multilateral strategy of mediation in an intrastate crisis shaped by severe international polarization. This multilateral strategy in the midst of a multipolar crisis and the causes of the strategy’s collapse are the focus of this article. This article draws upon interviews (including five hours of interview time with Annan), contemporary documents and news reports, and a period of participant observation by the author on the Annan mission (for a more detailed explanation of the method and sources used, and the issue of bias, see the Annex).

While focused on a single case study, this article’s interest is in the broader implications of this case for the future of civil war mediation. In a fragmenting system, can the international mediation of civil wars at the new fault-lines of great power interests be effective? If so, how? The answer is important for international security in a multipolar word. Addressing this question requires examination of attempts at dealing with this problem that are indicative of future trends. This article holds that Syria in 2012 is one such case. Was the failure of the Annan mission inevitable because of the depth of international polarization or did it fail for other reasons? An in-depth examination of the mission reveals that, rather than any inherent obstacles posed by geopolitical polarization, the mission was fatally wounded most of all by a Western assumption of a unipolar logic in international affairs – what Nader Mousavizadeh (2014) has called the “costly illusion of unipolarity.” Paradoxically, given the failure of the Annan mission, this suggests greater, not fewer, possibilities for peacemaking in similar contexts in the future.

A Slow Literature versus a Fast System

Why is Annan’s Syria mission a pertinent case study for preparing for future challenges in civil war mediation? The mainstay of policy advice in the most influential scholarship on conflict mediation is with regard to the effective, bilateral application of “carrots and sticks” by a great power overseeing the international response to a crisis (Haas 1990: 3–5; Stedman 1991: 219–222; Zartman 2000: 244). This focus is not surprising given that most of the leading scholars of mediation today are United States-based and seek to inform the policies of the us, the pre-eminent great power. Furthermore, this body of research is entirely appropriate for its time given that it came to prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s, the heyday of American unipolarity. But the rapid decline of unipolarity means the increasing likelihood of the absence of a single great power with preponderant leverage over the major parties to a civil war. In such situations, “ripening” a conflict for resolution through the bilateral application of “carrots and sticks” by a great power to secure a commitment to peace from all the major parties to a civil war – as occurred in Bosnia in 1995 (Holbrooke 1999) or Haiti in 1994 (Pastor 1999) – is far more difficult, let alone in conflicts at the fault-lines of fiercely contested great power interests.

During the Cold War, low-power mediators had to deal with the unavailability of “borrowed leverage” (Crocker et al. 2014) arising from international deadlock. In response, an attractive option was to rely on a timing strategy – that is, waiting for the rare opportunity of ‘ripeness’ (Zartman 1985) that allows an otherwise powerless mediator to become useful as a facilitator due to a mutually hurting stalemate. But given acute and entrenched contemporary political concerns for conflict and atrocity prevention (Peck 2010: 9; Ki-moon 2009: 5–6), and the fact that civil wars at the fault-lines of rival great power interests now represent an increasingly systemic threat to international order, the return to such an apathetic “watch and wait” approach is hardly conceivable as a way of sustaining mediation’s place and prestige as a leading international instrument of conflict resolution and global governance. This suggests international mediators will need new ways to create effective influence.

In a rapidly changing international system, therefore, avoiding mediation’s decline into irrelevance and ineffectiveness will require a keen analytical interest in the successes and failures of recent and ongoing innovations designed to deal with new international obstacles to civil war peacemaking. Scholarship, however, has not well served this analytical need. Much of the literature has remained pre-occupied with revisiting old topics of a now receded era of international relations and scholarly debate, such as in discussions on the applicability of ripeness theory (Rubin 1991; Hancock 2001; Preston 2004; O’Kane 2006; Ki-moon 2009: 5); on lessons of leverage from the past twenty years of mediation (Peck 2010); and on the perils and opportunities for great powers leading mediations, particularly for the us (Touval 1992; Crocker 1992; Gelpi 1999; Zartman 2005; Zartman & Touval 2007: 439). While these have proven highly valuable discussions for theoretical development and for informing practitioners, the fact remains that ripeness debates are well-trodden and, most importantly, the unipolar world of the past two decades – where almost all major international intervention and leverage depended in some way on American supremacy – has largely, if not entirely, receded. The year 2014 alone saw a series of unexpected and unprecedented events in international relations, including Russia’s unhindered annexation of the Crimea, Turkey’s staunch obstinacy to international policy on countering the Islamic State, and the alleged illegal bombing of Libya by the United Arab Emirates. In these events and others we can see that Henry Kissinger’s prediction of a world increasingly shaped by new regional contours of power and interests is already with us (Kissinger 2014). Preventing and ending civil wars at the fault-lines of these new and truly multipolar international structures makes mediation a suddenly far more complicated – and, by necessity, far more multilateral – task for international mediators than it has been for several decades.

Syria as Prologue

Academic debates on mediation have remained mostly unmoved by these international changes and challenges.1 But there have been responses from some notable practitioners. Kofi Annan attempted to deal precisely with this set of problems in Syria in 2012. He was faced with a need to take action to stop a war that posed a threat to millions of lives and a systemic risk to international order, but in the absence of a single great power holding preponderant leverage over all the major parties to the war. His mediation strategy, therefore, was one based in the harnessing of what this article calls multilateral power. Rather than the direct, bilateral application of “carrots and sticks” by one great power – an approach that assumes some form of great power or unilateral leadership – multilateral power relies upon relatively intangible sources of mediator leverage to create joint commitment from a spectrum of partners. This joint commitment, according to Annan’s approach at least, can then be used to exact major, tangible changes in the behavior of the conflict protagonists – in effects that are only achievable through a multilateral-based process of cooperation.2

While a multilateral approach to civil war mediation is not unique, the dynamic nature of Annan’s approach in Syria was. The international, primarily state-led, mediation of the Cambodian civil war from 1989 to 1993, for example, was underpinned by a multilateral strategy characterized by the increasing stabilization of external power relations, in a process designed to take advantage of widespread exhaustion among the protagonists from a long war (Solomon 1999). But unlike Cambodia, Annan’s strategy was designed to prevent an escalation into a larger war at an early stage in the conflict cycle. He attempted to use the position of a non-state, low-power mediator to create a high-power mediation. It was further unusual in its attempt to create unified external leverage by proactively shaping an unstable set of polarized external state relationships. For this reason alone it warrants closer inspection.

Summary of Events: March 2011–September 2012

The Arab Spring, the wave of protests and uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, reached Syria in March 2011. The un secretariat’s response in spring and summer 2011 was to leave leadership of the international management of the crisis to the Turkish government (interview, un diplomat, April 18, 2014). Ignoring the pleas of the Turkish government, the month of August 2011 saw a clear strategic shift in the Syrian government’s approach to dealing with the rising protests: Syrian military units were deployed in urban areas across the country, leading to a spike in the number of reported protester deaths (Al Jazeera, August 9, 2011). The Turkish government began issuing a series of escalating warnings, culminating in a public ultimatum on August 15 (The New York Times, August 15, 2011) that the Syrian government had to “immediately and unconditionally” end its crackdown on the protests and that this was Turkey’s “final word to the Syrian authorities.”

The Syrian government ignored the warning and the death toll at the hands of Syria’s security forces continued to rise (Amnesty International, August 30, 2011). The Arab League then stepped in, condemning the violence on August 27, 2011, and instructing its secretary-general, Nabil El-Araby, to make an “urgent mission” to Syria to persuade Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, to change course (Al Jazeera, August 28, 2011). With the concurrent fall of Tripoli to the rebels in Libya on August 22, compounded by the death of the Libyan president later in October, an almost universal belief emerged among external commentators and diplomats that Syria would be the next domino to fall (interview, European diplomat to the un, June 4, 2014; interview, P3 diplomat to the un, June 4, 2014).

