Cautious optimism in Syria after ceasefire

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An unverified handout picture released by the Syrian opposition Shaam News Network on 11 April 2012 shows the destroyed Muhazzab Rajub mall in the central Syrian city of Homs. (Photo: AFP - Shaam News Network)

Published Thursday, April 12, 2012

Guns fell silent in Syria after a UN-backed ceasefire took effect at dawn on Thursday, bringing an end to fierce fighting in rebellious towns that had still continued overnight before the 6am deadline.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported no violence after the 6am deadline came into effect.

"More than two hours have passed, and it's completely quiet across the country," said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

People contacted by telephone in the flashpoint provinces of Homs, Hama, and Idlib, which have been under sustained shelling by President Bashar Assad's forces over the past week, reported calm. An activist in Damascus said the capital was also quiet.

The ceasefire was welcomed as a "relief" by Abdulaziz al-Khayyer, a senior figure in the Damascus-based opposition National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB), but urged caution.

"Well of course the announcement itself is a relief, but we must verify very closely that it is real," he told Al-Akhbar.

While violence dropped remarkably Thursday morning, al-Khayyer warns a full ceasefire across the country would be difficult to achieve.

"We don't expect to have a complete and full ceasefire over the country. In one moment, we know it's very difficult. At least there's a real hope that the level of violence has decreased," he said.

The NCB figure said heavy artillery was not in action, but Assad's forces had not withdrawn from cities and towns, a key component of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's six point peace plan.

"The forces are still in many towns, they're not withdrawn yet. But I can tell you heavy machines are being used now, this is important," al-Khayyer said.

Annan has said this week that he has Syrian assurances that the ceasefire would be respected, though his spokesman was at pains on Wednesday to stress that other elements of his plan must also be respected – notably "Item 2," which calls for armed forces to withdraw from the vicinity of urban areas.

Syria's Defense Ministry said on Wednesday it would halt operations, but made no mention of an army pullback from cities and said it would confront "any assault" by armed groups.

Syria's UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, said his government was "on board" with the plan. But, he said on US television, government forces would remain on alert to "counterattack."

Highlighting the fragility of the ceasefire, the Free Syrian Army also warned it was ready to strike if regime forces broke the truce, criticizing the Assad regime for not withdrawing its forces from flashpoint towns.

"The Defense Ministry announcement is a detour on Annan's plan, which clearly says he should pull back the tanks and end violence," Qassem Saad al-Deen of the Free Syrian Army said from Syria on Wednesday.

The Istanbul-based Syrian National Council was less optimistic a ceasefire would hold, stating that Assad could simply not afford to stop shooting, since that would allow a new wave of mass protests.

"As soon as there is a real ceasefire, people will come out to the streets, demonstrating and demanding his removal, his stepping down. So I think the regime has to retaliate by opening fire again," spokesman Bassam Imadi told Reuters in Istanbul. "But let's hope for the better."

Elia Samman, a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, was equally pessimistic the lull in violence would continue, pointing to disorganized and largely independent armed groups that do not follow orders from either a central command or Syria's political opposition.

"Nobody has control over the armed groups on the ground, they operate independently. Therefore, I am expecting violations of the ceasefire," he told Al-Akhbar from Damascus, adding that the Syrian government would respond if renegade armed rebels fired at regime forces.

At least 9,000 people have died since the Syrian uprising began over a year ago, according to UN estimates. The Syrian government maintains that at least 3,000 of its security personnel have also died in the violence.

At the United Nations, Annan will brief the deeply divided Security Council at 1400 GMT.

Annan has spent much of the past week urging regional and international powers to salvage his peace plan, after heavy clashes in the days leading up to the ceasefire put his plan in jeopardy.

The Norwegian general who spent the past week discussing a planned UN observer mission with Syrian officials said before leaving Damascus that he was "cautiously optimistic."

But Major-General Robert Mood told Norway's NTB news agency: "Both sides are plagued by a very high degree of mutual suspicion. It's terribly difficult for them to cross that abyss."

International reaction

World powers gave a mixed response to news of the ceasefire, with Russia and China welcoming the end to violence, while Western powers were quick to cast doubt over Assad's intentions.

China's Foreign Ministry called on the opposition to honor the truce, a pledge so far adhered to by organized opposition groups.

"China welcomes the government's relevant decision, which will help to ease tensions," the ministry said in a statement. "China also calls on the Syrian armed opposition to immediately cease fire and implement Annan's six-point proposal."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said some Arab and Western states had written off Annan's peace plan as a failure even before it had gone into effect and called on them to use their influence with the rebels to avoid future unrest.

