Syria’s government told the United Nations it will abide by a cease-fire that begins tomorrow morning, though it reserves the right to respond to any attacks.
The statement today came after Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League special envoy, warned that failure to agree to the cease-fire would have serious repercussions for the region and called for increased international pressure on the government of President Bashar al-Assad to end the conflict.
Syrian forces will “cease all military fighting” as of 6 a.m. Damascus time, according to a letter from the foreign minister released by Annan’s office in Geneva. Syria reserves “the right to respond proportionately to any attacks carried out by armed terrorist groups against civilians, government forces or public and private property.”
Assad’s government failed to meet a UN deadline yesterday to withdraw forces from flashpoints across the country after saying on April 8 that it wouldn’t do so without written guarantees from rebels it labels as “armed terrorist groups.” The UN estimated about two weeks ago that more than 9,000 people have been killed in the conflict, now in its second year.
Government forces today used helicopters, tanks, heavy machine guns and mortars in Homs in central Syria and carried out raids in Deir al-Zour, killing two people, while fighting continued outside Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in e-mailed statements. The army killed 30 people today, Al Jazeera television reported, citing activists. Government forces killed at least 38 people yesterday, the U.K.- based observatory said.
No Comprehensive Cease-Fire
“On both sides, it will be difficult to adhere to any form of comprehensive cease-fire across Syria,” said Ayham Kamel, Washington-based Middle East analyst at Eurasia Group. “There are significant challenges for Assad being able to control the military across the country, particularity as some rebels will continue to attack. It is unlikely that we’ll see any form of significant troop withdrawal from key areas.”
Free Syria Army commander Riad al-Asaad told Al Jazeera television by telephone that his group, composed primarily of army defectors, has “expressed a commitment to the initiative” to halt the fighting. “Since yesterday we have ceased fire, and we did not fire a single bullet,” he said.
‘Day of Reckoning’
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said the UN Security Council must “throw its full weight behind Annan’s plan and insist on it being implemented.” The conflict threatens regional peace and there will be “a day of reckoning for Assad’s crimes,” Cameron said at a news conference in Jakarta today before the Syrian announcement.
Annan told reporters in Tehran that “any error can have unimaginable consequences.” He said Iran’s government told him it supports his six-point plan for an end to violence.
Annan’s plan called for Assad’s forces to stop firing heavy weapons and begin withdrawing from populated areas by yesterday. The armed opposition is supposed to respond by laying down its weapons by 6 a.m. Damascus time tomorrow.
Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said 1,000 people have been killed by government forces in the past eight days. Assad originally agreed on April 2 to withdraw troops from populated areas.
Governments including the U.S., the European Union, Japan and Canada have imposed trade sanctions against Assad’s family and Syrian officials that include travel bans and asset freezes in a bit to step up pressure on the government.
Pressure has also been mounting on Russia to back stronger action against Syria after Assad failed to meet the earlier deadline. Russia has wielded its veto power on the Security Council, the UN’s decision-making body, to protect Syria from efforts by Western powers and their Arab allies to impose sanctions against Assad’s regime and call on him to step down.
“The Russians have continuously said they want to avoid civil war, they want to avoid a regional conflict,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “But their refusal to join with us in some sort of constructive action is keeping Assad in power, well-armed, able to ignore the demands of his own people of his region and the world.”
Western powers said they are weighing their next steps at the Security Council, which alone has the power to impose sanctions and binding resolutions. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who holds the presidency of the council, said yesterday that the “logical next step” would be to increase pressure on the Assad regime through collective action.
U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague said yesterday that the process would begin “of seeking the referral by the Security Council of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.”