Again, the un secretariat’s decision was to hold back from any direct un involvement in the crisis, leaving international leadership on the crisis to the Arab League (interview, un diplomat, April 18, 2014). But by September the P3 (the Western permanent members of the Security Council: the us, France and the United Kingdom [uk]) decided to push for a Security Council resolution condemning the government’s violence and threatening targeted sanctions if violence against protestors did not cease. The resolution was vetoed by Russia and China on October 4, 2011 (bbc News, October 4, 2011). El-Araby then negotiated a plan with Assad, agreed on November 2 (cnn, November 3, 2011), leading to the deployment of military observers under the auspices of the League in December (League of Arab States report, January 27, 2012). But the level of violence continued to increase, the mission suffered from threats and harassment and its observers did not enjoy freedom of movement (ibid.: 6). In response, the P3 attempted to pass another Security Council resolution, which was also vetoed by Russia and China on February 4, 2012 (The New York Times, February 4, 2012). Soon after, the Syrian armed forces launched a military assault, including the sustained use of heavy artillery, on the neighborhood of Baba Amr in the city of Homs that was held by a group of armed rebels (Guardian, February 9, 2012).

This escalation took Western foreign ministries by surprise, leaving them privately uncertain about the direction of their Syria policies (interview, us diplomat 1, April 17, 2014). Following the withdrawal of the Arab League observer mission (bbc News, February 12, 2012), un secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and El-Araby then agreed that a new level of engagement was needed from their respective institutions and that this should take the form of a jointly appointed special envoy. On February 22 they agreed to ask Kofi Annan (un note, February 22, 2012; interview, un diplomat April 21, 2014).

Annan calculated from the start that, “[f]or a challenge as great as this, only a united international community can compel both sides to engage in a peaceful political transition” (Annan 2012b). To corral this support Annan formulated a basic agreement, the “six-point plan”, as an instrument for bridging the conflict’s international divisions, to initiate an international response that could then “create the conditions” necessary for a Syrian peace process (interview, Annan, 2013). This was followed by a series of united Security Council actions on the political situation in Syria, the first since August 2011, beginning with a Council presidential statement on March 21 endorsing the six-point plan (Security Council, March 21, 2012). This led to what proved to be significant pressure on the Syrian government – particularly through Russian efforts – which in turn led to the government’s endorsement of the six-point plan and the successful implementation of a ceasefire on April 12. Although the ceasefire began to fray after April 12, credible intelligence reports received by the Annan mission confirmed that the government’s military ceased all use of artillery for approximately six weeks from the date of the ceasefire (interview, un diplomat, April 19, 2014; interview, un diplomat, May 12, 2014).

After the ceasefire, international support for the plan was strengthened in the form of two united Security Council resolutions: the first on April 14 (resolution 2042), creating an advance team of military observers as well as endorsing Annan’s efforts and the six-point plan; the second on April 21 (resolution 2043), again endorsing Annan’s efforts and mandating the deployment of a full military observer mission. In a crisis formerly characterized by deep international divisions, Annan’s ostensibly low-power, non-state mediation now had the strength of international law and the backing of a united and active international Security Council, including members willing to intervene directly to shape military developments on the ground in support of Annan’s campaign. In stark contrast to the Arab League observer mission, the government not only ceased its use of heavy weapons but also gave full cooperation and freedom of movement across the country to the United Nations observer mission (unsmis), and freedom of movement to international journalists, as required by the six-point plan (multiple un interviews, 2014). These developments, Annan claimed publically in August 2012, “demonstrated the impact” that this level of international unity could have on the crisis (Annan 2012b).

After April 12, however, both sides increasingly tested the ceasefire. In late May, the government then returned to the open use of heavy weapons (New York Times, May 25, 2012; interview, un diplomat, April 21 2014). The international consensus in support of the Annan process deteriorated alongside the erosion of the ceasefire in a mutually reinforcing dynamic: as the Security Council divided over how to respond to the violence – and whether blame and repercussions should be focused more on the regime or the opposition – the threat of further united action by the Security Council declined and the parties on the ground escalated their military activities accordingly. The Russians also distrusted any attempt to pass a chapter vii resolution – which the P3 insisted was vital – as a potential ruse for facilitating “regime change” in the manner that had occurred in Libya in 2011 (interview, un diplomat, April 14, 2014; interview, un diplomat, April 19 2014; interview, Kofi Annan, 26 October 2013). With these opposing interpretations of events, the relationship between Security Council members descended into acrimony (interview, P3 diplomat to the un, March 25, 2013).

In response, Annan “sought to re-energize the drive for unity” (Annan 2012b) by convening the “Action Group for Syria” on June 30, an international contact group chaired by Annan and made up of the secretaries-general of the United Nations and the Arab League, the high representative of the European Union, the foreign ministers of the permanent five members of the Security Council (P5) and the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iraq, Qatar and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia and Iran were excluded as a compromise between their respective P5 allies. The Annan team assessed that these two regional powers had sufficient proxy representation in the forum to maintain their engagement; at least until the anticipated second Action Group meeting, where Annan intended to ensure Saudi and Iranian participation (interview, Annan, 2013).

The June 30 meeting led to an agreement between all of the attending representatives to the “Geneva communiqué”. This established, among other provisions, a framework for the creation of a transition to a “new constitutional order,” primarily through a “transitional governing body that can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place” and which would exercise “full executive powers” (Action Group Final Communiqué 2012). This body, according to the communiqué, “could include members of the present Government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.” Through the latter clause, the communiqué deliberately maintained ambiguity on the question of President Assad’s fate and also made no mention of the need for “consequences for non-compliance” as a concession to Russian demands. In return, the P3 powers secured explicit support from the Russians and Chinese for a full political transition in Syria (interview, un diplomat, April 14, 2014; interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014).

As Annan wrote in August 2012, because the Action Group included the foreign ministers of the P5, “[w]e left the meeting believing a Security Council resolution endorsing the group’s decision was assured – as the first in a series of measures that would signal a turning point. But since then, there has been no follow-through” (Annan 2012b). This was because the P3 ambassadors on the Security Council then reopened debate on the question of including chapter vii provisions in the draft resolution endorsing the communiqué. The Russians continued to object to this and the breakdown in Security Council relations was then sealed when Russia and China vetoed the P3-proposed draft resolution on July 19 (Reuters, July 19, 2012). Despite Russia’s strongly expressed preference that unsmis’s mission be sustained, on July 20 the P3 then demanded that the mission be withdrawn one month later if the violent conditions on the ground did not change (interview, us diplomat 1, April 17, 2014; interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014), swiftly leading to the closure of the mission and the departure of any major un presence in Syria. Citing the lack of international support for his mission, exemplified by the return of the veto in the Security Council in spite of the “clear common interests between the international and regional powers in a managed process of transition” (Annan 2012b), Annan then announced his resignation on August 2, ending his term as envoy on September 1, 2012.

Inside Annan’s Strategy

First Steps and Choices: A Multilateral Strategy of Prevention

Annan was clear from early on in his tenure as envoy of the essential components of his strategy: a mediation motivated by prevention; pursuit of a ceasefire as soon as possible; leverage rooted in multilateral agreements; and a focus on laying the foundations for the long-term transformation of the Syrian political system. As explained below, all of these elements relied upon, in Annan’s mind, a fundamentally multilateral approach.


