Assad pulling Syria troops out of cities by Tuesday?

Kofi Annan seems to think so. But there are strong grounds for doubt.

Syrian youth stand in a building damaged by tank shells in a neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, after a raid by Syrian troops killed several rebels and civilians April 5. Syrian troops launched a fierce assault Thursday, days ahead of a deadline for a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, with activists describing it as one of the most violent attacks around the capital since the year-old uprising began.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, now the UN point-man on the civil war in Syria, says he has full agreement from the regime of Bashar al-Assad that the fighting there will end next week.

"What we expect on April 10 is that the Syrian government will have completed its withdrawal from populated centers ... and then we begin a 48-hour period during which there will be a complete cessation of all forms of violence by all parties," Mr. Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in Geneva earlier today.

This prediction should be taken with a very large grain of salt.

Mr. Assad is in a fight for regime survival. While large chunks of his country have fallen out of central government control, and the opposition has defied his military for over a year now in towns like Idlib, Homs, and Hama, his security establishment has largely hung together and hasn't suffered the sort of mass defections that undermined Muammar Qaddafi's forces during the uprising in Libya.

The application of force against his opponents is Assad's go-to means of keeping control, just as it was for his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. With at least 9,000 Syrians dead from the fighting, and scores in detention, where many have been tortured, it's hard to see the calls for his overthrow dying down. And if he really does give up the use of political terror against his enemies, the chorus demanding his demise will probably grow louder still.

There are already strong signs that Annan is not going to get his way on the cease-fire. The daily Al-Watan, linked to Syria's government, quoted an unnamed government official as saying "there is no... deadline" for pulling troops out of cities. Opposition activists said that tanks remain active in Deraa today, despite government claims to the contrary, and said dozens have died in ongoing fighting. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 62 Syrians were killed across the country yesterday.

Syrian opposition figures aren't the only ones who don't share the UN's optimism. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said Assad "is deceiving us" and warned of a push for tougher international action against Syria. The UN is currently trying to negotiate the dispatch of 250 or so unarmed military observers to determine if a cease-fire is achieved. Mr. Juppé said further steps will be considered at the UN Security Council if Syria doesn't allow observers in soon.

Action at the Security Council is something that Assad may fear, and may push him to accept the measures being sought now. But his government has been shielded from tough action there until now by permanent members Russia and China, who have vetoed two Security Council resolutions on Syria to date. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that his country might consider voting for a resolution now, but his comments came with a major caveat.

"When we consider a document at the Security Council, we shall proceed from the principle of not doing any harm," Mr. Lavrov said. "It would be good if we are able to reach a consensus aimed at helping Kofi Annan's mission and not use ultimatums that would escalate tensions."

For now, sadly, fighting looks set to continue in Syria next week. Annan's career is littered with over-optimistic public assessments of the situation in violent regions, and of the impact of his own diplomacy.

I remember attending the press conference in Dili, East Timor, given by Jamsheed Marker, Annan's personal envoy to the territory, shortly after voting closed in the Aug. 30, 1999, referendum on independence from Indonesia. I and others in the months before the election had chronicled how the Indonesian military was distributing weapons to street gangs and appeared to have a plan in the drawer to punish the territory's people if they chose independence as a warning to other restive parts of the sprawling nation.

Indonesian special forces officers were providing logistical help and training to pro-Indonesian Timorese, while the Indonesian Foreign Ministry had dispatched diplomats to work with the militias on the political side. This was all pretty much out in the open – there are few secrets in a place as small as East Timor.

Yet the UN had waved off concerns about widespread violence or suggestions that perhaps the vote should be postponed until better security arrangements could be made. In the run-up to the vote, Mr. Marker and Annan repeatedly told reporters they'd received Indonesian "assurances" that the vote could go ahead safely. That evening, as reports streamed in of violent outbreaks around the countryside (a UN worker was being stabbed to death as Marker spoke), Marker intoned: "The eagle of liberty has spread its proud wings over the people of East Timor.''

The eagle of violence was also spreading its wings. Within days, what was left of the foreign press was cowering in the UN's Dili compound (I made my way there past the bodies of Timorese hacked to death by machetes) and much of the country's paltry infrastructure was on fire. In the roughly two weeks until an Australian peacekeeping force landed in Dili, at least 1,000 Timorese were killed and more than 100,000 of the country's than 700,000 were driven across the border into Indonesian West Timor.

I dig into this history because it's a reminder that Annan has taken the word of governments involved in conflict in the past. And been badly wrong. 

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