UNITED NATIONS — Five years after handing over the reins of the United Nations, Kofi Annan is back on the front line trying to end the Arab Spring's longest conflict and one of its bloodiest with diplomatic skills honed over half a century.
When his successor as secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby chose him in late February to be their joint envoy to Syria, Annan said stopping the violence that has lasted more than a year and killed more than 9,000 people would be "a very difficult assignment" and "a tough challenge."
That was an understatement.
But in six weeks, he has managed to unite the bitterly divided U.N. Security Council and the rest of the world — including supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad — behind his six-point plan to end a conflict that many fear could quickly become a civil war if it drags on.
On Friday, a fragile cease-fire that he orchestrated was in its second day and was largely holding. Annan said he was encouraged but cautioned it was just a first step. Still, it was a breakthrough.
The key now, Annan said, is to bring government supporters and the opposition quickly together in a serious dialogue that leads to "a political transition to a democratic, plural political system, in which citizens have equal rights and equal opportunities, regardless of their affiliations or ethnicities or beliefs."
Edward Luck, a special adviser to Ban, said that when Ban and Elaraby were looking for a mediator to try to end the bloodshed in Syria, "they needed a diplomatic superstar, and they needed someone who was not from the region, because the region is so divided."
Annan had also dealt with Assad as secretary-general "so he had the right rank and access there," Luck said. "He's well known as a strong proponent for human rights and helped to put the word democracy back into the U.N.'s vocabulary, things that should be appealing to the opposition to Assad. And he was the head of U.N. peacekeeping for many years and would understand the requirements for a U.N. observer mission and perhaps a larger peacekeeping mission down the road."
High-level diplomacy and mediation are nothing new for the 74-year-old grandson of Ghanaian tribal chiefs who joined the United Nations in 1962 as an administrative and budget officer for the World Health Organization in Geneva and rose to become its secretary-general from 1997-2006.
Annan, who is normally suave and soft-spoken but isn't afraid to speak out if necessary, has had diplomatic failures as well as successes.
The United Nations was strongly criticized for its failure to prevent the 1994 Rwanda genocide and the 1995 fall of the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which had been declared a U.N. "safe haven" for civilians. Both happened when Annan headed the U.N. peacekeeping department.
The U.N. was accused of ignoring evidence that a genocide was planned in Rwanda and of abandoning the Rwandan people when it was under way. It was also accused of errors and misjudgment in failing to help save thousands of Bosnian Muslims from a Serb mass murder in Srebrenica.
In his first five-year term, Annan undertook a wide range of diplomatic initiatives. He helped ease the transition to civilian rule in Nigeria in 1998. Later that year, he visited Iraq and helped defuse an impasse between Saddam Hussein and the U.N. Security Council over compliance with resolutions involving weapons inspections, avoiding a likely outbreak of hostilities. In 1999, he was deeply involved in helping East Timor gain independence from Indonesia.
As his term was ending, then U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said Annan was the best secretary-general the United Nations had ever had. "He is an international rock star of diplomacy," said Holbrooke, who died in December 2010 while serving as President Barack Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
That view was internationally recognized when Annan won the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize — shared with the United Nations — for "their work for a better organized and more peaceful world." Annan himself was lauded for "bringing new life to the organization."
But Annan's second term saw the world body's reputation, and his own, tarnished by allegations of corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq, bribery by U.N. purchasing officials and widespread sex abuse by U.N. peacekeepers.
An investigation led by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker blamed shoddy U.N. management and the world's most powerful nations for allowing corruption in the $64 billion oil-for-food program to go on for years.
Nonetheless, Annan's decade at the U.N. helm changed an organization born in the ashes of World War II.
When he handed the U.N. reins to Ban on Jan. 1, 2007, he left behind a global organization far more aggressively engaged in peacekeeping, fighting poverty and the rise of global terrorism.
At a farewell news conference, Annan said he considered his top achievements the promotion of human rights, the battle to close the gap between extreme poverty and immense wealth, and the campaign to fight AIDS and other infectious diseases.
Since leaving the U.N., Annan and his wife Nane — the niece of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who is widely credited with rescuing tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during World War II — have divided their time between Ghana and Geneva.
He started a foundation and is involved with several organizations that champion peace and human rights, help the world's poor and promote a green revolution in Africa.
In the beginning of 2009, Annan led an effort to stop weeks of postelection violence in Kenya that left more than 1,000 people dead and 300,000 displaced. He brokered a power-sharing deal that ended the country's worst violence since it won independence from Britain in 1963.
Luck, the U.N. adviser, said Annan's successful mediation effort in Kenya "took 41 days of concerted effort on his part, so the dedication and commitment was clearly there."
He said Annan is displaying the same commitment in his current role as the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria.
John Bolton, who had a difficult relationship with Annan when he was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the Russians and Chinese who support Assad's government "have historically been better at using him and other U.N. officials and institutions to achieve their objectives than the West has in achieving their objectives."
He criticized Annan for waiting until this week to visit Syria's ally Iran.
"Iran has a vested interest in extending its influence throughout the region, and Syria has been a proxy of theirs for years," Bolton said. "They're not about to let that slip away, and until you understand that, all these cease-fire efforts are doomed to failure."