A UN-backed ceasefire aimed at halting more than a year of bloodshed in Syria appeared to be holding early yesterday, but activists saw no sign that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was pulling his forces out of restive cities.
The flashpoint provinces of Homs, Hama and Idlib, which have been under sustained shelling by al-Assad’s forces over the last week, were calm after the 6am ceasefire deadline. An activist in Damascus said the capital was also quiet.
Fighting had raged in the countdown to the deadline on Thursday, fueling widespread doubts that Syria would comply with international envoy Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan.
World leaders, grappling with fundamental disagreements particularly between the West and Russia over how to deal with the crisis, are monitoring events on the ground closely.
The Syrian Ministry of Defense said on Wednesday it would halt operations on yesterday morning but made no mention of an army pullback from cities and said it would confront “any assault” by armed groups.
A spokesman for Annan said on Wednesday night an advance planning team negotiating how UN observers would monitor the accord had left Damascus after a week of talks.
He had no further comment on any progress reached by the team led by Norwegian Major-General Robert Mood, so it was not clear whether the deployment had been agreed or called off.
Annan was scheduled to brief the UN Security Council on developments in Syria at 2pm GMT.
Insurgents, who lack a clearly coordinated command structure, said they would stop shooting if al-Assad’s forces withdrew and observed the truce.
Western powers have scorned al-Assad’s truce pledges and largely sympathize with the revolt against him, but so far lack an effective policy to curb the bloodshed, given their aversion to military intervention and the resistance of Russia and China to any UN Security Council action against al-Assad.
Quoting from a letter to Annan from the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Annan’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the government had undertaken “to cease all military fighting throughout Syrian territory as of 6am tomorrow, Thursday, 12 April, 2012, while reserving the right to respond proportionately to any attacks carried out by armed terrorist groups against civilians, government forces or public and private property.”
He also stressed that troops should pull back.
Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari, said in a US television interview that his government was “on board” with the peace plan, but government forces would remain on alert to “counterattacks” and that “legally speaking, there is a big difference between declaring a ceasefire and putting an end to the violence.”
The exiled opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) called for an international ultimatum to al-Assad if he failed to respect the ceasefire.
“We would like to see a unanimous decision by members of the Security Council that sends an ultimatum to the regime with a deadline that is not too far down the road that says on such and such a date enforcement measures will intervene,” SNC spokeswoman Basma Kodmani said on Wednesday.
UN action would need the support of Russia and China, which have blocked previous Security Council draft resolutions on Syria, citing concerns about a Libya-style intervention that would breach Syrian sovereignty.