After retiring from public office at the end of his tenure as un secretary-general in December 2006, Annan was asked a number of times to play high profile mediation roles, turning most of them down (interview, Annan, 2013; Russell 2011). But he agreed to the Syrian appointment because he took a doomsday view of the crisis. “There is almost no country in the Middle East that cannot be destabilized by the Syrian crisis,” Annan reportedly expressed several times to his staff during the mission (interview, un diplomat, April 19, 2014; interview, un diplomat, May 12, 2014). This was due to the massive spillover effects that the crisis threatened, most of all because Syria sat at the intersection of all of the region’s major sectarian animosities and accompanying proxy power rivalries, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran (Annan 2012c: 368). Furthermore, a protracted Syrian civil war threatened to create a new hotbed of extremism in the midst of a disintegrating state that possessed one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons. In sum, and as Annan would write in his memoirs in May 2012, he perceived the crisis to be as dangerous as any that he had encountered in his long career (ibid.: 368). Preventing the escalation of the crisis and its spillover would therefore be the essence of the mission throughout.

Stopping the Violence First

Consequently, Annan’s approach was predicated from the very beginning on the need to move quickly and divert the crisis from this worst-case scenario. To Annan, this meant “the first thing we need to do is to do everything we can to stop the violence” (un 2012a). This was not without controversy. One senior advisor to the un recommended to Annan’s team in April that they should delay their push for a ceasefire and wait for when the violence and shifts in military power made for a better opportunity (interview, un diplomat, April 14, 2014). This approach was echoed in the analysis and advice of several others and clearly drew its inspiration from a particular interpretation of ripeness theory. But Annan rejected this advice. One longstanding and close advisor to Annan succinctly described the logic behind Annan’s strategy:

This is a crisis that is difficult to solve today – but it will be harder to solve tomorrow, and it will be even harder to solve the next day, and harder the day after that. And that is how it is going to go on (interview, Annan advisor, May 12, 2013).

Turning ripeness theory on its head, Annan believed that the crisis was only going to become more unstable and complicated to resolve, not the other way around. Annan’s priority was to find a way to slow the escalating violence that had, by that stage, killed an estimated 7,500 Syrians (bbc News, February 28, 2012), and prevent the rush to an all-out civil war and major regional conflagration. “The alternative,” Annan said in retrospect, “would have been to allow the situation . . . to continue as it was,” and under such circumstances “you cannot establish confidence in the possibility of a mediation process” (interview, Annan, 2013). Due to the powers arrayed inside and outside Syria, the longer the war went on, in his view, the more Syria would fragment, the more radicalized and militarized the factions would become as a result of the escalating violence, and the more intractable both the intra-Syrian conflict and the accompanying proxy war would be (Annan 2012a; interview, Annan, 2013). In other words, waiting for the military dynamics to create a more “ripe” moment was anathema to Annan’s prevention agenda and expectations for the crisis.

A Multilateral Strategy

After taking the initial call from Ban asking him to take the job, Annan immediately made a series of calls to key foreign ministers before deciding to accept, including to the P5 countries, during which he began his search for a unified international response: “[I told them] there was going to be only one mediation . . . I made clear to the secretary-general and to the [Security] Council that once they have agreed to one mediation they will respect that and not go around setting up alternatives.” After this first round of calls Annan judged that he had sufficient support to make his involvement worthwhile (interview, Annan 2013). But if he had judged differently, he says that “I would probably have had to say, look for somebody else.” Annan not only believed he had a duty to intervene; he also believed that, with this international support, he had the instruments to be successful.

Why was Annan so focused on the international dimension? Annan believed that the developing proxy war in Syria threatened all prospects for a peace process. At the core of this problem was the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran – representing a sectarian struggle for regional hegemony between the leading Sunni and Shia powers – and the international rivalry between Russia and the us. But there were also the important roles of Qatar, Turkey, China, the European states and the possible involvement of other non-state rivals with a regional reach, including Hezbollah and Al Qaeda (Annan 2012c: 368). With the prospect of a regional and international proxy war of this scale, Annan believed that a sustainable intra-Syrian process of peace negotiations would be impossible if these competing proxy interests were actively fueling the conflict. This was what Annan described at the time as the “destructive competition” that would make management of the crisis impossible (Guardian, July 6, 2012). Most of all, Annan believed few of the Syrian parties to the conflict would rule out a chance of victory as long as they had external supporters willing them on (interview, Annan, 2013). For Annan, creating his “conducive environment” would be impossible without the application of multilateral instruments for bringing these regional and international rivalries under some control.

Annan’s private focus gave away where he thought the keys to the crisis lay. For Annan, the regime was the greatest potential spoiler, but also the actor with the greatest power to shift the crisis one way or another. But in Annan’s mind, the strongest single lever against the Syrian regime in the short-term was Russia (interview, Annan 2013): it had shielded Damascus from external pressure by the Security Council with two vetoes in the Council before Annan was appointed (Guardian, February 4, 2012; interview, Annan, 2013), and it held a longstanding alliance with Damascus that included strong military cooperation (Allison 2013: 802). Changing Damascus’s calculations, therefore, required a process that was sufficiently palatable to ensure Russian cooperation – and this could not be done without the facilitation of a wider understanding between Russia and its opponents on the Security Council (interview, Annan 2013). For this reason, eliciting Russian cooperation in the process, through bridging the Security Council’s divides, remained one of Annan’s top priorities throughout his tenure as envoy.

Meanwhile, the main potential spoiler for Annan’s long-term vision for Syria was Iran. As he said on a number of occasions in his typically understated way: “they have the potential to cause a lot of mischief in the country” (interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014; interview, un diplomat, April 19, 2014). Annan believed that there could be no long-term peace process in Syria without at least the tacit acceptance of Tehran, given its longstanding, profound interests in Syria (interview, Annan, 2013; Daily Star, June 8, 2012). As a result Annan planned to create an even broader framework of multilateral cooperation beyond the Security Council that would serve to ease the major regional rivalries as well. It was this broader perspective on the crisis, and the need to include both the Security Council and the regional rivals, that motivated his creation of the Action Group for Syria (interview, Annan, 2013).

This multilateral strategy was ambitious, but to better understand Annan’s approach, it is useful to consider Annan’s rejection of the alternatives. Because Annan did not consider waiting for a more opportune moment to be an option, this meant he needed external leverage. For this, Annan did not believe that a decisive us-led military intervention against Damascus was a credible threat and resource for his mission. While many opposition factions put great store in this prospect, Annan’s assessment was based on President Barack Obama’s election with “a mandate to bring the boys home” from Iraq and Afghanistan (interview, Annan, 2013). Reinforcing this assessment was the fact that Obama had exhibited deep reluctance to intervene in the much less complicated Libyan crisis. Moreover, on February 26, three days after Annan’s appointment was announced, Annan spoke to one of the foreign ministers of the P3 who said that there was no appetite for a military intervention and that the interest was only in helping “in other ways” (interview, un diplomat, April 19, 2014).

Furthermore, even if a military intervention were possible, Annan believed that this could have severe unintended consequences if it took place outside of the context of a broader international diplomatic framework for managing Syrian political negotiations for a transition of power. The fall of Assad he believed, would only see the emergence of a new war between the factions left behind, further drawing divided international proxy interests into the conflict (interview, un diplomat, April 19, 2014; interview, Annan, 2013). In short, due to the international context, he saw both little possibility and little value in relying on us-led military leverage.

