Syria peace deal close to collapse amid tank and mortar fire

Syrian activists refuse to talk with President Bashar al-Assad about anything except showing him the exit, and plan to test his commitment to a Syria peace deal by amassing large protests.

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gather during a rally at Mediterranean city of Tartous, Syria, on Wednesday.

An Arab League plan to end eight months of violence in Syria appeared close to collapse Thursday less than 24 hours after the Syrian regime agreed to implement the proposal. As many as 20 people were reportedly killed in the flashpoint city of Homs in central Syria and fighting was also reported in the town of Tel Kalakh near the border with Lebanon, according to opposition activists.

The renewed violence appeared to shatter hopes that the Arab League deal would prove to be a breakthrough after months of trying to end internal unrest that has now left more than 3,000 people dead since mid-March – Syrian activists say the death toll is as high as 4,000.

The proposal called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government to withdraw its military forces from cities, release all detainees imprisoned since the uprising began, and to begin a dialogue with members of the Syrian opposition. The plan offered no deadline for its implementation, which raised skepticism among Syrian opposition activists that it would be honored. 

“Assad is a master at playing for time. He has no intention of implementing this proposal because he knows it would be the beginning of the end for him,” says Ahmad, a young Syrian dissident who has been living in hiding in the north Lebanon city of Tripoli since August. “I can assure you that if the army really withdraws from the cities, the protestors will be at the gates of Assad’s palace the next day.” 

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Opposition activists say they will redouble their efforts to mobilize large crowds in the coming days to test Mr. Assad’s intentions. Ahmad said that the opposition would be willing to talk with the Syrian authorities only after troops have been removed from the cities and the detainees are released. However, he added, there would only be one topic up for discussion.

“Yes, we will sit with them but the only thing to discuss is the transition of power from Bashar al-Assad,” says Ahmad, who is from the coastal city of Banias.

That sentiment was echoed by Samir al-Nashar, a member of the executive bureau of the Syrian National Council, the leading opposition group. Following talks with Nabil al-Arab, the head of the Arab League, in Cairo, Nashar said that the opposition was not interested in dialogue but “negotiations to move from an authoritarian regime to a democratic regime. We ask that Bashar al-Assad resign.”

Both sides determined to fight it out

The collapse of the Arab League initiative will come as little surprise to most analysts given the deep polarization and hostility between the Assad regime and the opposition, which has been compounded by worsening violence inflicted by both sides.

The opposition long ago abandoned the possibility of holding talks with the Syrian leadership over reforms that would spare the regime being ousted. But Assad has given no signal that he is willing to step down and instead appears prepared to fight it out.

Despite a rising number of army defections, the Syrian regime still holds the balance of military power and also commands the support of a sizeable percentage of the population for whom the current authoritarian leadership is preferable to the uncertainties of a post-Assad era.  

Furthermore, the international community has shown little desire to intercede in Syria, diminishing prospects of a Libya-style intervention to protect opposition protestors and squeeze the Syrian leadership.

The opposition, however, seems determined to continue its struggle.

Army attacks celebrating Syrians with mortar shells

Opposition activists say that the rebel Free Syrian Army, composed of deserters and responsible for a growing number of attacks against regular security forces, will soon begin filming their ambushes and bomb attacks for posting on the Internet. There are also plans to launch live news reports from activists in flashpoint towns and cities streamed to the Web.

The stalemate between the Assad regime and the opposition will only strengthen the conviction that the confrontation in Syria will gradually turn into an armed conflict.

An early indication, perhaps, of the road ahead for Syria was an outbreak of fighting in Tel Kalakh near the Lebanese border today between opposition gunmen and army troops.

“When we heard about the Arab League deal we all came out on the streets to celebrate, thinking that the army would do nothing. But the army attacked us with mortar shells,” said Omar, a resident of the town who slipped into Lebanon yesterday morning. “The fighting is still going on. No more peaceful protests. There is a real jihad taking place in Tel Kalakh now.”

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