France, the U.S. and other countries are showing little confidence in the week-old Syria cease-fire, increasing the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to halt the violence while aiding his opponents.
Fifty-seven countries, meeting in France, voted yesterday to tighten sanctions on Syria as Russia accused Persian Gulf nations of arming opposition fighters. Members of the so-called Friends of Syria group are openly supporting the rebels with non-lethal assistance, such as communications equipment, and weighing gestures to further cast Assad’s regime as a pariah, including the expulsion of Syria’s ambassadors, according to European diplomats who aren’t authorized to speak to the media.
While the daily death toll has dropped, Assad hasn’t lived up to the terms of the United Nations-backed peace plan, which include a pullback of his forces and steps toward democratic reforms. Even as the first UN monitors arrived in Syria, Assad’s tanks continued attacking Homs and other areas, Mark Toner, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said yesterday.
“The long-term prospects of cease-fire are not good, primarily because it addresses none of the underlying issues,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma at Norman. Furthermore, he said, some countries want only one outcome -- the end of the Assad government.
The Sunni Muslim Gulf countries want to weaken Shiite Muslim Iran by ousting its closest regional ally, Assad. “They don’t think dialogue is possible, and anything that falls short of replacing the regime is a defeat,” Landis said.
Playing for Time
Qatar’s prime minister, after finishing an Arab League meeting yesterday with UN special envoy Kofi Annan, who brokered the cease-fire, said the agreement made little difference.
“We are fearful that the Syrian regime is playing for time,” Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasim Bin Al Thani said in Qatar. “We hope to be wrong but until now we have not felt substantive change in the way the Syrian government has been dealing with this dossier.”
A UN diplomat said the widespread view is that while there’s little chance the cease-fire will work, it offers an opportunity to deploy observers in the country. This diplomat, too, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the topic.
The cease-fire monitors, if deployed, would be in position to assess the military actions of Assad’s forces and the armed opposition, as well as to document possible war crimes by the regime. Six UN monitors, led by Moroccan Army Colonel Ahmed Himmiche, have arrived in Syria. Another 25 to 30 observers are expected to follow in the next few days, Toner said.
Friends of Syria
In Paris, the Friends of Syria held a technical-level meeting to consider ways to increase financial pressure on the Syrian leadership. Officials represented the European Union, the Arab world, the U.S. and other nations sympathetic to the anti- Assad movement.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, speaking to reporters, said that sanctions have drained Syrian foreign reserves by half and that the regime is trying to evade them. He didn’t provide any figures. The country’s foreign-currency reserves totaled about $18 billion last October, the governor of the central bank told Bloomberg at the time.
Qatar’s prime minister denied arming the Syrian opposition. “This business of arming was interpreted differently by different people,” Al Thani said yesterday. “Self defense is a legitimate right, but if you ask us have we armed the opposition, the reply is no we have not.”
Russia and China have blocked efforts at the UN to punish Syria for its crackdown. Still, individual countries have frozen Syrian assets and barred government officials from visiting. The Paris meeting participants discussed freezing individuals’ assets, as well, one of the European diplomats said.
Other efforts include the U.S. equipping opposition forces with communications gear, a Gulf-funded plan to pay salaries to opposition fighters and coaching by several countries, including the U.S., to help the fractious opposition groups become a more cohesive force, the diplomats said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem was set to discuss Annan’s cease-fire plan with Chinese officials in a visit to Beijing today, the English-language China Daily newspaper said in a story today, citing experts it did not identify.
China will continue communicating with the government and opposition parties, urging them to cooperate with the UN’s monitoring and conduct political dialogue, China’s Middle Easy envoy Wu Sike said, according to China Daily.
Onus on Assad
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday on state television that “outside forces” continue to give the opposition arms and encouragement in order to undermine the cease-fire.
In Syria, government forces killed 39 people yesterday, mainly in the northern province of Idlib, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria said on its website.
The “erosion” of the cease-fire is unacceptable, Toner said yesterday in Washington. Saying that the opposition has “has held its fire and lived up to its side of the agreement,” Toner said that “the onus is on the Assad regime” to comply with the UN peace plan. In Annan’s six-point plan, Assad committed to undertake a Syrian-led political process, cease all violence, provide humanitarian assistance, release detained prisoners, allow journalists to move freely and respect Syrians’ right to demonstrate peacefully.
“They’ve barely fulfilled one,” Toner said.
‘Last Best Efforts’
Landis said the Assad government may benefit if the cease- fire prevents the issue from reaching the Security Council and enables Syria to pressure the West to limit support for the opposition. “In many ways, this plays into regime hands,” Landis said.
The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said that wasn’t so. The monitors “are perhaps the best, and potentially the last best, efforts to resolve this situation through peaceful diplomatic means,” Rice said yesterday in New York.
“It may be impossible to do so,” she added, if the regime insists on continuing to use violence “as long as it can get away with it.”
The tenuous cease-fire may give the opposition time to regroup and enable the Syrian Free Army to improve its command and control, Landis said. “They’ve taken an incredible beating from the regime,” he said. “They’re fragmenting, bickering, falling apart.”
The opposition can’t wait too long before it starts testing the cease-fire, Landis said. “The longer they take to get organized, the more distracted the international community will get,” he said. “A lot of things can come up to steal the fire of the Syrian Revolution.”
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