Annan also rejected the idea that he should wait for the opposition to gain in military strength so that it could realistically threaten the end of the Syrian regime. As Annan put it in 2012, he did not “see either side being able to deliver that knock-out blow” (interview, un diplomat, April 19, 2014), at least not in the foreseeable future, most of all because both sides could draw on the resources of rival international camps. If the regime were to fall, Annan assessed, then it would collapse from within (interview, un diplomat, April 14, 2014), which would still leave a war to fight if there was not a framework of international agreements surrounding the crisis to curtail the hostilities that would flood into the vacuum left behind.

This explains why Annan rejected the alternatives, but why did he think his multilateral power strategy could succeed instead? At the opening stages of Annan’s mission, many assessed – typically conveyed with caste-iron certainty – that securing any cooperation from the Syrian regime would be impossible (New Republic 2012; Lynch 2012; Shaikh 2012; interview, un diplomat, April 14, 2014). Annan disagreed. He believed that with the right level of pressure some valuable cooperation could be secured. Annan had long taken the lesson from his prior un career that when the international community is united in support of a single diplomatic effort then “this voice can be powerful,” even without immediate threats of military action (un 2012a). As Annan had found in his successful mediation of the Kenyan crisis in 2008, even the most perceivably intransigent and entrenched leader can be forced to shift when under this kind of pressure from both enemies and allies – and without an immediate threat of external force (Annan 2012c: 184–205). Furthermore, Annan took note of the fact that he had personally seen this work with the Syrian government in the negotiations over the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, which Annan helped facilitate (ibid.: 300–302; interview, Annan, 2013). As Annan repeated to his staff on several occasions, if the international partnerships were right, “we can actually get quite a lot of work done with them” (interview, un diplomat, May 12, 2014).

Mediation for Long-term Change

One of the things that I’ve learned is: get deeper . . . The tendency . . . [is to] say it’s been successful and go home. And then we look back and say, ‘most of these agreements fall apart within five years.’ Well, why? . . . Because we never get into the root causes (interview, Annan 2013).

Annan’s successful mediation in Kenya (Annan 2012c: 184–205, 207–208) taught him that a transformative process of sustainable peacemaking requires a myriad of allies from across civil society if it is to be sustainable over the truly long-term (ibid.: 193). As Annan likes to put it: “when leaders fail to lead the people can make them follow” (in un 2012b). In Kenya, Annan found that popular will for reform formed one prong of a decisive political pincer, ensnaring Kenya’s leaders into shifting their position and holding to a course of transition, even when they were stubbornly reluctant to do so – with the other half of the pincer being the pressure of an international community united in support of the process (interview, Annan, 2013; Annan 2012c: 184–205). In Syria, Annan saw the possibility of a similar instrument in the emergence of the Syrian mass protest movement. Looking ahead to a peace process and political settlement that would need to be underpinned by principles of pluralism, diversity and the representation of the interests of all of Syria’s communities in government, Annan believed it would only be on the basis of this kind of movement that Syria would have a chance to develop a long-term, sustainable effort at tackling the root causes of the conflict (interview, Annan, 2013). As he explains:

I’m definitely opposed to mediation that brings the elite together, where you rearrange the chairs for the political elite and then you say you’ve solved it. And then things go wrong and you go and re-arrange the chairs for them again, never dealing with the problems of the people (ibid.).

Tellingly, it was in the internal mass street protest movement that Annan saw the best prospects for the emergence of Syria’s future leadership – rather than the externally based opposition groups that had Western allies and the attention of the international media, but were of dubious credibility within Syria itself. As he privately said to his senior staff early on in his mission in March 2012:

What we are going to see as this goes on is the external opposition will steadily become less important and the internal opposition will become more important (interview, un diplomat, April 14, 2014; interview, un diplomat, April 18, 2014; interview, Annan, 2013; interview, un diplomat, June 3, 2014).

This was phrased as a prediction, but it was what Annan wanted. He saw the internal civil society-based movement of peaceful protestors and activists as, in his words, “the strongest lever of change” for “building a broader coalition for transition” (interview, Annan, 2013).

This was another reason why Annan believed an early push for a ceasefire through multilateral pressure was vital. By March 2012, the peaceful protest movement had become swamped by the violence and driven off the streets, not only by the government’s military escalation, but also the growing size and number of increasingly radical militant opposition organizations (Holliday, 2012). Annan knew there would be little opportunity for any coalition building among the peaceful opposition factions within Syria while this situation continued. Preventing any further escalations in the conflict through multilateral instruments, therefore, was not only about dampening the risk of a conflagration. It was also about aiding the return and fortification of this vital instrument for long-term change (interview, Annan, 2013).

Understanding the Six-Point Plan: “Hang Them with Their Own Words”

It had to be that clear, that straightforward, that simple for anyone to understand and embrace it. Then you enlarge the circle of supporters . . . and once you have the wider circle of understanding and acceptance, it is very difficult for the leader not to accept (ibid.).

The drafting of Annan’s much-publicized six-point plan began on March 7, 2012, on a plane journey between Geneva and Cairo. Annan and his team were due to meet with Arab League secretary-general El-Araby, before travelling on to Damascus on March 10 to meet President Assad. Annan told his staff that he wanted to leave a proposal in the hands of President Assad for him to consider after their departure, instructing the drafters that the text had to be short, eminently reasonable, easy to understand, but still containing all the basic elements “of a sustainable agreement” (interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014; interview, un diplomat, April 14, 2014). Annan rejected the first versions of the plan, which were several pages long and with more than twenty points. “The longer the details,” Annan explains, “the more likely you will become tied up in them” (interview, Annan, 2013). Annan’s calculation was that the document needed to be so basic, so innocuous and reasonable sounding that everyone in the international community, particularly all of the P5, could not avoid supporting it – making it as difficult as possible for Assad to publically reject the plan or delay his agreement to it (interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014). The result was the one-page six-point plan.

Annan’s approach to creating the six-point plan drew in part on his experience of creating the Millennium Development Goals (mdg) in 2000 when he was un secretary-general. The mdgs changed the global development agenda, but were created through the presentation of language that “nobody in their right mind could deny” (interview, Annan, 2013). On the basis of the subsequent universal international agreement on those basic goals, Annan’s administration at the un developed a multi-tiered global system of monitoring and accountability that could be applied to each member state – an uncomfortable requirement that few, if any, member states anticipated when they enthusiastically agreed to the mdgs (Annan 2012c: 222–236). The logic behind the six-point plan was similar: Annan wanted an agreement on basic steps, but which could be used later as the foundations for the construction of a much larger process.

Most of all, for Annan the six-point plan was about creating a process around which he could rally the international community; creating a “pressure point” on Assad that could compel him to take a limited set of concrete steps, which would in turn change the dynamics of the crisis (interview, Annan, 2013). These were intentions that Annan could not openly share at the time, but he made them clear in private. On March 29, 2012, in a meeting with his closest advisors on how to take forward the Syrian government’s endorsement of the plan, several sources confirm that Annan succinctly explained his real intentions for the six-point plan: “Remember, the plan is to hang them with their own words” (interview, un diplomat, April 14, 2014; interview, un diplomat, April 19, 2014; interview, un diplomat, June 3, 2014; interview, Annan, 2013).