Assad "is assuring us that he is ready" to comply with the six-point peace initiative, Lavrov said in televised remarks from the sidelines of the G8 foreign ministers' meeting in Washington.

"No one has verified his statement. We propose putting it to a test and convincing the opposition to do the same," he said, speaking before the ceasefire came into effect.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was scathing of Assad despite the ceasefire, accusing the Syrian president of failing to abide by the terms endorsed by the full UN Security Council last week.

"I feel an immense sense of frustration because the world has come together behind this Kofi Annan plan," he told the BBC. "This is a plan, remember, that is not just backed by those of us who have been pushing for action on Syria, it's also backed by China and Russia. And yet Assad is deliberately flouting it."

Cameron made it clear that the main thrust of Western efforts would still be to persuade Moscow and Beijing to accept tighter diplomatic sanctions.

"Now is the time to say to the Russians and Chinese, look at the man we are dealing with, look at the appalling way he is behaving," Cameron said. "We need to go back to the UN and tighten the pressure, tighten the noose."

Al-Khayyer welcomed international pressure on Assad, and urged world powers to keep a "hawk's eye" on the Syrian regime to ensure it fulfills Annan's plan.

"We believe the regime will not be committed to a full ceasefire unless it's observed with a hawk's eye. It's not the regime's wishes to have a ceasefire, it's forced to do [to have a ceasefire] and must be kept forced," the NCB figure said.

The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the commitment could not be construed as complying with Annan's peace plan: "The burden remains squarely on the Syrian regime," she said late on Wednesday.

"The caveats in the letter are worrying and yet again call into doubt the credibility of any such commitments. But nothing casts more doubt on the credibility of the commitments than the fact that commitments have been made and made and made and broken and broken and broken," she said, noting that attacks had intensified since Assad agreed to the plan two weeks ago.

Russia and China, alarmed by the way last year's Security Council resolution on Libya led to military intervention against a sovereign state, have vetoed attempts to penalize Assad, although the United States, European Union, and Arab League have imposed their own economic and political sanctions.

Turkey, hosting nearly 25,000 Syrian refugees, has been particularly alarmed, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the prospect of engaging its NATO allies to protect its borders after firing from Syria hit people in a refugee camp this week.

"NATO has responsibilities to do with Turkey's borders," he was quoted as saying by Hurriyet newspaper on Thursday, citing Article 5 of the North Atlantic defense pact, which allows for a common response to an attack on the territory of a member state.

Annan, at a news conference in Tehran on Wednesday, urged Assad's long-time ally Iran to help resolve the violence and warned of "unimaginable consequences" if it worsened further.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad urged an end to violence, but accused NATO powers of expansionist ambitions in the Middle East and said Tehran's Syrian ally should not be put under pressure.

"NATO is not ashamed to say it wants to dominate the region and is trying to extend its domination eastward," he was quoted by IRNA as saying.

What next?

All sides, including the opposition, need to work hard to ensure the ceasefire holds and a political process can develop, al-Khayyer said.

"Now all concerned sides must work very hard to stabilize the ceasefire and to make it permanent. Everything is connected to a real ceasefire, then we can work on the other issues," he said.

Al-Khayyer urged the full implementation of Annan's plan, calling for the deployment of a "sufficient number of observers all over the country to oversee the ceasefire."

"We must see that the detainees are released, that media must be reporting all over the country, and there must be [UN] observers," he said.

Samman also put the onus on the Syrian government to lead the way, and begin a political process with a real intent to bring about a solution.

"The only thing that can make the ceasefire hold, is if the government forces reply [to provocations from armed groups] with a very limited reaction, and [the government] starts a serious political process to convince Syrians that it is serious in finding a political solution," the SSNP member said.

Samman welcomed the deployment of UN observers, and also urged commitment to Annan's peace plan.

"Any ceasefire should be observed by the UN to determine which party violates it. Along with the ceasefire, all the other five points of Annan's initiative should be respected," he said.

Extending an olive branch to the regime, Al-Khayyer said if the government fully implements Annan's plan, negotiations with the clean elements of the regime would be possible.

"It's possible to have negotiations with those in the regime who are not stained with blood and are not corrupt," he said.

While peace, reconciliation, and democratic transition might remain a daunting task for Syria after one year of bloodshed, al-Khayyer reiterated the need to remain hopeful.

"I have no other choice but to be optimistic, at least 51 percent. Life can't go on without hope."

(Al-Akhbar, Reuters)


Wake up, Assad Akhbar, Guardian has already reported shooting into a funeral in Aleppo, shooting in Idlib and Homs. How is that a cause for optimism or a case for "calm" ?

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