Lull in Syria fighting after UN truce deadline
Beirut: Syrian flashpoints of the 13-month uprising against President Bashar Assad were quiet on Thursday, activists said, suggesting a UN-brokered truce was starting to take hold and the regime was keeping a pledge to halt its assault on opposition strongholds.
However, in a sign of a continued clampdown, activists said troops and tanks were seen patrolling restive areas on Thursday in violation of the truce plan by UN-Arab league envoy Kofi Annan, who demanded that Syrian forces return to their barracks.
And expectations for a durable ceasefire remained low since the government has broken promises in the past and says it reserves the right to respond to attacks — potentially an easy pretext for evading compliance.
Under Annan`s internationally backed initiative, a Thursday morning ceasefire is to be followed by the deployment of international observers and talks between the regime and the opposition on a political transition.
However, the Syrian opposition and its supporters in the West remain sceptical about the regime`s intentions, since a ceasefire could encourage large numbers of protesters to flood the streets, as they did at the start of the revolt against the four-decade rule of the Assad clan. The government met those demonstrations with a harsh crackdown, and bloodshed since then has claimed more than 9,000 lives.
Still, opposition activists said the 6 am Thursday truce deadline passed without reports of major violence.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said all of Syria`s flashpoints in the central provinces of Hama and Homs, the northern regions of Idlib and Aleppo, the capital Damascus and its suburbs, as well as Daraa to the south and Deir el-Zour to the east were quiet.
"Nothing is happening in these hotspots so far," said Abdul-Rahman.
However, Syrian troops, tanks and armoured personnel carriers continued to patrol several opposition strongholds, activists said.
"Checkpoints and tanks were not withdrawn," said Maath al-Shami, a Damascus-based activist. "They are still as they were but there has so far been no shooting since six in the morning."
Assad apparently is unwilling to ease control over opposition areas for fear of widespread anti-government protests.
A major test could come on Friday, the day of weekly anti-government marches. Since the outbreak of the protests in March 2011, thousands have taken to the streets after Friday Muslim noon prayers to demand Assad`s ouster.
The government denies that it is facing a popular uprising, claiming instead that terrorists are carrying out a foreign conspiracy to destroy Syria. In pledging Wednesday to observe the ceasefire, the government set a major condition, saying troops reserve the right to defend themselves if attacked.
The rebel Free Syrian Army has said it will abide by the cease-fire. But the opposition is not well organised, and there are growing fears of groups looking to exploit the chaos.
The lull reported on Thursday was the first break in fighting in more than two months.
Syrian troops have been on a major offensive since late January when they attacked rebel-held areas around the capital Damascus. During the first week of February, Assad`s forces began a major campaign to retake the Baba Amr neighbourhood in the city of Homs that fell in the hands of the regime in early March.
Since then, Assad`s forces have been retaking major rebel-held areas including the city of Idlib as well as many towns around the country. Troops also now control much of the areas that border Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq making it more difficult for refugees to leave the country. Despite the regime gains, rebels still held some areas, including spots in the province of Homs, Hama, Daraa.
In the city of Homs, activist Tarek Badrakhan said no explosions or shelling were heard since 10 pm on Wednesday, but that Army vehicles were still in the streets on Thursday. Homs has been battered by daily shelling for the past three weeks, and Badrakhan said many homes in his neighbourhood of Khaldiyeh were damaged or destroyed.
A ceasefire could pose a major risk for the Assad regime.
Many activists predict that huge numbers of protesters would flood the streets if Assad pulls his forces back to barracks. The military crackdown over the past year succeeded in preventing protesters from recreating the fervour of Egypt`s Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of people camped out in a powerful show of dissent that drove longtime leader Hosni Mubarak from power.
On Wednesday, the White House cautioned that the Assad regime has reneged on promises to stop the violence in the past.
"What is important to remember is that we judge the Assad`s regime by its actions and not by their promises, because their promises have proven so frequently in the past to be empty," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington.
Annan is scheduled to brief the UN Security Council on Thursday by videoconference from Geneva.
Western powers have pinned their hopes on Annan`s plan, in part because they are running out of options. The UN has ruled out any military intervention of the type that helped bring down Libya`s Muammar Gaddafi, and several rounds of sanctions and other attempts to isolate Assad have done little to stop the bloodshed.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have called for arming the rebels, but even if they follow through there is no guarantee that such efforts could cripple Assad`s well-armed regime.
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