BEIRUT: The Syrian government and opposition leadership cautiously welcomed a cease-fire proposal by U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi Tuesday. Meanwhile, rebel groups stepped up preparations for a more coordinated military offensive, and the Syrian army unleashed a barrage of assault on opposition strongholds.
Rebel groups were scrambling Tuesday to convince backers that they present a united military front in order to secure what opposition sources say is a commitment from the United States to provide direct military aid to fight President Bashar Assad’s forces.
During a visit to Iran Monday, Brahimi floated the idea of a truce during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which begins Oct. 26. The plan, which resembles a failed initiative by former U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, also entails the deployment of up to 3,000 U.N. monitors to oversee the truce.
“The idea is that this cease-fire could open the door to something more sustained,” a Western diplomat told Reuters. “But it’s not clear how realistic this idea is.”
The opposition Syrian National Council said it would expect the rebel Free Syrian Army to reciprocate any halt to the violence but that the government should act first.
“We would welcome any halt to the killings, but we think the appeal needs to be addressed first to the Syrian regime, which has not stopped bombarding Syrian towns and villages,” SNC leader Abdel-Basset Seyda said.
Damascus signaled Tuesday that it is interested in exploring the idea of a cease-fire, but said the rebels and their backers would also need to commit to halting the violence.
“In order to succeed in any initiative, it takes two sides,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said.
“The Syrian side is interested in exploring this option, and we are looking forward to talking to Mr. Brahimi to see what is the position of other influential countries that he talked to in his tour,” he said, referring to Brahimi’s visit to regional stakeholders Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt this week.
After meeting inside Syria Tuesday, rebels hastily announced the formation of a united army amid increasing frustration from the U.S. that hard-line Islamist groups are receiving the bulk of weapons from sponsors Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Those concerns, detailed in an intelligence assessment reported by The New York Times Monday, have cast doubt on the U.S. strategy of indirect support for the rebels in the form of nonlethal communications and medical equipment.
Weapons purchasers and opposition fighters have reported a competition for resources between Islamist and secular groups fighting on the ground.
“We’ve been clear from the beginning that there are issues here as to where the weapons go and that we need to all work hard to ensure that extremists, jihadists, Al-Qaeda, other groups who don’t share our larger interest in seeing a democratic Syria emerge from all of this, get their hands on weapons that can be used to exploit the situation,” Nuland said.
A Doha meeting of opposition factions scheduled for this week, but postponed amid disagreements over representation, was intended to restructure the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated SNC to make it more inclusive to present a legitimate opposition alternative to the Assad regime.
The meeting was also viewed as a last-ditched effort for armed groups to propose a political agenda to unlock pledged arms funds.
Describing the U.S. “carrot and stick” approach, rebel sources familiar with the talks said the U.S. was promising sophisticated weaponry if rebel groups could assure unity.
“They are telling them they have the green light from the U.S., but they have to act as an alternative to the national army or it is not going to work,” one source said.
Another Western official familiar with the talks said the U.S. was pressuring Qatar to arm certain groups and was providing political cover for limited ground intervention from Turkey.
“They are serious. They [The U.S.] are telling them they can’t take out Assad unless they are united. But that there are also easy ways of starving them.”
Attendees announced the meeting will go ahead on Nov. 1, coinciding with an announcement from dozens of rebel groups, including the FSA, that they had agreed to set up a joint leadership.
The new leadership was reported to include FSA leaders Riad al-Asaad and Mustafa Sheikh – and recently defected Gen. Mohammad Haj Ali. Other heads of rebel provincial military councils inside Syria like Qassem Saadeddine, based in Homs, are also reported to have agreed.
Still, it was not clear how the agreement would translate to unity on the ground or how such a group would rein in Islamist elements.
Amr al-Azm, a Syrian professor of history at Shawnee State University in Ohio and a brief member of the SNC told The Daily Star there were still strong disagreements regarding the SNC and that rebel groups remained fractured. He noted that most weapons attained by the opposition were captured during attacks on the regular army. “The U.S. came late to this game. They should have been thinking about this a year ago,” Azm said.
An FSA logistics specialist told The Daily Star last week the rebel groups would unite, but were not interested in acting on international states’ requests.
He said Tuesday a cease-fire was “impossible.”
“The regime won’t stop attacking us, whatever happens. They don’t think that they are fighting another army [that can] commit to any cease-fire.”
FSA commander Riad al-Asaad in Turkey said he supported a permanent cease-fire to “to stop the blood ... being shed,” but that a one-or two-day cease-fire for the Eid Holiday would only provide Assad with more time.
“[Brahimi’s proposal] might be serious, but the regime ... [is] not serious about any initiative; it’s a lying, criminal regime.”
The Syrian army stepped up operations against rebels Tuesday. Warplanes targeted the rebel blockade of the highway to Aleppo, a scene of intense fighting for the past three months, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, adding that rebels responded with anti-aircraft fire.
An escalation in Idlib province, bordering Turkey, came as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had suggested to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad three-way talks including Egypt on the Syria crisis.
Egypt had launched a quartet group with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but the latter stayed away from a meeting hosted by Cairo last month, objecting to Iran’s involvement.
Returning to Ankara from Baku, where he held talks with Ahmadinejad at an Economic Cooperation Organisation summit, Erdogan offered various options for countries to get involved in future Syria talks.
“We proposed a three-way system here. This system could be a trio of Turkey-Egypt-Iran,” the state-run Anatolian news agency reported Erdogan as saying. “A second system could by Turkey-Russia-Iran. A third system could be Turkey-Egypt-Saudi Arabia.”
Pope Benedict XVI is sending a delegation, including top Vatican officials and New York’s cardinal, to Damascus to express solidarity with the Syrian people suffering in their country’s civil war. The Vatican said the delegation would go to Syria next week if arrangements can be made. – with agencies