NPR Story
3:00 am
Thu April 12, 2012

Syrian Cease-Fire Appears To Be Holding

After months of relentless shelling and gunfire, activists in Syria reported a quieter daybreak Thursday, as a ceasefire arranged by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan appeared to be largely holding.

Opposition figures said rebel fighters inside Syria would abide by the truce as long as the Syrian military does, while the government says its forces will return fire if attacked. Annan is hoping to progress from the cease-fire to getting humanitarian assistance into the country, and eventually to political negotiations.

But many remain skeptical that there will be a good-faith effort to follow all the steps of the Annan peace plan.

One of the first videos that surfaced online Thursday morning came from activists in Zabadny, west of Damascus. It shows two tanks on the hillside above the town. There's a cloud of smoke near one, and activists claim shells were fired after the 6 a.m. cease-fire deadline, though that's not clear from the footage. Later in the morning, sniper fire was reported in Homs.

What is clear in the unconfirmed video is the sound of birds singing — meaning Syria is indeed quieter than it has been in months. Yet the continued presence of tanks around Zabadny shows that the regime has not complied with Annan's peace plan, which calls for forces to withdraw from population centers.

In remarks Wednesday in Tehran, Annan said he believes calm can be achieved but that maintaining it will require patience and cooperation from all interested countries.

"This is a region that has seen many tensions and has seen many shocks, and I don't think can afford another shock," the special envoy said. "The geopolitical location of Syria is such that any miscalculation and any error can have unimaginable consequences."

Inside Syria, each side seemed ready to blame the other for any breach of the truce. Deputy Foreign Minister Jihad Maqdisi said the onus for achieving a cease-fire is on the opposition fighters, which Syria calls "armed terrorist gangs."

"I'm confident that my government is fully committed to Mr. Annan's plan of six points, but in the same time, since the violence is mutual, I can only guarantee our side," Maqdisi said. "I cannot guarantee the side that the violence initiated from — the armed groups and those countries who are harboring them."

On the other hand, America's U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, said the burden of maintaining calm lies squarely on the government's shoulders. She voiced Washington's skepticism about the conditions Syria laid out in a letter to Annan committing to the cease-fire.

"The caveats in the letter are worrying and yet again cast into doubt the credibility of any such commitments," Rice said. "But nothing casts more doubt on the credibility of the commitments than the fact that commitments have been made and made and made, and broken and broken and broken."

Meanwhile, Syria's allies, led by Moscow, point out that relying on the opposition fighters to maintain the cease-fire is a dangerous risk for the government. By most accounts, the former army officers leading the rebel Free Syrian Army from camps in southeastern Turkey have only limited control over units operating inside Syria.

Opposition Syrian National Council member Mohammad Bassam Imadi told the BBC's Hardtalk program that he believes coordination between the field units and the leadership is improving all the time, though it's far from complete.

"There are what we call the local military councils — in the north, in the south, in the middle, in the suburbs of Damascus and so on," he said. "These are councils that are coordinating with the leadership on the Turkish border, and they have strong coordination but also some freedom in what they do."

If local fighters use that freedom to attack loyalist forces, the cease-fire could unravel quickly. Opposition activists also suspect that the security forces could provoke renewed fighting. Either way, analysts say, the cliche of a "fragile cease-fire" is very much the case in Syria right now, and all eyes will be on Kofi Annan's attempts to reach the vital step of gaining access for desperately needed humanitarian aid into hard-hit neighborhoods.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Sniper fire has been reported in the Syrian city of Homs today, threatening to unravel a ceasefire agreement just hours after it took effect. Syrian cities have suffered months of relentless shelling and gunfire that was supposed to end under the ceasefire arranged by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan. Opposition figures have said rebel fighters in Syria would abide by the truce, as long as the Syrian military does. The government says its forces will return fire if attacked. If the ceasefire can take hold, the U.N. is hoping to use the calm to get desperately needed humanitarian assistance into the country and to begin serious political negotiations.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: One of the first videos uploaded to the Internet this morning came from activists in Zabadani, west of Damascus. It shows two tanks on the hillside above the town. There's a cloud of smoke near one, and activists claim shells were fired after the 6 a.m. deadline, but that's not clear from this footage.

What this unconfirmed video does suggest is, first, the fact that you can hear the birds singing means that Syria is much quieter than it has been in months. And second, the continued presence of tanks around Zabadani shows that the regime has not complied with Annan's peace plan, which calls for a withdrawal of forces from population centers.

Speaking in Tehran yesterday, Annan said he believed calm could be achieved, but maintaining it would require patience and cooperation from all interested countries.

KOFI ANNAN: This is a region that has seen many tensions and has seen many shocks, and I don't think can afford another shock. The geopolitical location of Syria is such that any miscalculation and any error can have unimaginable consequences.

KENYON: Inside Syria, each side seemed ready to blame the other for any breach. Deputy Foreign Minister Jihad Maqdisi said the onus for achieving a cease-fire was on the opposition fighters, which Syria calls armed terrorist gangs.

JIHAD MAQDISI: I'm confident that my government is fully committed to Mr. Annan's plan of six points, but in the same time since the violence is mutual, I can only guarantee our side. I cannot guarantee the side that the violence initiated from, the armed groups and those countries harboring them.

KENYON: America's U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, on the other hand, said the burden of maintaining calm lay squarely on the government's shoulders. She voiced Washington's skepticism at the conditions in Syria's letter to Annan committing to the ceasefire.

AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE: The caveats in the letter are worrying, and yet again cast into doubt the credibility of any such commitments. But nothing casts more doubt on the credibility of the commitments than the fact that commitments have been made and made and made, and broken and broken and broken.

KENYON: Syria's allies - led by Moscow, meanwhile - point out that relying on the opposition fighters to maintain the ceasefire is a dangerous risk for the government. By most accounts, the former army officers now leading the rebel Free Syrian Army from camps in southeastern Turkey have only limited control over units operating inside Syria.

Opposition Syrian National Council member Mohammad Bassam Imadi told the BBC's "Hardtalk" program that he believes coordination between the field units and the leadership is improving all the time, though it's far from complete.

MOHAMMAD BASSAM IMADI: There are what we call the local military councils - in the north, in the south, in the middle, in the suburbs of Damascus, and so on. These are councils that are coordinating with the leadership on the Turkish border, and they have strong coordination, but also some freedom in what they do.

KENYON: If local fighters used that freedom to attack loyalist forces, the ceasefire could unravel quickly. Opposition activists also suspect the security forces could provoke renewed fighting. Either way, analysts say, the cliche of a fragile ceasefire is very much the case in Syria right now, and all eyes will be on Kofi Annan's attempts to reach the vital step of gaining access for desperately needed humanitarian aid into hard-hit neighborhoods.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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