BEIRUT -- Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general who has been the point man for a failing international peace plan for strife-torn Syria, is quitting as special envoy to Syria as of Aug. 31, the U.N. said Thursday.
His resignation was announced by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who lauded Annan's "determined and courageous efforts" in attempting to forge peace in Syria.
The veteran diplomat from Ghana had served as special envoy to Syria for both the United Nations and the Arab League.
His departure would seem to dim any prospects for peace in Syria, where violence has been surging as a revolt against President Bashar Assad is in its 16th month. Annan leaves as rebels and the government fight for control of its most populous city, Aleppo, in a battle that many say could be decisive.
Annan was appointed in February as the U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, where armed rebels have been fighting to oust Assad, whose family has ruled the Mideast nation for more than four decades.
Because of his considerable diplomatic stature, the soft-spoken Annan was acceptable to all sides in the conflict and to the United States and Russia, which have taken divergent positions on Syria. Washington and its allies have called for Assad to step down while Moscow has blocked any U.N. efforts aimed at forcing a leadership change.
After a brief cessation of violence in April in response to Annan’s six-point peace plan, the conflict soon escalated to new levels in Syria.
As special envoy, Annan made many trips to the region and met on several occasions with Assad. In late June he also convened an “action group” in Geneva that agreed on the need for a “political transition” in Syria, though how it was to be accomplished remained a question mark.
Each side has blamed the other for the failure of Annan’s peace plan to take hold.
The opposition was skeptical about the plan from the beginning, viewing it as a means for Assad to hold on to power and string along the international community.
Assad has vowed his commitment to the plan, but the Syrian government has refused to accept one of the major peace plan mandates: the withdrawal of forces and armor from populated areas. Syrian authorities blamed armed rebels, whom they usually refer to as “terrorists,” for refusing to lay down their arms.
Ban said on Thursday: "The hand extended to turn away from violence in favor of dialogue and diplomacy -- as spelled out in the six-point plan -- has not been ... taken, even though it still remains the best hope for the people of Syria."
The statement indicated that the six-point plan remained on the table despite the departure of Annan.
The U.N. chief said he was working with the Arab League to appoint a successor "who can carry on [with] this crucial peacemaking effort."
A small team of about 150 U.N. observers remains in Syria, but their current mandate expires on Aug. 20. The observer term could be renewed if it is found that violence has been reduced and both sides have ceased using heavy weapons. But there is no indication on the ground in Syria that violence has subsided.
In fact, the U.N. said this week that both sides appear to have escalated their use of heavy arms. The government has employed fighter jets with rockets and cannons against rebels in Aleppo, the U.N. said, while opposition forces have seized tanks and other heavy weaponry from government forces.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut
Photo: U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan in Geneva on July 20. Credit: Fabrice Coffrini / Agence France-Presse/Getty Images