Assad Pledge to End Violence in a Week Met With Suspicion

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said she was worried that Assad’s forces will escalate rather than diminish the violence in coming days. Photographer: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian opposition head Burhan Ghalioun dismissed President Bashar al-Assad’s pledge to pull back his forces and start a cease-fire by April 10, saying the military should halt the violence now.

“If he was sincere about it, he would have immediately ended the violence,” Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, said in a telephone interview today. “Why wait for a week? Why kill 700 or 800 more Syrians?”

United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan told the Security Council yesterday that Assad had agreed to end forward troop advances, stop using heavy weapons and withdraw his forces from population centers by April 10, according to U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice.

Annan has been pressing Assad to accept a peace plan to end a yearlong conflict that the UN estimates has left more than 9,000 dead. Opposition groups say the fighting has continued since Syria accepted the plan in principle on March 27. At least 8 people were killed today, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“Bashar al-Assad’s back is not yet against the wall,” Anthony Skinner, Middle East director for Bath, U.K.-based Maplecroft, a global risk adviser, said in a telephone interview today. “If it were, then we would have greater reason to believe that he were serious about Annan’s plan.”

Rice said she was concerned that Assad’s forces will escalate rather than diminish the violence in coming days.

‘Massive Intensification’

“We have seen commitments to end the violence followed by massive intensification of violence,” Rice, who now holds the council’s rotating presidency, told reporters yesterday. “The proof is in the action, not the words. Past experience would lead us to be skeptical.”

Ghalioun said the rebels would immediately end fighting if the government halts the violence. On April 1, the 83-nation “Friends of Syria” group, including the U.S., the European Union and Arab countries, recognized the SNC as the leading negotiator for the Syrian people.

Persian Gulf nations agreed at the meeting in Istanbul to provide funds to allow the opposition to pay fighters battling government forces. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have promised to help, though the amount hasn’t been settled yet, said SNC member Abdalsalam Albitar.

‘Peaceful Protests’

If the violence ends, rebels will continue peaceful protests “which will reach the presidential palace,” Anas Ayrout, a member of the SNC, said in a phone interview today from Istanbul. “Bashar knows Annan’s plan means his end and that’s why he’ll secure its failure.”

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Maqdisi said a team of UN peacekeepers is expected to arrive in Damascus tomorrow to discuss “a common vision for the practical application of the steps that have been agreed upon,” including the number of observers and their movements within Syria, Syria’s Al Watan newspaper reported.

Syria wants Annan to pressure “regional entities” to stop the “funding and sending of weapons to armed groups in Syria,” the newspaper cited Maqdisi as saying.

Should Assad halt the violence, the opposition must lay down its arms within 48 hours of the deadline under the terms of the peace plan.

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