Syrians took to the streets to demonstrate against President Bashar al-Assad, emboldened by a cease-fire as the United Nations prepared to deploy monitors to help sustain a fragile peace.
The 6 a.m. cease-fire was holding with only a few isolated reports of gunfire and explosions in the north and east, compared with a death toll that has often exceeded 100 a day and claimed more than 9,000 lives since the uprising began.
“The return to calm should allow the demonstrators to prove their size and their strength,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the London-based head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said in a telephone interview.
UN special envoy Kofi Annan, who negotiated the truce, said “Syria is apparently experiencing a rare moment of calm on the ground.” At the same time, Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Assad has failed to comply with all his obligations in a six-point peace plan, including the pullout of troops and heavy weapons from cities.
“The Annan plan is not a menu of options,” Clinton told reporters in Washington. “It is a set of obligations. The burden of fully and visibly meeting all of these obligations continues to rest with the regime. They cannot pick and choose.”
At Annan’s request, the UN Security Council, its decision- making body, will adopt a resolution as soon as tomorrow to deploy a monitoring mission. An advance team of about 30 UN observers will head to Syria within 48 hours to test the waters before deploying a bigger monitoring mission, according to a Council diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are private.
At stake for Assad is the survival of his family’s four- decade hold on power. Syria’s top officials are members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, which is a minority in Syria and whose privileged status may be at risk should they be toppled. Syria also threatens to become a proxy battleground between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran, while violence has spilled over into Lebanon and Turkey.
Syria’s army breached the cease-fire in some parts of the country, Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the main opposition alliance, told Al Arabiya. Government troops killed 11 people today, according to the television channel.
Annan’s peace plan won backing from Russia and China, two countries that had vetoed earlier efforts by the U.S. and its European and Arab allies to pass a Security Council resolution calling for Assad to cede power.
Russia used its influence on Syria, a Soviet-era ally, to lean on Assad to agree to a cease-fire. Moscow is invested in the survival of Assad, selling him weapons during the uprising. Its only military base outside the former Soviet Union is a naval maintenance and supply center in the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea.
“Russia played an extremely important role in creating the conditions for Mr. Annan’s mission to move ahead,” Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin, told reporters. “You should give us credit. We have every right to be given credit.”
Syria’s army ended operations this morning after carrying out “successful missions in combating criminal acts by armed terrorist groups,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported, citing a Defense Ministry official it didn’t identify. It said the army will stay on alert “to confront any attack by armed terrorist groups against civilians, law-enforcement members, the armed forces and private and public facilities.”
Syria ‘Absolutely’ Committed
The Syrian government is “absolutely” committed to the cease-fire, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said in an interview with the BBC’s Radio 4 today. “We do want monitors to come as soon as possible to monitor any possible violations.”
As many as 160 people have been killed daily since Assad agreed to Annan’s plan on March 27, according to the Local Coordinating Committees of Syria, an opposition group.
Western diplomats have expressed skepticism about Assad’s pledge to abide by the cease-fire. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice called the truce a “very fragile and initial opening.”
“Today we saw for the first time in a long time a positive step that we hope will be sustained,” Rice, currently president of the Security Council, told reporters.
Turkey warned that it may call on fellow NATO countries to reinforce its border with Syria, after Syrian troops fired across the frontier at refugees trying to escape.
Turkey may invoke a North Atlantic Treaty Organization article defining an attack on one member as an attack on the alliance requiring a collective response, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters during a visit to China, according to Sabah newspaper.