UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N.-Arab League envoy on the Syrian crisis, Kofi Annan, brings global stature and experience in conflict resolution to his new job, but averting a long and bloody civil war that could further destabilize the Middle East might be impossible.
Annan, U.N. secretary-general from 1997 through 2006, was appointed by his successor Ban Ki-moon and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby on Thursday after the U.N. General Assembly last week called for naming an envoy to push an Arab peace plan that asks Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside.
University of Notre Dame professor George Lopez said the choice of the Ghanian statesman over the other main candidate, former Finnish President and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari, was "a bold choice."
"Mr Assad has already been visited by high level diplomats - foreign ministers of Turkey and Russia, for example, and Arab League officials and he has been unresponsive," he said. "It is significant that Kofi is a level higher who can - and will - look Assad in the eye and speak some truth to Assad's power."
Annan has no vested interest on either side of the conflict, he said, making it difficult for anyone to claim he has an agenda other than securing an end to Syria's 11-month crackdown on anti-Assad demonstrators that has killed thousands of civilians and brought the country to the brink of civil war.
In Stanley Meisler's 2007 biography of Annan, the only reference to Assad and Annan conversing is a 2002 telephone call in which the U.N. chief urged Assad to vote in favor of a Security Council resolution on the return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Assad, a strong ally of Saddam, dropped his objections and joined the other 14 council members to vote for the resolution.
During his time at the helm of the United Nations, Annan successfully mediated a number of conflicts, including Nigeria's border dispute with Cameroon over control of the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula. Annan persuaded Nigeria to accept a World Court ruling that awarded it to Cameroon.
After leaving the world body, Annan helped negotiate an end to violence in Kenya that killed 1,220 people after the African nation's December 2007 election.
But the escalating conflict in Syria, which the United Nations says has killed over 5,400 civilians, will likely prove much more difficult than Kenya or the Nigeria-Cameroon dispute.
FACES MAJOR HURDLES
Western diplomats say the United States and Europe appeared to favor Ahtisaari, who oversaw negotiations on Serbia's former province of Kosovo, which seceded in 2008. But they added that Western capitals had no problem with the choice of Annan.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner described Annan as an "outstanding choice." U.N. spokesman Eduardo del Buey said Annan was selected for "the high esteem in which he's held in the international community, and his impeccable knowledge" of the region.
One of the chief political hurdles Annan will have to confront is a deadlocked U.N. Security Council. Russia and China twice joined forces in a double veto of resolutions condemning the Syrian crackdown and calling for an end to the fighting.
It remains unclear whether Annan can persuade Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, widely expected to return to the presidency after elections next month, to stop shielding Assad, whom Moscow sees as a key ally in a country that hosts Russia's only warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union.
Annan will also have to confront the fact that some states are not only turning a blind eye to efforts to arm Syria's opposition but are openly supporting it. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Feisal said at a "Friends of Syria" meeting in Tunisia that arming the rebels was "an excellent idea."
Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University said Annan can only succeed in getting a political settlement that ends the conflict if there's a "credible threat of the use of force against Assad absent a deal."
"Annan is only likely to succeed - a long shot under the best of circumstances - if the Russians use his presence as a cover for pushing very hard on Assad and his followers behind the scenes," she said.
Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi was also pessimistic about Annan's chances of success: "Frankly I doubt it," he said, adding that Assad's government was "still too strong, (and the) opposition too weak and divided."
U.N. diplomats who followed Ban's search for an appropriate envoy said his priority was to find an Arab, but that this was not possible in the end. Late last month, Elaraby said he was in talks with prominent Arabs, including Egyptian diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, about becoming an Arab League envoy.
Earlier this week, a senior Western diplomat in New York said ElBaradei was not in the running for the post, though it was not clear whether this was because the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency was not interested or because of opposition from certain countries.
ARAB LEAGUE DIVIDED
ElBaradei, like Annan, is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Several Western diplomats said privately that there was little enthusiasm in the West for ElBaradei, who they feel strove to undermine a U.S. and European push for U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
Another reason for choosing a non-Arab, diplomats said, is that the Arab League is itself divided between Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which support arming the rebels and toppling Assad, and others who fear that ousting Assad would spark sectarian violence that spills over into Lebanon and Iraq.
The late U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke once famously referred to Annan as "the international rock star of diplomacy."
The soft-spoken diplomat, however, ran afoul of the United States in 2003 when he described the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as "illegal." In 2006, Annan said he feared he would end up being remembered only for the oil-for-food program for Iraq, saying blame for that financial scandal was misdirected.
But allegations of U.N. mismanagement of the $64 billion Iraqi humanitarian program, which Annan said were "exploited to undermine" the United Nations, were not the only criticisms Annan faced during his long U.N. career.
The force commander of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, Romeo Dallaire, described in a book how Annan, then head of U.N. peacekeeping operations, took no action on Dallaire's warnings about an impending massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus or his urgent request for more troops.
If Annan fails in Syria, diplomats and analysts say, Western and Gulf Arab countries may decide that all diplomatic avenues for resolving the crisis at the negotiating table have been exhausted - which in U.N. vocabulary is a prelude to war.
Lopez said black spots on Annan's record like oil-for-food would not impede his work as the U.N.-Arab League envoy.
"Oil-for-food comments might be made mockingly by Syrians, but they will be of no relevance here," he said.