Middle East

Syria crisis: Annan's exit marks end of diplomatic track

A member of the Free Syrian Army aims his weapon in Aleppo's district of Salah Edinne (31 July 2012)

Kofi Annan's decision not to renew his mandate as special UN and Arab League envoy for Syria at the end of the month is clear recognition that the political process has failed, and that Syria's fate will be decided by events on the ground.

Given his track record, had there been the slightest hope of advance on the political and diplomatic fronts, he would not have given up.

The UN and Arab League chiefs are now looking around to try to find a replacement.

But it's hard to imagine any figure with anything approaching the stature and profile of Kofi Annan taking on the task, when the prospects for success are currently negligible.

The last round of international diplomacy lurched to a halt in July, when Russia and China vetoed a western-drafted resolution which would have done something to meet Mr Annan's request for "clear consequences" to be imposed for non-compliance with his six-point plan.

He hit a similar dead end in efforts to persuade the regime and its armed opponents to call off the carnage and enter dialogue on a political solution.

At his last meeting with President Assad in Damascus on 9 July, the two men agreed to try to arrange localised ceasefires "from the ground up" in the hope of creating a constructive political climate.

That was a forlorn hope. The violence redoubled, erupting for the first time in the two major cities which had so far been relatively untouched, Damascus and Aleppo.

Nine days after that last meeting, President Assad's brother-in-law and three other top security figures, including the defence minister, were reported killed in an explosion in the capital.

Since then, daily casualty figures have roughly doubled over previous highs.

Violence has raged in many parts of the country - literally north, south, east and west - in addition to the two big cities.

Mortal threat

The key battle is now being waged for control of Aleppo in the north, where rebel fighters have gained a strong foothold which government forces are trying - so far unsuccessfully - to dislodge.

The rebels have apparently managed to open a direct supply corridor to the nearby Turkish border, allowing fighters and munitions to flow in relatively unhindered - including, it is being reported, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles which could erode the regime's air-power advantage.

After the last Russian/ Chinese veto at the Security Council on 19 July, US officials indicated that action would now be pursued outside the UN consensus framework.

Now there are reports that President Obama has signed a secret "finding" boosting covert US non-lethal support for the armed opposition.

Image caption Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad counts Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among his closest allies

Syria has accused the US and France of openly and materially backing "terrorists" with communications equipment which is facilitating their "criminal operations".

It has also accused Turkey of permitting al-Qaeda and other extremists to pass through the country and cross the border into Syria, and of allowing Israel, the US, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to set up intelligence centres there to direct the conflict.

Certainly the trend seems to be towards growing outside involvement in what is rapidly becoming both a vicious civil war and a regional and international proxy struggle.

On the Syrian side of that equation, the regime already enjoys a close military relationship with Russia, and a strategic alliance with Iran.

Iranian leaders - visited earlier this week by the Syrian foreign minister - have been hinting that they and other "friends and allies" of the regime in Damascus would do more to help it survive if it came under mortal threat.

President Ahmadinejad said Tehran would stand by Syria "until good triumphed over evil".

All the most dire predictions about the consequences if the Annan plan failed, seem now to be coming true with bewildering rapidity.

No wonder he wanted out of it.