As Kofi Annan Steps Down, What's In Store For Syria?

Kofi Annan will step down at the end of the month from his post as UN-Arab League envoy for Syria. Annan's resignation is the latest blow to the faltering efforts to find a solution to the crisis in Syria. Steve Inskeep talks about the implications with Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Kofi Annan says he quits. The one-time United Nations leader gave up his effort to bring peace to Syria. He says the government did not listen to him and world powers didn't do much better. So let's discuss what happens in Syria now.

Robert Malley is a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group. He's monitoring the situation from Europe. Welcome back to the program.

ROBERT MALLEY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: I'm wondering if Kofi Annan is right. Is it a hopeless task to try to negotiate peace at this point?

MALLEY: Well, as you know, if someone like Kofi Annan gives up - and he really didn't want to do this. He had a lot of prestige coming in and it's been quite eroded over the last few months. If he gives up, I think it's a pretty clear signal that, at least for now, the chances for a diplomatic solution have dissipated.

INSKEEP: And why is that? Is it simply because in the end a diplomatic solution calls for Bashar al-Assad, the leader of Syria, to give up his job and he's not going?

MALLEY: I think that's one big reason. Any diplomatic solution would have meant the end of the regime and few regimes, let alone the Syrian one, want to commit suicide. So I think it almost was mission impossible from the beginning. It was made more difficult, as he laid out, by the fact that those who supported him perfunctorily were supporting him for all the wrong reasons and in many contradictory ways.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You're saying those who supported the peace mission - Kofi Annan's peace mission - supported him perfunctorily? Is that what you're saying?

MALLEY: Yes. Both perfunctorily and for self-serving motivation. You know, those on one side said that they were supporting him, but in fact wanted the fall of the regime, and on the other side were supporting him but wanted the survival of the regime. And they used it as sort of a fiction in order to advance their own goals. And I'm talking both about Syrians and their supporters outside from both sides.

INSKEEP: OK. Who still wants the survival of the Syrian regime in the international community?

MALLEY: Well, the Russians, the Iranians, you know, a few others. I mean, the Russians are the main players here. And it's not so much that they want the survival of the regime, although they want that. They don't want Western interference. They don't like to see regimes being overthrown by popular uprisings. So basically, they prefer the status quo to any of the alternatives. And frankly for them, the alternatives look quite bleak. They believed, and they still believe, that any alternatives to our side means the Islamists coming to power. And that for them is worse than the current situation.

INSKEEP: OK. So what are the options now?

MALLEY: Unfortunately, the options seem all to be relying on what's happening on the ground, which is getting uglier by the day. A regime which, you know, never really was a state, it's hard even to call it a regime now. It's morphing into a formidable, extraordinarily well armed militia that is fighting for its survival and for the survival of the community that backs it, the Alawites in particular. So you have that on the one hand.

On the other hand, an opposition which is getting stronger, but also as it's getting stronger, some of the uglier sides are coming to the surface - the sectarianism, the retaliatory violence. So it's being played on the ground, and what's happening on the ground is not really cause for optimism.

INSKEEP: Well, we have heard on this program about the rebels obtaining tanks and heavy weapons. Are the rebels getting strong enough that they could potentially just win this?

MALLEY: They're certainly getting strong enough. But one of the strange paradoxes that has happened with the regime is that it's weakening in ways that may allow it to survive. Not, again, as a regime but as a militia that will control areas of the country, perhaps not even the majority of the country, but areas that it considers critical. And it will fight to the end.

And it's going to be very difficult for it to win, but equally difficult for the rebels to prevail because, as I said, there still is a lopsided military situation. And when you have one side that believes that defeat means death - and that's the case of the regime and increasingly, unfortunately, the case of the Alawite minority, about 10 to 12 percent of the population, which is deeply entangled now with the regime. They believe that there's no such thing as a peaceful surrender. It's either kill or be killed.

INSKEEP: You know, Rob Malley when you talk about the regime or the remnants of the regime maybe someday controlling portions of Syria while other groups control other portions of Syria, I start thinking of neighboring Lebanon, where there have been different power centers and there was a civil war that lasted for decades and unrest that continues today.

MALLEY: And there's one big difference. For all of the misdeeds that Syria committed in Lebanon, Lebanon had Syria to try to manage the conflict. Syria only has itself and it has outside powers that are simply going to meddle and try to make things worse.

I don't want to leave - I mean, this is obviously a bleak picture. There are some real sources of hope and inspiration. First of all, Syrian civil society, which has maintained a degree of cohesion and unity and sort of solidarity, which has been surprising even to itself.

But then one of the big challenges now is to see whether the opposition could sort of come to terms and overcome its own demons - sectarianism, the growing role of Salafi jihadi militants and foreign fighters, come to terms with its own fragmentation. They basically hold the fate of Syria in their hands, because the regime is not going to do anything that is forward looking or that is positive.

INSKEEP: Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director for the International Crisis Group. Thanks very much.

MALLEY: Thank you.

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