As veteran mediator Kofi Annan prepares to visit Damascus to try to rein in Syria’s turmoil, he could be forgiven for thinking his time would be far more usefully spent in Moscow, the Arab state’s old strategic ally.
Analysts say Russia is the one outside power that could determine whether the March 10 mission by the joint UN-Arab League special envoy prevents a fragmented global response from degenerating into a violent scramble for regional supremacy.
The United Nations says more than 7,500 people have been killed in a nearly year-old crackdown on demonstrators against President Bashar al-Assad who drew inspiration from other “Arab Spring” revolts across the Middle East and North Africa.
For many, Syria’s internal conflict is turning into a proxy struggle between rival international groupings, between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in the Middle East and, globally, along Cold War lines between democracies and authoritarian leaders. The question for many, and perhaps also for Annan, a former U.N. Secretary-General, is whether president-elect Vladimir Putin will be ready to cut political support for his counterpart Bashar al-Assad in return for a deal that somehow shores up Moscow’s long-term influence with its closest Arab ally.
Lamenting an international response it said veered from the ineffectual to the inflammatory, the International Crisis Group (ICG) suggested that Annan’s best hope lay in enlisting Russian support for a negotiated, orderly transition of power that preserved the integrity of Syrian state institutions.
“Annan faces very long odds,” a March 5 ICG note said, noting disarray among Assad’s numerous foreign foes had allowed the government to live “in denial” about the depth of the crisis. But it suggested Russia might be persuaded to shift position, so as to convince Damascus the balance of power was tilting against it and moves on a transition should now start.