5 Apr 2012

Syria violence continues ahead of UN ceasefire

Amid signs that Syrian attacks on the opposition have intensified in the last 24 hours, the United Nations struggles to implement a peace plan calling for an end to the violence.

Amid signs that Syrian attacks on the opposition have intensified in the last 24 hours, the United Nations struggles to implement a peace plan calling for an end to the violence. (Reuters)

Kofi Annan, the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria, has a tough few days ahead of him as he works to get all parties to agree to a ceasefire by the 10 April deadline, writes Laura Mackenzie.

On Thursday the French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that he wasn’t optimistic because doubted the Syrian President’s commitment to the peace plan: “I think Bashar al-Assad is tricking us” Mr Juppe told reporters “He is pretending to accept Kofi Annan’s six-point plan while at the same time still using force.”

At a closed-door meeting on Monday, Mr Annan told the UN Security Council that President Bashar al-Assad had agreed to start partially implementing his plan – which also calls for withdrawal of troops and heavy weaponry from towns and cities – by next Tuesday.

Mr Annan also told diplomats there should be a “full cessation of hostilities” within 48 hours.

On Thursday the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Jakob Kellenger said in a statement that the Assad regime had been given permission to expand its work in Syria. ICRC officials will now resume visits to detention centres – suspended since September – a visit to detainees in Aleppo central prison is already planned. In the statement the organisation also said that there had also been agreement on a procedure to establish humanitarian pauses in fighting to allow the evacuation of the wounded.

Government attacks

Channel 4 News Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Rugman says there are “alarming” signs coming from the opposition that attacks have intensified in the last 24 hours.

If Syrian forces withdraw, they’re not going to leave without inflicting damage. Jonathan Rugman, Channel 4 News

“This news coming from the opposition could suggest that even if the Syrian forces are going to withdraw, they’re not going to leave without inflicting damage,” he said.

Activists and monitors say at least 38 people, including 25 civilians, were killed in a surge of violence on Tuesday, mostly in north and central Syria.

Since Monday a steady flow of footage has also been uploaded to YouTube and other video sites, which anti-Assad activists say shows government attacks on urban areas from the past three days.

‘Artificial deadlines’

Making Mr Annan’s job all the more difficult is the fact that he is yet to get either China or Russia – both permanent members of the security council – or Syrian opposition forces to agree to a timetable for his plan.

Though Russia has said it supports a ceasefire, its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has made it clear that he rejects the idea of a deadline, saying on Monday that “ultimatums and artificial deadlines rarely help matters”.

On Wednesday Mr Lavrov accused the “Friends of Syria” group of undermining the peace plan after it said it would consider further “measures with a view to the protection of the Syrian people”.

At a meeting in Istanbul on Sunday the group of 60 Western and Arab nations also said the Syrian president did not have an open-ended opportunity to meet his commitments to Mr Annan.

Hit and run conflict

Mr Lavrov’s comments come as a team from the UN peacekeeping department is preparing to travel to Syria to discuss the deployment of 200-250 unarmed observers to the country to monitor a ceasefire. The team is expected to arrive in the capital Damascus within 48 hours.

However deployment of a ceasefire monitoring mission to the country would require a UN Security Council resolution, something that is likely to face opposition from both Russia and China.

If the ceasefire doesn’t last, the west want Assad to be the one who breaks it. Shashank Joshi, RUSI

Both western powers and the Syrian opposition have little faith that Mr Annan’s efforts will bring an end to the regime’s violence. Even if President Assad does withdraw all troops and heavy weaponry from Syria’s built-up areas by next Tuesday, there remains the possibility that Shabiha militia – pro-Assad gunmen – and snipers could stay behind, turning the conflict into more of a series of hit and run skirmishes than a traditional war.

Despite Russia and China’s lack of support for the 10 April deadline, international security expert Shashank Joshi believes western powers could act if Assad forces continue their attacks.

Mr Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank, told Channel 4 News: “Annan’s statement to the UN Security Council does promise further measures, which could provide ammunition for Russia and China to put pressure on the Syrian government.

“But even without Russia and China’s support for a resolution, western powers could still push ahead with further action. They wouldn’t have the legal justification but they would have legitimate unilateral support.

“The west doesn’t expect the ceasefire to last and if it doesn’t, they want Assad to be the one who breaks it, not the opposition. If he does, it will further legitimise their cause.”