Annan’s expectations for the six-point plan were as follows: short-term pressure on the Syrian government from an international community united behind his plan, particularly through Russia, would enable a ceasefire and cessation in the use of heavy weapons. The peaceful opposition – reinforced by the deployment of an international observation mechanism – would then be given new space to organize and build up its structures and relationships across the country, accelerating the political weakening of the regime and improving the prospects for a sustainable peace process rooted in popular participation (interview, un diplomat, April 19, 2014; interview, Annan, 2013). Annan also believed that if enough short-term pressure could be focused to compel the regime to engage in major prisoner releases this would further accelerate the levels of civic activity and organization in the country, opening up access to new political figures that could be engaged as part of a future peace process (interview, Annan, 2013).

In other words, the six-point plan was designed to shape the regime’s short-term interests, through sufficient external pressure, to make it take steps that would then undermine its long-term ability to obstruct a sustainable peace pro-cess rooted in popular participation. It was an instrument for re-structuring the international relations surrounding the Syrian crisis, to then change the situation around Assad so as to shift the regime’s calculus and make the regime’s acquiescence in the process more likely, in a process of ever increasing momentum. In this light, it is an interesting example of an ostensibly powerless, non-state mediator using a multilateral system of leverage to create a high-power mediation.

Securing Government Commitment to the Plan

The story of how Annan secured government acceptance of the six-point plan is a useful illustration of Annan’s multilateral strategy. Annan first presented the six-point plan to President Assad during a tête-à-tête in Damascus on March 11, 2012 (interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014). After departing Damascus, Annan then received the first official response from the Syrian government on March 13, which consisted of a request for “clarifications” on multiple aspects of the plan (interview, un diplomat, April 19, 2014; interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014). On March 14, Annan wrote back urging “a re-evaluation of your position and an urgent and constructive response” (interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014). The Syrian government then responded on the same day requesting Annan to return to Damascus to continue negotiations on the plan (interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014). Sensing an attempt by the government to bog his process down in unnecessary negotiations on the details of the plan, on March 15 Annan informed the Syrian government that he would not be returning to Damascus at this stage (interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014). On the next day, Annan then presented the plan to the Security Council for endorsement. The Security Council backed the plan in a united statement on March 21 (Security Council 2012), and, to secure further pressure on the Syrian government, Annan travelled to Moscow on March 24 for meetings with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Dmitry Medvedev. There, he asked the Russians to pressure the Syrian government into fully accepting the plan (interview, Annan, 2013; interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014). While Annan was in Beijing for meetings with the Chinese government on March 27 the Syrian government then wrote to Annan conveying their formal acceptance of the plan (interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014). The attempt by the Syrian regime to tie up the proposed plan in lengthy negotiations failed because of the new international context of cooperation that the six-point plan had created.

The endorsement of the six-point plan by the government, combined with the increasingly strong international support for it, gave Annan a degree of the momentum and pressure that he was after. As Annan further explains: “you can help set things up in such a way that they run great risks in not cooperating or not going along with it, making it very difficult for them” (interview, Annan, 2013). The six-point plan was all about creating and then sustaining the momentum of international pressure “to constantly move them forward, keep rolling them, rolling” (ibid.) in an effort that would move too fast for them to take stock and successfully obstruct.

The April 12 Ceasefire

The April 12 ceasefire was the first strong sign that this approach could work and have a real impact on the ground. The prospects for the ceasefire were originally poor. The Syrian government’s pre-ceasefire military escalation against the opposition was so successful that it soon tried to renege on its commitment to the ceasefire so that it could further capitalize on its success. In telephone calls with Annan in the days leading up to the ceasefire, Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Mouallem, began arguing that the government had no guarantee that the armed opposition would abide by the ceasefire. The government, therefore, could not be expected to follow suit (interview, Annan, 2013). But on April 10, at Annan’s request, the Russians successfully persuaded the Syrian government to fully implement the ceasefire and end all use of heavy weapons from April 12 (interview, un diplomat, April 19, 2014; interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014). Clearly, the Russians had become committed enough to the process embodied by the six-point plan to not only ensure the Syrian government’s acceptance of the plan but to ensure the government’s full military implementation of its ceasefire provisions.

The deployment of unsmis also meant that opposition-held areas began to emerge openly and identifiably on the map for the first time. Syrian government units pulled back and demarcated their boundaries in response to the presence of the observers. According to diplomats in the country at the time, in these areas large protests and civil activism re-emerged and on a scale and extent throughout the country that had not been seen since the Syrian government’s military escalation in late January (interview, European diplomat, March 10, 2013). As one European ambassador in Damascus at the time put it, the six-point plan and ceasefire “brought the street protest movement back to life” (ibid.). As discussed above, this was a critical dimension for Annan’s long-term intentions. Immediately after April 12, it appeared as though Annan’s strategy was beginning to come together.

Assad’s Fate

On April 10, 2012, Annan travelled to Iran for meetings with the Iranian government – an unwelcome move in the eyes of the P3, who attempted to stop the visit due to their ongoing dispute with Tehran over its nuclear program (interview, un diplomat, February 22, 2014). In Tehran, Annan met the Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, and the head of the national security council, Said Jalili, before travelling on to meet President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Qhesm Island near the Straits of Hormuz (interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014). Assessing Annan’s intentions for this visit is useful for further understanding Annan’s approach and how he expected the crisis to unfold.

His objective was to start reassuring the Iranians of his long-term intentions for a Syrian peace process. Annan was, as he describes it, “planting seeds” with the Iranian leadership to start developing a long-term relationship and understanding regarding Syria’s future (interview, un diplomat, February 22, 2014; interview, Annan, 2013). As Annan explains retrospectively regarding his thinking at the time of the April visit to Tehran:

I think that what was important to remember was that the Iranians feel very proud about their system. Forget its theocracy. They feel they have credible elections – elections that other regimes in the region do not have and that the people have a chance to express their view . . . If they believe in the system and they have that much influence in Syria, this [elections in Syria] would be something that they can support . . . [and] eventually get them to convince Assad ‘you’ve had your time . . . let the Syrians decide (interview, Annan, 2013).

Therefore, Annan’s intention was to build on this potential agreement on the acceptability of elections in Syria to manage the question of Assad:

[T]he next phase, if we had continued, was to get them and the Russians to tell Assad that there would be elections but ‘without you’. Rather than going in saying ‘Assad must go, Assad must go’, you had to engineer his exit [stress in original speech] . . . I saw the Iranians as a key future lever for creating that pathway. And not only that, I thought at the time that if Assad were to step down, I didn’t see him remaining in Syria. One of the potential places, I thought, could be Iran (interview, Annan, 2013).

Motivating this approach was Annan’s perception that “Assad looked very vulnerable to them” (ibid.). Indeed, Assad’s future looked in doubt to almost everyone in the first half of 2012, including, according to multiple sources, the Russians. un officials involved in negotiations with high level Russian officials in early 2012 – before Vladimir Putin returned to the Presidency in May 2012 – claim that the Russians expressed in private their expectation that Assad had “slight chances” of remaining in power and that the question of “how he quits and when” might need to be handled (interview, un diplomat, April 14, 2014; interview, un diplomat, April 19, 2014).

