Middle East

World waits for Syria Eid cease-fire to take hold

Residents wheel a man wounded from an artillery shell that landed near a bakery, to a hospital in Aleppo.

DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Wednesday that Syria and “most” rebel chiefs have agreed to a cease-fire scheduled to begin Friday but said he was still unsure it would hold, as the U.N. and world powers backed the initiative for a pause in violence.

Nonetheless, hopes for the plan suffered a major setback when an Al-Qaeda-inspired militant group rejected the cease-fire, saying it would not be drawn into a “trick” by the regime.

Syria said its military command was still studying Brahimi’s initiative for a three- or four-day pause in fighting during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and would announce its decision Thursday.

“The answer will be announced tomorrow officially speaking,” Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari told reporters. “We have always been part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

“The Syrian government has agreed to a cease-fire” during Eid, Brahimi said, adding “most” rebel leaders contacted said they also would observe it.

“If we succeed with this modest initiative, a longer cease-fire can be built” that would allow the launch of a political process, said the Algerian diplomat.

Brahimi has touted his cease-fire initiative for weeks, but as the date for its implementation fast approaches, there has been no let up in the violence.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 142 people were killed across Syria Wednesday, 20 of them civilians including women and children massacred in Douma, a rebel-held town near Damascus.

As the bloodshed continued, Brahimi told the U.N. Security Council a cease-fire would be “small step” but he was unsure if it would hold, according to diplomats.

Brahimi appealed for unanimous support, warning the 15-nation council a new failure among its divided members would cause the 19-month civil war to spread, they told AFP.

The Security Council is bitterly divided over the conflict, with Western nations pressing for action against the Assad regime while Russia and China have been blocking these moves.

But it did agree to back Brahimi’s proposal Wednesday in a statement also urging Syria’s neighbors to “use their influence” on the parties to push for an end to the conflict.

“The members of the Council agreed that an Eid al-Adha cease-fire could be a first step toward a sustainable cessation of all violence,” the council said.

The rebel Free Syrian Army said it would only stop fighting if Assad’s forces do so first, but the jihadist militant Al-Nusra Front refused to lay down its weapons.

“The FSA will stop firing if the regime stops,” military council chief General Mustafa al-Sheikh told AFP by telephone. However, he added: “It is impossible that the regime will implement the truce, even if it says it will.”

The Al-Nusra Front, which has claimed several suicide bombings and taken part in clashes with the army, said it would not be bound by the call for a cease-fire.

“There is no truce between us and this transgressing regime that is shedding the blood of Muslims,” it said in a statement posted on the Internet, quoted by SITE Intelligence Group.

“We aren’t among those who allow the wily to trick us, nor are we the ones who will accept to play these dirty games,” it added.

A cease-fire would be the most important breakthrough since the conflict spread from demonstrations back in March 2011 to engulf the entire country. Brahimi’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, announced a short-lived cease-fire in April.

Though deeply divided at the Security Council, world powers cautiously backed the plan.

Russia said its ally Syria had indicated that it will accept the proposal Thursday, while the U.S. said it would also like to see an end to the violence.

“We have had indications that they [Syria’s government] are accepting the proposal of Mr. Brahimi,” Moscow’s U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin told reporters.

“We support it very strongly,” Churkin said. “We worked very hard in support of Mr. Brahimi in making sure there is a chance that might happen.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. “would like to see a political transition take hold and begin.”

“We’ve been calling for that for more than a year,” she said from Washington.

Their comments came amid a new row between Russia and the U.S. over how the countries are supporting each side of the conflict, with Russia saying Wednesday rebels in the country had acquired American-made surface-to-air missiles.

Russia’s top military officer, general staff chief Nikolai Makarov, said Russia’s military had learned that rebel forces “have portable missile launchers of various states, including American-made Stingers,” adding that those who supplied them “must still be determined,” according to the Russian Interfax news agency.

U.S. Defense Minister Leon Panetta said he had no knowledge of the United States supplying the missiles while a U.S. defense official told Reuters the U.S. was unable to confirm the rebels had acquired U.S. stingers.

Clinton said the U.S. was increasing its non-lethal support for the Syrian opposition, including working with local councils inside Syria. She said Washington also was working with its friends and allies to promote more cohesion among the disparate Syrian opposition groups with the aim of producing a new leadership council following meetings scheduled for Doha in the next several weeks.

On the ground Wednesday, violence persisted, with Syrian army trying to wrest control of rebel-held enclaves, the Observatory said.

The bodies of some 20 civilians, including women and children, were found in the rebel-held town of Douma east of the capital Damascus, the group said.

The army blamed rebels for the Douma killings and put the death toll at 25.

Warplanes, meanwhile, hammered the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan near the Wadi Deif army base along the highway linking Damascus to northern metropolis Aleppo, a key supply route for troops, the Observatory said.

Air raids also struck Maaret Shamirin village in the northern province of Raqa bordering Turkey, killing five members of the same family, and targeted Irbin and Harasta in the Damascus suburbs as well Aleppo districts, it added.

Car bombs blew up in Raqqa killing at least eight soldiers and in the southern Damascus district of Daf al-Shuk, where eight people died. State television gave a lower toll of six for the southern neighborhood of six.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 25, 2012, on page 1.




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