Syrians took to the streets to demonstrate against President Bashar al-Assad, emboldened by a cease-fire negotiated by United Nations’ envoy Kofi Annan that took effect today after a year of deadly violence.
The 6 a.m. cease-fire was apparently holding with only a few isolated reports of gunfire and explosions in north and east, compared with a daily death toll that has often exceeded 100 and claimed more than 9,000 lives since the uprising began.
“The return to calm should allow the demonstrators to prove their size and their strength,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the London-based head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said in a telephone interview.
At stake for Assad is the survival of his family’s four- decade hold on power. Syria’s top officials are members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, which is a minority in Syria and whose privileged status may be at risk should they be toppled. Syria has also turned into a battleground between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran, that’s spilled over into Lebanon and Turkey.
Syria’s army breached the cease-fire in some parts of the country, Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the main opposition alliance, told Al Arabiya. The channel reported shootings in the town of Saraqib, while Al Jazeera cited attacks in the northern province of Idlib.
Annan brokered the cease-fire as part of a six-point peace plan that won backing from Russia and China. Those two countries had vetoed earlier efforts by the U.S. and its European and Arab allies to pass a UN Security Council resolution calling for Assad to cede power.
“We hope that calm will continue to prevail so that we reach a phase where we have democratic legislative, local and presidential elections, under international supervision, without any bloodshed,” Abdel Rahman said. “The Syrian authorities should now start releasing detainees, which are between 25,000 and 30,000.”
The Syrian government pledged to “cease all military fighting” as of 6 a.m. local time, according to a letter from the foreign ministry released by Annan’s office.
Syria’s army ended operations this morning after carrying out “successful missions in combating criminal acts by armed terrorist groups,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported, citing a Defense Ministry official it didn’t identify. It said the army will stay on alert “to confront any attack by armed terrorist groups against civilians, law-enforcement members, the armed forces and private and public facilities.”
The Syrian government is “absolutely” committed to the cease-fire, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said in an interview with the BBC’s Radio 4 today. “We do want monitors to come as soon as possible to monitor any possible violations.”
As many as 160 people have been killed daily since Assad agreed to Annan’s plan on March 27, according to the Local Coordinating Committees of Syria, an opposition group.
Western diplomats have expressed skepticism about Assad’s pledge to abide by the cease-fire. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said yesterday that Syria’s commitments “have little if any credibility.”
Turkey warned that it may call on fellow NATO countries to reinforce its border with Syria, after Syrian troops fired across the frontier at refugees trying to escape. Turkey may invoke a NATO article defining an attack on one member as an attack on the alliance requiring a collective response, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters during a visit to China, according to Sabah newspaper.