This issue was at the heart of the Geneva communiqué as well. While the communiqué left the question of Assad’s fate ambiguous in the text, the agreement on political transition required an end to the system of government that currently existed in Syria, leading to full, free and fair elections – and Annan privately maintained that this was therefore a de facto agreement on Assad’s departure (interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014). The P3 demand, meanwhile – echoing the opposition and their regional backers, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – was that Assad had to go as a condition for a subsequent transition. From mid-July through to his resignation and after, Annan would often scribble a diagram of a transition timeline in his meetings with P3 representatives, showing them that the only disagreement was over when Assad left in the process, not if he would leave (ibid.). For the P3 and their allies in the region and the opposition, Assad had to go at the beginning. For the Russians, the implication of their position was that Assad’s exit would be managed at some point in the transition process. Even the Iranians could be situated on the same diagram – who had expressed in their meetings with Annan their acceptance of the possibility that Assad could go, but in scheduled elections at the end of his presidential term in 2014 (ibid.; interview, Annan, 2013). Annan’s view was that the only difference was in the sequence, not the outcome. Even after his resignation, Annan continued to protest that the question of Assad’s fate was an unnecessary obstruction to the initiation of a peace process (interview, Annan, 2013).

Analysis: Why Did the Mission Fail?

There are three main explanations for why the Annan mission failed, each broadly associated with a particular political position on the crisis: 1) the mission depended upon cooperation from Assad, which was impossible (as argued by the more hawkish Western and Middle Eastern observers of the crisis and many in P3 administrations); 2) Russian intransigence made a deal impossible (a popular argument among Western diplomats); 3) the P3 made a deal impossible (the Russian argument).

Explanation 1: Assad’s Intransigence

“Every initiative Annan took to Damascus was received politely then ignored,” tweeted Martin Chulov of the Guardian (Chulov 2012). This view was pervasive in commentary of the mission throughout Annan’s tenure as envoy (Lynch 2012; Hanna 2012; New Republic 2012). As Salman Shaikh, director of the Doha Center of the Brookings Institute, put it in an op-ed piece (2012): “When will the world realize that any attempt to negotiate with Assad is utterly futile?”

However, the argument that the Assad regime was beyond cooperation is unsustainable. When the international conditions were right, the Assad regime was successfully pressured into cooperating with the Annan mission in a number of significant ways, often contrary to the regime’s preferences and its own perception of its interests. These acts of cooperation included: the government’s acceptance of Annan as envoy; its endorsement of the six-point plan and implementation of some of the plan’s provisions; its extensive cooperation with unsmis; its implementation of the ceasefire on April 12 and its cessation of the use of artillery for six weeks. Furthermore, while this occurred outside of Annan’s tenure, the Syrian government later showed a very high degree of proven cooperation with the international plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons (Guardian 2013; Telegraph 2013). These examples all indicate the possible levels of cooperation that could be exacted from the Assad regime, even in the midst of Syria’s civil war, even when this cooperation was to its cost, and even when in contradiction of longstanding Syrian security policy.

Some, however, make the more refined argument that, while some cooperation was possible, there was no incentive for the Assad regime to cooperate in a manner sufficient for the creation of a genuine peace process – most of all due to the absence of a threat of imminent force. As one P3 diplomat based at the un in New York in 2012 argued in an interview with this author: “when has there been a case,” the diplomat asked rhetorically, where an authoritarian regime has bowed to the requirements of a peace process and a transition “without the threat of force?” As similarly expressed by Ashurst (2012) in July, many opponents of the regime were incensed that Annan was “still trying to negotiate with the Assad government after 16 months of conflict . . . The risk of such a move is not tied to any incentive, nor – yet – to any credible threat of intervention from abroad.”

This argument does not hold up under scrutiny either. Firstly, from historical experience, the imminent threat of force is not necessarily indispensable to shifting a peace process-resistant regime into negotiations. Where the imminent threat of force is absent, a unified consensus between external powers can create sufficient pressure to shift even the most seemingly immovable of incumbents into a peace process that leads to the erosion and even end of their prior authority. Kenya in 2008 is a clear example of this, where President Kibaki – in a result “achieved against almost impossible odds” (Lakhdar Brahimi quoted in Security Council 2008: 6) – accepted major curtailments to his powers and a process that would completely replace the Kenyan political system, including provisions designed to ensure that his party and his Kikuyu tribe would never again enjoy the same dominance over the country’s administration (Office of the au Panel of Eminent African Personalities 2014: 163–176). Cambodia is another important example, where international diplomacy “substantially reconciled” the diverse interests of “more than a dozen states involved in the diplomacy” leading to a “consensus with apparently competitive governments” (Solomon 1998: 299). It was this unity, absent a threat of imminent force, that “put ineluctable pressure on the most recalcitrant of the Khmer parties – Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge – to go along with the un settlement process” (Solomon 1998: 300).

Second, it is not possible to claim that the regime was irredeemably obstructive to a peace process because the full extent of the external pressure that Annan intended to create and exert upon the Assad regime was never actually tested. Annan’s plan was to knit together a steadily expanding and deepening international consensus (which he did successfully at first), binding in even Assad’s closest allies; first the Russians and eventually the Iranians. This was never tested because his carefully crafted platform for cooperation, the Geneva communiqué, was broken by the return of vetoes in the Security Council in July 2012. The communiqué did not become international law until September 27, 2013 (as an annex to Security Council resolution 2118 on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons), and Annan was never able to convene a second Action Group meeting with a wider cast of players. We will never know if this thicker noose of unified international pressure around the Assad regime could have proven powerful enough to launch a peace process.

Third, again in refutation of the idea that there had to be a threat of imminent force against Assad – and perhaps most interestingly of all from a strategic theory perspective – Annan’s theory of how to create a peace process was more sophisticated than one wholly reliant on securing cooperation from Assad. As elucidated by one longstanding advisor to Annan, his strategy was not as much about appealing to Assad as it was about escalating international pressure to create a sense of inevitability that would make it “clear to the people around Assad that their survival is incompatible with their leader’s continued hold on power,” leading to the day when “a small group of men around Assad’s command center look each other in the eye and conclude that a bullet to his head is the only way to save their own” (Mousavizadeh 2012). Annan’s focus was not just on building pressure to affect Assad’s calculus; it was also about affecting the calculus of the people around him, to weaken the pillars of support beneath his regime. Indeed, in 2012, Annan believed that it was more likely to be in this sphere, in decisions made by Assad’s henchman, rather than in Assad’s own cooperation, that the critical shift in the politics of the crisis would come (interview, Annan, 2013).

In the uncertainty of a game of chess, experienced players sometimes deploy not one plan of attack but several simultaneously, so that if one strategy collapses due to the moves of the opponent then the player can easily shift to the other already in play. Similarly, Annan had several approaches in play when it came to the issue of regime acquiescence to a peace process. This makes scholarly analysis of his strategic thought even more challenging as he deliberately used ambiguity in his strategy to deal with the ambiguity of the situation. Annan did not expect a major military intervention, but he knew that, even if such a development were to materialize unexpectedly, then a diplomatic framework for keeping the proxy rivalries at bay would still be necessary to make peace in the aftermath of the regime’s defeat. And if the regime was in fact heading towards a collapse from within, then the international agreements and structures that he had constructed – and instruments on the ground, through unsmis – could accelerate this process in a managed way, both by both giving reassurances and exerting greater pressure on the would-be king-slayers. And if Assad, along the way, somehow felt pressured enough to become the prime mover for a peace process himself, then Annan’s strategy was entirely compatible with this also – and his mission engaged with Assad accordingly. Due to uncertainty, Annan’s strategy was calibrated for all of these possibilities. In short, Annan considered Assad’s prominent role in a peace process to be a possibility, but his theory of success did not depend upon it, nor can his mission’s collapse be explained by this.

