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Diplomatic Failure in Syria May Foreshadow Military Resolution

August 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
With the Syrian government and rebels at diplomatic loggerheads and several members of the international community 'irreconcilable' on how to address the Syrian conflict, there seems to be no leverage in negotiating peace. Jeffrey Brown talks to the New America Foundation's Randa Slim and Colum Lynch of the Washington Post.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Joining us now is Colum Lynch, who covers the U.N. for The Washington Post. And Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute, she’s met with members of Kofi Annan’s team and has regular contact with the opposition inside Syria.

Colum Lynch, let me start with you.

We knew diplomacy was not going well, but what happened here? Was there a final straw that led to Kofi Annan’s decision?

COLUM LYNCH, The Washington Post: Well, I think that everybody has anticipated that he would resign. It was just a matter of time. But the thing that really — the final straw was the veto in the Security Council last month.

It was a clear indication that the big powers were split on this issue, that they weren’t going to be able to agree on a concerted approach to resolving the crisis. And I think at that point Kofi Annan just decided that, if I don’t have the backing of the big powers, that there’s no way that we can apply pressure on the parties to calm and to cease shooting at each other.

JEFFREY BROWN: Colum, the language we heard, fairly strong language, finger-pointing, name-calling in the Security Council, how unusual is that and who is he calling out here? Who is he talking about?

COLUM LYNCH: Well, I guess he’s talking about — what’s interesting is after the Security Council meeting this afternoon on Syria, the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, and the French ambassador, Gerard Araud, were exchanging insults.

The Russian ambassador was complaining about the French decision to pull Annan’s deputy back for a job in the Pentagon in the middle of the negotiations, thought that was kind of undercutting the diplomacy.

The French ambassador responded that it was a stupid remark, that it was unfair to say that — to — you know, to say that this was a politically motivated decision. This is a high-level French international diplomat and he was needed and wanted by the French government.

So, it continues.

JEFFREY BROWN: Randa Slim, what do you think is behind this decision by Kofi Annan? What’s going on?

RANDA SLIM, Middle East Institute: I think I agree with Colum in terms of he realized that he doesn’t have the backing of the international community anymore, with pointing the finger at the disunity inside the national security — inside the Security Council.

However, I would like to argue here that his plan was, in a way, born — I mean, was dead on arrival, partly because as he pointed in his resignation letter today, the protagonists in Syria, whether it’s the regime or the opposition, were not on board.

The regime on one hand wasn’t willing and not ready to go with the political transition process. His only plan — their only plan was to solve this conflict militarily, crush the uprising by force.

And on the other hand, the opposition, the fact that the plan didn’t call explicitly for Assad to step down as a precondition for the political process to be launched de-legitimized the plan in the eyes of the opposition, especially in the activists inside Syria, who are now the most important player in this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you met with — we have a loud — well, OK, there it goes. I think that’s better. You had a loud noise behind you.

I was going to say, you met with members of Kofi Annan’s team. Were they frustrated? Did they become aware of this problem that you were just referring to? When did they — was there a growing frustration that you could sense?

RANDA SLIM: I met with them early June and I could sense the frustration then.

At the time, they were still hoping that they, along with the Arab League, will be able to bring the Syrian opposition together around a common platform. And this also didn’t come, you know — eventually this didn’t come together, as we all saw in the Arab League meeting, which failed in bringing the Syrian opposition together.

They were also, of course, frustrated at the time by the failure of the — of Russia or by unwillingness of Russia to back resolution that will bring consequences on Assad if — for violating the plan, the peace plan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Colum Lynch, so where does this leave — the obvious question, where does this leave the diplomatic effort? Is there any way to pick up the pieces? Is there any plan behind the scenes to try to move forward at all?

COLUM LYNCH: It looks pretty stark.

I mean, the French ambassador said the differences in the council are irreconcilable. There is sort of — most of the council members are saying that the logic, it’s moving towards military logic. We’re seeing what is unfolding in Aleppo tonight.

The top U.N. peacekeeping chief, Herve Ladsous, told the council that he found — he thought that the parties — he is convinced that the parties are preparing for one last final battle in Aleppo. So I think that this is moving away from a diplomatic track to the military track.

And maybe, you know, after this plays out, they might be able to kind of return to the diplomacy at someplace down the road, but it will be a different game they are talking about then.

JEFFREY BROWN: Randa Slim, does all that then have any impact on the ground or is — are we way past this diplomacy at this point?

RANDA SLIM: You know, the activists on the ground are way past this diplomacy, I think, although the revolution started as a nonviolent uprising.

But faced with the brutal crackdown by the regime and the inability of the international community to bring any kind of pressure on Assad to abandon the military approach to which he and his adviser are wedded, I think the narrative for nonviolence inside the opposition camp lost traction.

And this came especially after the assault on Baba Amr in Homs early last — earlier this year. So, the belief now among activists, especially among rebel fighters, is that this will have to be settled militarily in the field. And that’s why they keep calling on the international community to arm them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Randa, one more thing in our last minute here, because there were two other reports today, one from Reuters that the president had signed a directive allowing the CIA to help rebels, another from McClatchy that the administration has now made it legal to collect money in the U.S. to send to the rebels.

What — many details, of course, of this on both these stories are still unclear at this point. But what do you make of those reports?

RANDA SLIM: I think what is happening is that the United States, the U.S. administration is trying to feel its way through the maze of the Syrian rebel camp, if we can say so.

It is a very dynamic environment right now inside Syria. We are seeing armed factions appearing to the surface, emerging almost on a daily basis. And I think the United States through the order that you refer to which — which enables the CIA and other U.S. agencies to provide support to rebels, short of armed support, enable these agencies and the U.S. administration to really do some sort of a triage process among the different rebel factions to find out who is the influential, who is the not influential, who is the good guy, who is the bad guy.

And start to identify what are the partners — which are the partners we would be working with if eventually President Obama decides to up the ante on our involvement and step in the fray of arming the rebels.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Randa Slim, Colum Lynch, thank you both very much.

COLUM LYNCH: Thanks for having me.

RANDA SLIM: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you can track the history of the Syrian conflict, including the diplomatic efforts to end the fighting, in a timeline on our World page.