Bloomberg News

Syrian Truce Tested Amid Reports Army Fires at Protests

April 13, 2012

Memorabilia picturing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is displayed for sale in Damascus as a UN-backed ceasefire went into effect. Photographer: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

Memorabilia picturing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is displayed for sale in Damascus as a UN-backed ceasefire went into effect. Photographer: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations-brokered cease- fire in Syria is being tested by nationwide protests against President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers, with reports of attacks on demonstrators in several regions.

At least seven people were killed as clashes broke out in areas including Idlib and Aleppo in the north, Hama in central Syria and Daraa in the south, the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella opposition group, said by e-mail. Security forces used tear gas and explosives and arrested protesters, and about 30 activists were arrested in Idlib, it said.

The rebel Free Syrian Army came under shellfire today in Idlib province, near the Turkish border, and one of its positions was captured, according to Al Arabiya television. The two sides exchanged fire, the Coordination Committees said.

The cease-fire that took effect yesterday has eased the violence in Syria, where the death toll has often exceeded 100 a day and reached 9,000 in the 13 months since the uprising began. A prolonged lull may allow peacekeepers to be sent to the country, while failure of the cease-fire may encourage calls for international military intervention.

Assad, 46, is fighting for the survival of his Alawite family’s four-decade hold on power. While more than 70 percent of Syria’s population is Sunni, Assad and the ruling elite are in a minority, belonging to an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam that predominates in Iran and which stands to lose privileges should he fall.

‘Extremely Tenuous’

“The situation in Syria is extremely tenuous right now,” Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview. “What you have at the moment appears to be a quiet more than the truce called for” by United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan in his six-point peace plan.

Syria’s Interior Ministry urged citizens who have fled their homes to escape “crimes by terrorist groups” to return, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said today.

The UN Security Council is scheduled to vote today on a resolution to send 30 unarmed observers to monitor the cease- fire. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said the relative calm in Syria is a “very fragile and initial opening.”

At least a million people in Syria “remain in need of urgent humanitarian help,” the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, said in an e-mailed statement today. She said it’s “extremely important that negotiations to enable humanitarian organizations in Syria to deliver aid remain separate from other efforts to resolve the crisis.”

‘Further Steps’

The Security Council, the UN’s decision-making body, “expresses its intention to consider further steps in the event of non-implementation of relevant commitments,” according to a draft resolution obtained by Bloomberg. The text is still under negotiation.

Rami Abdel Rahman, the London-based head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the return to calm should allow protesters “to prove their size and their strength.”

Yet as Syrians take to the streets, the question remains whether soldiers will stand back and let demonstrations happen. There hasn’t been the pullback of troops and heavy weapons from cities required under Annan’s plan, opposition groups say.

Soldiers have remained in some cities disguised as police or civilians, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, leader of the Free Syrian Army, told Kuwait’s Al Rai newspaper.

‘Not a Menu’

“The Annan plan is not a menu of options,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters yesterday 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.”

As the conflict entered its second year, violence has bled into Lebanon and Turkey, which has said it may call on fellow NATO countries to reinforce its border after Syrian soldiers fired across the frontier at refugees trying to escape.

Turkey has begun receiving international aid for the Syrian refugees now on its territory, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters in Istanbul today. They currently number about 25,000, three times as many as at the end of 2011.

Iran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia are also battling for influence in Syria, with the Gulf monarchy standing to benefit from a leadership change.

Russian Role

Russia, on the other hand, is invested in the survival of a Soviet-era ally, selling Assad weapons during the 13-month uprising. Moscow leaned on the Syrian government to accept the terms of a cease-fire and allow UN monitors into the country.

“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.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who met with Clinton in Washington, said the presence of independent observers in Syria is “very important” in case of “provocations.”

The UN has had monitors and political officers in the Middle East since the 1940s and in other regions, with the most recent experience being a group of 180 observers sent to oversee the end of the civil war in Nepal.

The UN presence in Syria may involve 200 to 250 personnel, covering a much larger country, according to Richard Gowan, associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at the New York University Center for International Cooperation.

“It will be very hard to establish a robust monitoring presence in Syria if violent incidents continue,” Gowan said in an e-mail. “UN planners will be concerned about keeping their personnel safe.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson at the United Nations at fjackson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net


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