Explanation 2: Russian Intransigence

While Russia and China jointly vetoed three Security Council resolutions on Syria in 2011 and 2012, the estimation of almost all analysts and diplomats involved is that this was a Russian-led campaign of obstruction, with China playing only a supporting role (Allison 2013; interview, us diplomat 2, April 17, 2014; interview, P3 diplomat to the un, June 4, 2014). Surely, therefore, this Russian-led obstruction to international unity, particularly the vetoes in the Security Council on July 19, was the primary reason for the collapse of the mission. This is certainly a view widely held among Western diplomats (interview, us diplomat 1, April 17, 2014; interview, P3 diplomat to the un, June 4, 2014; Lyall Grant 2012), and this view is compelling given the July 19 vetoes precipitated the withdrawal of unsmis, the end of the Action Group process and the resignation of Annan. There is no doubt that the Russian stance on the crisis directly challenged the P3 position and complicated the politics of the crisis; and there is no doubt that the Russians provided the Assad regime with weapons, loans and diplomatic cover in the Security Council, as well as military advisors to aid its assault on the opposition (Allison 2013). But, once again, a closer examination reveals that Russian intransigence is an inadequate explanation for the collapse of the Annan mission.

As made clear in the analysis above, the Russians were instrumental in securing the Assad regime’s acquiescence to Annan’s mission, the six-point plan, the implementation of the ceasefire of April 12 and its cessation of the use of artillery for six weeks, even though this gave a military advantage to the armed opposition and opportunity for the return of mass street protests. The Russians also supported two united Security Council resolutions that endorsed the six-point plan and created unsmis. Furthermore, the Russians, after heated negotiations, approved the Geneva communiqué, a plan for a full transition process in Syria involving a transitional governing body with “full executive powers” – a provision that Lakhdar Brahimi, Annan’s successor as envoy, interpreted as effectively signifying “regime change” (interview, un diplomat, April 21, 2014). The Russian objection in the end was not to a transition process, but an objection to the inclusion of chapter vii provisions in a resolution endorsing the communiqué. This is an important detail, because sustaining the sense of momentum towards universal international support for a transition process was critical to Annan’s strategy. Annan believed that a chapter vii resolution would only increase the pressure upon the Assad regime, and so he welcomed and encouraged it (interview, un diplomat, April 14, 2014; interview, Annan, 2013). But he did not believe that only a chapter vii resolution was adequate. He believed a chapter vi resolution, while without the teeth of chapter vii, would at least sustain the momentum of his international consensus-building work and place the communiqué in the incontrovertible position of international law (ibid.). This would mean that the parties to the Action Group would not so easily be able to walk away from the communiqué, strengthening the case for folding in other crucial partners into the process, particularly the Iranians and Saudis. Although it was the Russians and Chinese that cast the vetoes, by insisting on chapter vii provisions it was the P3 that pushed the communiqué resolution to a veto and a breakdown of the entire process. Therefore, while the Russians refused to accept a chapter vii resolution in July 2012, it would be imprecise to claim that they took a position that made the sustenance of the Annan process impossible.

Explanation 3: P3 Intransigence

We have established that it was neither Assad’s nor Russian intransigence that primarily led to the collapse of the Annan mission in 2012. So, what of the remaining argument, that it was caused by the P3? The Russians, for clear political reasons, certainly claim this (Churkin 2012). But this is also the most convincing argument from an analytical perspective. This is because, as outlined above, although the Russians set limits on the path that the Annan plan could take (and all the while giving significant support to a brutal dictatorship), they still left a clear way forward for the mission’s continuation. The P3, on the other hand, offered a chapter vii route or none at all, willingly risking the entire process. While it is possible that the July 19 vote was the result of a P3 miscalculation, motivated by an expectation that the Russians would cave-in last minute to the chapter vii resolution demand, the fact remains that it was this act that collapsed the Annan process. Annan’s multilateral power strategy depended on the reciprocal cooperation of a set of key national partners that spanned the major international divisions of the crisis – and it was the P3 that resisted this approach more than the Russians.

The P3 counter-argument at the time was that a chapter vi resolution would have been as useless as no resolution (interview, un diplomat, April 14, 2014), but this is unconvincing. The Annan process could have continued with the endorsement of the communiqué in only a chapter vi resolution, and the evidence suggests that this would have left it in a markedly stronger position than without any resolution at all. Firstly, if the communiqué had been endorsed in international law, even only under chapter vi, it would have maintained Security Council unity on the Syrian file, sustaining the perception of the potential for tougher future Council action while keeping Russian investment in the process. The Syrian government’s endorsement of the six-point plan, implementation of the ceasefire and cooperation with unsmis (and, later, full acquiescence to the chemical weapons deal) were all secured above all by Russian interventions. These examples show that, when the conditions were right, and when sufficiently invested in compromises agreed between Security Council members, Russia would take significant steps to ensure the regime’s compliance.

Second, the external opposition was quick to reject the communiqué on the grounds that it did not demand Assad’s departure at the outset of a transition process. They even refused to acknowledge the communiqué in an opposition meeting in Cairo held just two days after the Action Group meeting (Cairo documents 2012a; Cairo documents 2012b), a rejection that some claim was the result of Turkish encouragement (interview, Turkish journalist, December 15, 2014). But this rejection would have been much harder to sustain if the communiqué had been enshrined in international law. Indeed, the Syrian opposition coalition would later only publically and fully accept the communiqué after it had been endorsed in a Security Council resolution in September 2013 (Jarba 2013). This indicates that the process of creating a sense of increasingly ineluctable international momentum towards Annan’s vision for a peace process would have been sustained following a chapter vi resolution – at least more so, the evidence suggests, than without any resolution at all.

So, why did the P3 collapse the process by pushing the communiqué resolution to a veto in July 2012? Understanding this requires examining P3 motivations for supporting Annan’s appointment in February 2012. For the us State Department, the military escalation in January 2012 had “really freaked everyone out,” as one us diplomat working on Syria at the time explains. “Everyone had said that this wasn’t going to escalate to heavy weapons, and then they started shelling civilian areas. We were out of ideas.” So with Annan’s appointment they “just wanted him to slow things down and then this would give us some time to work out what the hell to do” (interview, us diplomat 1, April 17, 2014).

For the uk and France there was another motivation involved. The appointment of a high-level un envoy meant that the Security Council would maintain a controlling voice over the international response, which for the uk and France would mean, in the words of one Western diplomat working at the un at the time, that they would maintain a “one fifth stake” of authority over the mission (interview, P3 diplomat to the un June 4, 2014). This was preferable to a us-Russian only process as “it meant we would always be in the room” (ibid.). This continued beyond Annan’s resignation in 2013 when, as observed by a non-P3 European diplomat to the un, “every time you had a Lavrov-Kerry [Russian-us] meeting, France and Britain would start holding meetings in New York” to try to bring the Syrian discussions back to the Security Council and, therefore, to their purview (interview, European diplomat to the un, June 4, 2014).

This indicates that the P3 had little interest in Annan’s envisaged long-term process, and instead only gave support for his appointment for expedient, short-term reasons. Annan claims in retrospect that the P3’s leadership of the “Friends of Syria” forum – a grouping of states formed on February 24, 2012, to support the opposition in its campaign against Assad – is an indication that this was indeed the case. As he put it to this author (interview, Annan, 2013): “If the Security Council agreed on a need for a political and peaceful settlement, how could three permanent members join a group whose objective undermined the mandate agreed by the same council?”

