UNITED NATIONS — Kofi Annan’s plan to curb the violence in Syria hit a dead end this month, another casualty of an escalating conflict that shows no signs of abating.
But Annan’s failure may have taken another toll: on the reputation of a career peacemaker and, by extension, on confidence in the power of diplomacy to resolve what is turning out to be one of the most intractable crises to grow out of the Arab Spring.
World leaders and UN experts have commended Annan for showing the courage to take on what they term a diplomatic ‘‘mission impossible.’’ But among Syrian activists and Arab critics, he has been vilified as a shill for President Bashar al-Assad. Many of those close to Annan fear his legacy is at risk, and that it is time for him to confront reality and step down.
‘‘I feel very sorry for Annan, not because I’m an old loyalist, but because he has been dealt this hand,’’ said a senior UN official involved in Syria diplomacy, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to comment candidly. ‘‘If I were him, I would be seriously thinking about resigning. Why keep banging your head against a brick wall when you’ve become a hated figure in social media around the world. And for what?’’
That bitter assessment reflects a conviction among sympathetic observers that Annan is set to be a scapegoat to shoulder the blame for key powers, including the United States and its Arab and European allies, who have been unable to persuade or compel Assad to cease the killing, and Russia and China, who have blocked efforts at the United Nations to punish Assad for his conduct.
But critics say that Annan has allowed himself to be used by Assad, and the Syrian government’s Russian and Chinese patrons, in a naive effort that has allowed authorities in Damascus to buy time to crush the opposition.
‘‘There is a kind of happy convergence between Kofi’s willingness to try a thing that may make him look naive and the world’s wish to have him try this because it doesn’t have anything more effective and forceful that it is prepared to do,’’ said James Traub, author of a book on the former UN chief, ‘‘The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power.’’
Last March, following appeals from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other key players, Annan was asked by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to come out of retirement and serve as a mediator in Syria.
A Nobel Peace Prize laureate — dubbed ‘‘the secular pope’’ by some — Annan seemed a natural choice, in part because he enjoyed the trust of all the key powers.
While Annan has been associated with some of the United Nations’s greatest failures, having headed up the UN peacekeeping department during the mass killings in Bosnia and Rwanda, he also wracked up diplomatic achievements, guiding East Timor to independence from Indonesia and, more recently, brokering a complex peace-sharing agreement in Kenya. He also had a track record of working with Assad.
In his upcoming memoir, Annan said he bore no illusions about Assad’s commitment to peace when he took on his latest assignment, but also believed Assad was a ‘‘modern man’’ ready to initiate reforms in Syria.
Assad’s response to the popular uprising, Annan writes in ‘‘Interventions,’’ ‘‘confirmed my more troubling suspicion that he was a man . . . willing to employ any means to retain power.’’
In many ways, the peace plan that Annan developed for Syria played to Assad’s strengths. It suspended talk of UN sanctions and reframed the UN debate from one that required Assad’s departure to one that would place him firmly at the center of any political settlement.
Asked by Assad what the transition would portend, Annan answered it ‘‘would lead to whatever you agree at the negotiating table,’’ according to a diplomat close to Annan.
Shakeeb al Jabri, a Beirut-based Syrian activist, said the April 12 cease-fire Annan brokered had provided tangible benefits, bringing about a lull in the violence and imposing constraints on Assad’s security forces, particularly in the area of Idlib.
But over time, Annan’s standing diminished as Syrian tanks shelled residential areas with impunity, forcing the UN’s unarmed monitors to suspend their patrols, and undercutting the prospects for political talks. Earlier this month, Syria demonstrators throughout the country carried banners calling for the ‘‘toppling of Annan the servant of Bashar and Iran.’’
The opposition realized that Assad would not go peacefully and hoped Annan would come to the same conclusion.
‘‘It seems that hasn’t happened yet,’’ Jabri said. The Annan plan, he added, is ‘‘nowhere. It’s dead. It’s over.’’
Salman Shaikh, a former UN official who serves as director of Brookings Doha Center, said Annan’s mediation was undercut by his instinctual faith in the power of diplomacy. ‘‘He would not do what was not in his instinct: to take a much more muscular approach to this, try to coerce the regime into submission. He believed he could turn the Russians around.
‘‘Nobody believes in the Annan plan, not in the in the region, not within the opposition, not even in Western capitals,’’ he added. ‘‘His credibility, in my view, is shot, particularly among the opposition on the ground, which is what counts.’’
Officials close to Annan say that he extremely disappointed by the failure of major powers to strike a compromise over the way forward in Syria, as well as the efforts of Gulf States to sabotage the plan through the provision of arms to the opposition. But he is still trying to find ways to resuscitate the plan, they say.
‘‘Nobody can blame [the opposition] for feeling outraged and frustrated,’’ said the senior UN official involved in Syria diplomacy. ‘‘We are all outraged and frustrated. We can’t seem to affect events on the ground, and every day we wake and realize it just slipping out of control, including Annan.’’
Those sympathetic to Annan dispute suggestions that he had gone soft on Assad and his chief patron, Russia, noting that he pleaded with the Security Council to punish those who undercut his peace plan. He held an hour-long meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this month to press his case.
‘‘He did not mince his words — he told [Putin] very frankly, ‘You must realize that Assad is going down sooner or later, and you’ve got to cut him loose sooner or later,’ ‘‘ said a diplomat present at the meeting.
In the end, there was no agreement to be had, and Russia, along with China cast their third veto of a Western-backed UN resolution threatening sanctions against Syria. In doing so, they effectively killed Annan’s peace efforts.
‘‘In terms of judging Annan, he obviously didn’t succeed at the top line of what he was trying to do,’’ said Marc Lynch, a professor of Middle East politics at George Washington University. ‘‘But for everyone who mocked Annan’s idea for a brokered transition, it might end up looking a hell of a lot more attractive in retrospect than the kind of chaos we could see emerging if this takes a sharp turn for the worse.’’