BEIRUT – Syria promised to comply with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire beginning today but carved out an important condition – that the regime still has a right to defend itself against the terrorists that it says are behind the country’s year-old uprising.
The statement Wednesday offered a glimmer of hope that a peace initiative by special envoy Kofi Annan could help calm the conflict, which has killed some 9,000 people. But the regime still has ample room to maneuver.
In comments carried on the state-run news agency, Syria said the army has successfully fought off armed terrorist groups and reasserted state authority across the country.
The government denies it is facing an uprising by Syrians who want to dislodge the authoritarian family dynasty that has ruled the country for more than four decades. Instead, the regime says, terrorists are carrying out a foreign conspiracy to destroy Syria.
Because the regime has treated any sign of dissent as a provocation, there are only dim hopes for an abrupt end to the bloodshed.
The White House cautioned that President Bashar Assad’s regime has reneged on promises to stop the violence in the past.
What is important to remember is that we judge the Assad 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.
Many activists predict that huge numbers of protesters would flood the streets if Assad fully complies with the agreement and pulls his forces back to barracks. But Syria has ways to maintain authority even without the military, in the form of pro-regime gunmen called shabiha and the fiercely loyal and pervasive security apparatus.
Over the course of the uprising, the military crackdown succeeded in preventing protesters from recreating the fervor 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.
In the early days of the Syrian rebellion, Syrian forces used tanks, snipers and machine guns on peaceful protesters, driving many of them to take up arms. Since then, the uprising has transformed into an armed insurgency. Many fear the conflict could soon become a civil war.
The rebel Free Syrian Army, a fighting force determined to bring down Assad, has said it will abide by the cease-fire. But the opposition is not well organized, and there are growing fears of groups looking to exploit the chaos.
Annan’s peace plan called for Syria to withdraw its forces on Tuesday, followed by a full cease-fire by 6 a.m. today. The halt in fighting would then pave the way for an observer mission and talks between both sides over the country’s future.
Syria disregarded the Tuesday deadline and was still attacking its opponents Wednesday with tanks and mortar fire. The government has escalated military attacks in recent weeks, prompting accusations that Assad was using the peace plan as cover for more violence.