The mute Western response to Annan’s resignation compounds the evidence of P3 indifference to Annan’s multilateral strategy. In the words of one us diplomat, when Annan resigned, “we were ambivalent about it” (interview, us diplomat 1, April 17, 2014). The main result that they wanted from Annan by that stage, and little else, was an outright denunciation by him of the legitimacy of the Assad regime to give further rhetorical strength to their policy demanding Assad’s departure. As the same us diplomat explains, this was due to an expectation that a change was coming in us policy:

We were engaged in our own internal multilateral diplomacy and negotiations, as well as externally. So we were working really believing that a change [in policy from the White House] was coming and that we could contribute to encouraging that change . . . We wanted blame to be assigned [against Assad]. That’s what we really wanted . . . But we did think that the breakdown [following the vetoes and withdrawal of unsmis] would precipitate a stronger move by the us government from the White House level (interview, us diplomat 1, April 17, 2014).

The idea that Annan’s multilateral approach of bridging international divisions might be crucial for unlocking the prospects for a peace process did not seem to register in the P3 foreign ministries throughout 2012. In the us State Department, and in the other P3 foreign ministries (interview, P3 diplomat to the un, March 25, 2014; interview, P3 diplomat to the un,April 17, 2014), the expectation in 2012 was that the solution would come from a new White House decision on the crisis, or even sooner from the fall of Assad, which they considered to be inevitable. This made Annan’s role, in their view, effectively only a stop-gap before this decisive stage.

This view dictated the P3 approach to dealing with the Russians. In their view, Russia would have to comply with the Western vision of how the crisis would end eventually, because no external stakeholders to the crisis could be powerful enough to obstruct a process of change like the one they perceived in the Middle East. In other words, there was a P3 assumption of a unipolar logic governing the crisis. The Arab Spring of 2011 became a 1989 moment in the psyche of Western administrations – a moment when Western narratives of the inevitable march towards Western democratic values were once again being proven incontrovertibly true and against which no force could stand. “The P3 really thought Assad would lose . . . the British and French were sure they could do a Libya . . . I too was caught up in the stunning success of the Arab Spring” (interview, European diplomat to the un, June 4, 2014).

Conclusion: Lessons for Future Peacemaking

As one us diplomat put it to this author: when Annan resigned “we didn’t realize how much we were going to miss him . . . I would take Kofi Annan back now in a heartbeat” (interview, us diplomat 1, April 17, 2014). Since 2012, the Syrian civil war has proven devastating for P3 interests in the Middle East, fueling the emergence of the Islamic State, creating the biggest surge in international Islamist extremism since the Soviet-Afghan war (icsr 2015) and threatening the stability and even the survival of key P3 allies in the region (e.g. Ben Zion 2013). It is impossible to know whether the Annan process would have curtailed these developments to any degree, but Western actions ensured that the instruments Annan created for managing and containing the crisis in 2012 were removed, allowing the conflict to escalate unfettered.

During the Syrian crisis in 2012, the P3 operated under a unipolar logic – one that assumed Annan’s multilateral efforts to bridge the international divisions of the conflict were a luxury for resolving the crisis and which could be dispensed with without much concern. The us “effectively walked away from the communiqué a mere two days after signing it, and the moment was lost” (Sayigh 2014). Annan’s biggest mistake was to fail to recognize this P3 view of the crisis and to overestimate P3 support for his mission. The P3 became his blind spot. In Annan’s view he was working towards what the P3 wanted, which was the end of the Assad regime, but in a negotiated process that would include Assad’s allies. Annan had a strategy for dealing with the expected obstructions of the regime and those of the Russians and the Iranians. But he did not have one for the P3. The Russians and Iranians made prospects for a political transition challenging, and perhaps the Assad regime would have proven unassailably obstructive to a peace process. But, on balance, it was ultimately the P3’s actions that caused his mission to collapse in the way that it did in 2012.

Despite the stark failure of the mission, this article’s investigation indicates that multilateral power can be constructed and exerted with effectiveness by mediators in civil wars, even in the most fraught and polarizing crises of the new multipolar international system. Truly multilateral mediation strategies for dealing with civil wars are eminently feasible and have the capacity to significantly improve prospects for mitigating these kinds of crises; if, that is, there is the right kind of international support. But the withdrawal of this support is far from inevitable in internationally polarizing “fault-line” civil wars like those in Syria. It was not geopolitical polarization and its accompanying hostility that made the Annan mission impossible. Instead, it was the inability of key Western governments to converge on a strategy that recognized the value of Annan’s mediation for their own interests – all due to a mistaken belief that there was a prevailing unipolar logic shaping the crisis. If that belief can be rectified, banishing the “costly illusion of unipolarity” (Mousavizadeh 2014), then so too can inherent obstacles to effective mediation in fault-line civil wars.

Rather than entering a period of inevitable lockdown for effective mediation akin to the Cold War, it is instead entirely possible that our new emerging multipolar age could prove to be a rich period in the development of new and effective mediation strategies, as original and dynamic ideas are developed to overcome new obstacles. This analysis of Syria in 2012 shows that the future of civil war mediation will depend more upon the intelligent design and selection of strategy by the actors involved than the supposedly inexorable pull of the structures of power politics. As succinctly summarized by former us diplomat Ambassador Thomas Pickering, multipolarity means “we are increasingly reliant on diplomacy.” This means “we need new paradigms” (interview, Pickering, 2014). Annan’s multilateral mediation strategy for resolving the Syrian crisis was a failure, but it may nevertheless point to the future of effective peacemaking in a multipolar world.

1 Barring some important exceptions, including Crocker et al. in this issue.

2 “Multilateral” in international relations scholarship is sometimes used to depict any “practice coordinating national policies in groups of three or more states” (Ruggie 1993: 6). Ruggie, however, argues that: “the issue is not the number of parties so much . . . as the kind of relations that are instituted among them.” Accordingly, “multilateralism here depicts the character of an overall order of relations among states” that “coordinates relations among three or more states in accordance with generalized principles of conduct” (Ruggie 1993: 12). As Hampson (2010: 61) stresses regarding Ruggie’s “generalized principles of conduct,” it is the expectation of “reciprocity,” specifically the expectation of “roughly equal reciprocal benefits,” that is the “bedrock of multilateralism.”


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Annex: Note to the Reader on Sources and Bias

This article draws upon interviews, contemporary documents, news reports and a period of participant observation by the author on the Annan mission. The author is an academic but was appointed to the position of political officer on the Annan mission, arriving on the mission on March 23, 2012, one month after Annan was asked to lead the mission, remaining in this role through Annan’s departure from the post on September 1, 2012. The author was involved in the majority of the private consultations, meetings and negotiations conducted by Annan, including the most high profile and sensitive engagements. The author maintained detailed field notes on these events throughout. While that material is confidential and has not been used to inform the account presented here directly, it has been applied indirectly, with this data and knowledge used to guide the research and interrogate the conventional material. Keeping to conventional research methods, therefore, the only material on the inner-workings of the mission used here are those provided with the permission of the interview respondents. The advantage of this approach is that it ensured the collection of as granular an account as possible from the interview respondents, as the author was able to trigger their memories on particular details. Alongside cross-referencing all information between sources wherever possible, the author’s field notes also provided an additional instrument for distinguishing between information that has been skewed or confused in retrospection and information based in more accurate recollections.

A disadvantage of this method is the potential for bias. To counteract this influence, this article makes no attempt to argue whether Annan’s strategy was right or wrong. Instead, this paper focuses on illuminating the reasoning and calculations that governed Annan’s decisions at the time, as far as can reasonably be discerned from the available evidence, and the nature and dynamics of the obstructions to his strategy. But the possibility of bias can never be wholly removed. As ever, the prerogative for distinguishing between justified and biased analysis lies with the reader. It is intended that this note will assist the reader in making this assessment of the research presented above.

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