Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, this evening was appointed joint special envoy on Syria for Ban Ki-moon and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby and granted a mandate to halt the violence, end human rights abuses, and help promote a peaceful political settlement of a crisis that has already claimed well over 5,000 lives.
The appointment, which was announced by the United Nations Thursday, places a high-profile diplomat with extensive experience in the region, and a history of dealings with President Bashar al-Assad, to help halt the spiraling violence in Syria. But some top diplomats cautioned that prospects for securing a political settlement remain slim, and that it may be too late to secure a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
This will be Annan's first major diplomatic troubleshooting effort since 2008, when he led an African Union mediation effort aimed at ending a post-election civil war in Kenya. Annan received international plaudits for his success in persuading the Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga to form a coalition government.
"The Special Envoy will provide good offices aimed at bringing an end to all violence and human rights violations, and promoting a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis," according to a statement released by Ban's office. "He will consult broadly and engage with all relevant interlocutors within and outside Syria in order to end the violence and the humanitarian crisis, and facilitate a peaceful Syrian-led and inclusive political solution that meets the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people through a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition."
A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Annan earned a reputation as a forceful proponent of human rights, promoting the doctrine that states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens and building up the U.N.'s institutional capacity to monitor rights violations in peacekeeping missions. But he is also associated with some of the U.N.'s greatest human rights failures, including leading the U.N. peacekeeping department at a time when the U.N. failed to intervene to halt mass atrocities in Srebrenica and Rwanda.
As secretary-general, Annan worked closely with President Assad. In her book No Higher Honor, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice credited Annan with persuading the Syrian government not to block a cease-fire agreement ending the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution last week condemning Syria's violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrators and asking the United Nations chief to appoint a special envoy to support an Arab League initiative for a political transition in Syria to a government of national unity.
Ban will be in London tomorrow, but is expected to announce the new appointment as a high-level diplomatic meeting takes place in Tunis, where top Western and Arab diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are set to discuss Syria's future.
The selection of Annan sends "a clear message that this is at the top of the international community’s agenda," said one council diplomat. "He's clearly a political heavyweight."
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.