Doubts over Syrian truce agreement

Deadline passes for ceasefire in accordance with Kofi Annan peace plan, amid concerns over Damascus’ commitment to deal
The city of Homs has been devastated by the government’s more than year-long crackdown. [Reuters]

The deadline has passed for a ceasefire in Syria to come into effect as part of a peace plan proposed by Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League peace envoy, but Western leaders have already expressed doubts about whether the Syrian government will honour the deal.
Syria told Kofi Annan in a letter that it would halt all fighting by Thursday morning but reserved the right to respond to any attack by “armed terrorist groups”.
Since rebels, loosely organised across Syria’s provinces, do not obey a set chain of command, there is no guarantee they will obey the ceasefire either.
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Beirut, said Annan “doesn’t expect a total halt of the violence” but wants to ensure at least enough room for humanitarian aid to arrive.

On Thursday morning, activists in Syria and relaying information on Twitter reported no violence and calm streets in many flashpoint cities, though they expected attacks to resume.

Saif, an activist in hard-hit Homs, told Al Jazeera that he thought shelling would resume within hours.

“All the shops are closed for more than two months, nobody is able to go to work, all communications except phone lines are disconnected in most of the areas, schools are closed also … there are many difficulties,” he said.

Abu Rami, another Homs activist, said that while shelling and attacks in the city in the hours before the ceasefire had “claimed the lives of dozens,” there had been no shootings or explosions on Thursday.

Soldiers and armoured vehicles were still stationed at checkpoints, he said.

“I think many people will go down to the streets and keep protesting in their demonstrations and calling for their main goal, that this regime must step down,” he said.

Suspicion and cynicism

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in a telephone call on Wednesday that “more resolute” UN Security Council action was needed on Syria, the White House said.

“The President and Chancellor shared the concern that the Assad government was not complying with the terms of the agreement negotiated by Kofi Annan and continued to engage in unacceptable brutality against its own people,” a White House statement said. “They agreed that this underscored the need for the UN Security Council to come together to take more resolute action.”

The opposition also said there was no sign of compliance on the ground in the hours before the deadline as government forces pounded protest centres anew in violence that monitors said killed 14 civilians on Wednesday.

Al Jazeera’s Cath Turner, reporting from the UN in New York, said the statement by the Syrian government “has been greeted with a great deal of suspicion and cynicism”.

“Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, and the current president of the UN Security Council, spoke about the letter that has been submitted by president Assad, and she was very clear in the fact that she was not taking anything in that letter at its word, because, she said, President Assad did not have a very good track record at keeping his word,” our correspondent said.

Iranian support

Meanwhile, Annan has welcomed Iranian support for his efforts to secure peace in Syria, telling Tehran that it can be “part of the solution”.

Annan was speaking in Tehran on Wednesday following talks with Ali Akbar Salehi, the Iranian foreign minister.

ANNAN’S DEMANDS
 Commitment to stop violence by all parties
Inclusive Syrian-led political process
Daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire
Media access to all areas affected by the fighting
Release of people detained arbitrarily
Right to demonstrate

While endorsing Annan’s peace plan, which calls for the ceasefire by Thursday, Salehi said Syria’s government needed to be given time to implement reforms.

Tehran is considered a key regional ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who faces growing international pressure over the crackdown by security forces that has seen cities shelled and thousands of people killed.

Annan stressed again the urgency of finding a way to end the killing and to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need, before getting all parties to the table.

“The political process must be Syrian-led and respect the aspirations of the Syrian people,” Annan said.

“What is important is that governments in the region and beyond work with Syria to resolve the crisis.

“The geopolitical position of Syria is such that any miscalculation can have unimaginable consequences.”

‘Further militarisation disastrous’

Regarding a ceasefire agreement which requires Syrian government forces to halt operations by April 12, Annan said he had received assurances that the deadline would be honoured.

“If everyone respects it I think by six in the morning on Thursday we shall see improved conditions on the ground,” Annan said.

Answering a question whether he supported calls by some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to arm the Syrian opposition, Annan said “any further militarisation will be disastrous”.

Salehi offered qualified Iranian support for Annan’s efforts.

“We believe the people of Syria, like other countries, have the right to enjoy all the rights enjoyed by other world nations, such as freedom of political parties, freedom of elections, a constitution that encompasses all the wishes of a nation,” he said.

“At the same time, we have announced that we oppose interference in the affairs of all countries, including Syria.

“The government of Bashar al-Assad has promised change to meet the demands of the people… and in fact the opportunity must be given to the Syrian government.”

Ceasefire deadline

Annan’s peace plan, presented last month, calls on the Syrian government to withdraw troops from towns and end the use of heavy weaponry.

Under the plan, both the army and opposition fighters must adhere to the ceasefire.

Walid al-Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, on Tuesday demanded guarantees from Annan that the opposition fighters would also honour any truce.

“We will not ask the terrorist groups, which are killing, kidnapping and destroying infrastructure, for guarantees. We want Annan to give us these guarantees,” Muallem said during a visit to Moscow.

Syria failed to observe a Tuesday deadline to withdraw its forces from urban areas.

Assad’s forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, according to a UN estimate. Damascus says “armed terrorist groups” have killed more than 2,500 soldiers and security personnel.


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