It should have raised red flags when both Syria and Russia approved of Kofi Annan’s February 23 appointment as the United Nations-Arab League Joint Special Envoy (JSE) to Syria. But after bickering world powers repeatedly failed to agree on an emissary to broker an end to the killing spree in which Bashar al-Assad has killed more than 9,000 people, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, was content to laud Annan as “an outstanding choice.”
Certainly the Ghana-born Annan comes loaded with credentials: former U.N. secretary general, winner of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, and recipient of a host of other awards, positions, and honorary degrees. But a closer look at Annan’s record reveals that he has often exacerbated crises, rather than solving them. We can now add Syria to this list.
THE STRING OF FAILURES begins in 1994, when Annan, then head of peacekeeping, dismissed the warnings of General Romeo Dallaire, commander of the U.N.’s peacekeeping forces in Rwanda, about arms caches that would soon be used for mass murder. In July 1995, with Annan still head of peacekeeping, came another mass murder, this time in Srebrenica. Serbs slaughtered more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims while peacekeepers stood by.
During his tenure as U.N. chief, from 1997-2006, his responsibilities included overseeing the Oil-for-Food relief program for Iraq. The program, run by the U.N. from 1996 until Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003, was supposed to ease the pain imposed on Iraq’s people by sanctions targeting Saddam’s regime. Instead, Oil-for-Food evolved into one of the most corrupt failures in the history of humanitarian relief, while Annan urged its expansion and praised its performance.
Oil-for-Food expanded into a global web of graft. Saddam skimmed and smuggled billions out of oil production meant for humanitarian relief, using the money to pay the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, bribe for influence on the Security Council, buy luxury cars, and procure weapons. Syria, incidentally, was one of Saddam’s major conduits for smuggling oil out of Iraq, and smuggling weapons in. Chairing a 2005 congressional subcommittee hearing on this traffic, Representative Dana Rohrabacher estimated that Syria banked some $3 billion in Saddam’s illicit funds.
Evidence discovered in Baghdad after Saddam’s overthrow led to multiple probes of Oil-for-Food. In 2005, Annan’s handpicked director, Benon Sevan, was accused by the U.N.’s own inquiry of having pocketed money from the program. In 2007, Sevan was indicted in the Southern District of New York. Sevan proclaimed innocence, but never faced justice. He fled to Cyprus despite Annan’s assurances he would remain in Manhattan to cooperate with investigators.
It also emerged that the secretary general’s own son, Kojo Annan, profited from working for a Swiss company, Cotecna Inspection SA, hired by the secretariat for lucrative inspection work in Iraq under Oil-for-Food. While Kofi Annan himself was not accused of wrongdoing, a U.N. probe led by former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker diplomatically assessed that his performance “fell short of the standards that the United Nations Organization should strive to maintain.”
IN THE CASE OF Syria, to be fair, Annan set about his work admirably. “The message is clear,” he initially said, “the killing and violence must stop.” On March 10 and 11, Annan met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, and reportedly urged him “to heed the old African proverb: ‘You cannot turn the wind, so turn the sail.’ The realistic response is to embrace change and reform.” By March 16, Annan had laid out a six-point plan meant to bring an overdue end to the bloodshed, after more than a year of strife.
Unfortunately, Annan’s plan creates more problems than it solves. It does not call for Bashar al-Assad to step down, though this is a core demand of the Arab League, the United States, and other interested parties. Annan calls for a “Syrian-led” dialogue between Assad and the opposition. So favorable was this plan to the Syrian regime that Assad (according to Annan) said yes, while leaders of Syria’s opposition rejected it as naive. Meanwhile, despite promises of an immediate ceasefire to be followed by a full withdrawal from urban areas, Assad’s military continues to pound civilian areas.
Now, as before, Annan is tipping the scales in favor of a murderous regime. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov smugly noted, Annan’s plan includes “no talk about Assad’s departure.” One Syria opposition leader, Burhan Ghalioun, predicts the plan will “waste a month or two of pointless mediation efforts” while buying Assad more time.
On the very day that Annan announced progress to the Security Council, Assad’s forces doubled down with violence, prompting more than 1,000 Syrian refugees to reportedly flee to the Turkish border. “The government has indicated that it will continue to update me on steps it is taking,” Annan said. Somehow, this is not too comforting.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Claudia Rosett is journalist in residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.