Syria violence raises concerns Assad is only buying time with UN cease-fire deal

The day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly agreed to UN envoy Kofi Annan's cease-fire plan, fighting continued in several cities.

Local Coordination Committees in Syria/AP
In this Tuesday, March 27, citizen journalism image, black smoke rises from buildings in Homs, Syria. Three Syrian soldiers died in clashes with rebels in the central province of Homs on Wednesday, an activist group said, just a day after President Bashar al-Assad said he has accepted a UN peace plan to resolve the country's crisis.

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The day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to a cease-fire plan proposed by UN envoy Kofi Annan, violence continued in key flashpoint cities, raising concerns that this could become yet another agreement that serves only to buy the regime time.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported military action in several cities, including Hama and Deraa, where the uprising began more than a year ago, Reuters reports. It also said there was shelling in the city of Homs, which Mr. Assad toured yesterday after his regime's brutal assault of the rebel stronghold last month.

In addition, three Syrian soldiers were killed in clashes with the opposition today in the province of Homs, according to the Associated Press, which cited the same human rights organization. The fighting broke out when the government troops tried to enter the opposition-controlled town of Rastan, it said.

Even before the violence, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed skepticism that the Assad regime would abide by the cease-fire agreement. "Given al-Assad's history of overpromising and underdelivering, that commitment must now be matched by immediate actions," Mrs. Clinton said, according to CNN. "We will judge Assad's sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not what he says."

Mr. Annan acknowledged that while getting Assad’s agreement was an “important first step,” implementation would be “a long and difficult task,” according to Reuters.

His plan has six points: the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from populated areas, unimpeded access for humanitarian aid workers, the release of prisoners jailed during the uprising, freedom of movement and access for journalists, a political process between the government and opposition, and allowance of peaceful demonstrations.

Robert Grenier, former director of the CIA counterterrorism center, writes in a commentary for Al Jazeera that Annan’s plan merely helps Assad by buying him time to continue the crackdown.

... does anyone honestly think that the Syrian regime, committed as it is to a programme of violent intimidation and collective punishment, will provide "full humanitarian access", or a daily "humanitarian pause" for those whom it suspects of aiding its adversaries? What are the chances that the tender Mr Assad will release detainees who may promptly rejoin the struggle against him, or that he will permit foreign journalists to freely document his atrocities? Who would want to bet his life, or the lives of those dear to him, that Bashar and his generals will honour a ceasefire, or engage in good faith in a "political dialogue" with those who are challenging their power?

Pursuing such "solutions" is worse than feckless, for it forestalls other, potentially effective actions. By permitting the Syrian regime added time, it is morally equivalent to aiding and abetting Bashar al-Assad.

Such good as can be done in these circumstances will only be done by those who are willing to climb metaphorically into the ring, and to dirty themselves in the process of providing such assistance as is possible to the oppressed of Syria as they struggle to liberate themselves from an unspeakable regime. It will mean taking sides.

The Arab League, which is meeting in Baghdad this week, is expected to discuss a similar resolution urging the Syrian government to end its brutal crackdown, release prisoners, withdraw troops from cities, and allow humanitarian aid groups into the country. Syria’s membership was suspended earlier this year.

Some members of the League support arming the Syrian opposition, which is vastly outmatched by the government troops, but there is little consensus among the members about the best way to assist.

Iraq’s foreign minister said at today’s meeting that his country does not support foreign intervention there, AP reports. But some of the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have pushed for more assertive action from Arab states. According to AP, they “privately” favor a small group of countries working together, independent of the League, perhaps arming the rebels and creating a safe haven along the Turkish border for both humanitarian needs and to serve as a staging group for anti-Assad forces.

They hope that bringing about Assad’s downfall will break Syria’s alliance with Iran, giving Sunni Arab states, particularly the Gulf states, a “significant victory in their long-running power struggle with non-Arab, mainly Shiite Iran,” AP reports.

The West has, from the start, rejected a Libya-style intervention in Syria, which is a far more central player in the region – not least of all because of its alliance with Iran and the Shiite militant organization Hezbollah, which could be used as a proxy for attacks against Israel.

But Richard Cohen, in a column for The Washington Post, argues that there is still a way to intervene in Syria without getting dragged into a regional quagmire. He also argues that it's the morally right thing to do, even though – as in the 1990s Balkan wars – the US has "no dog in the fight."

U.S. air power can make the difference in Syria. It can limit or eliminate the damage being done by Assad’s helicopters and tanks — although the regime’s reported practice of using human shields and placing children on tanks makes this a bit harder. Nonetheless, this is a regime that in a year has not been able to dispatch a divided and disparate opposition. It can be defeated, maybe easily.

The argument against the United States taking action — arming the rebels, establishing a no-fly zone or even bombings — is that the slippery slope looms. But Bill Clinton did not slip on that slope in the Balkans — no boots on the ground there — nor did President Obama in Libya. These operations can be contained.

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