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Syrian 'ceasefire' is still a longshot

To call yesterday's interlude a "ceasefire" masks what the crisis in Syria has become: war waged by an oppressive regime against a lightly armed, and poorly supported, opposition.

After 13 months of unrelenting bloodshed, a death toll of more than 9,000 and tens of thousands displaced, any break in Syria's violence is welcome. But to term yesterday's interlude a "ceasefire" masks what this crisis truly is: an oppressive regime waging war on a lightly armed opposition that for months persisted in non-violent demonstrations even as the regime murdered men, women and children.

Already bloodshed has reportedly marred UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's ceasefire and reconciliation plan. The Assad regime's good faith is, to put it mildly, deeply suspect. But the blood of so many Syrian civilians demands that we give any hiatus in the violence at least a chance. But what next?

The Syrian regime has already hinted where this "ceasefire" will lead. Even before the shelling stopped yesterday morning, after a brutal campaign to consolidate gains on the ground, Damascus's defence ministry said it retained the right to respond to attacks by "armed terrorist groups", the same terminology it has used since the very beginning of this crisis. Indeed, while fighting yesterday was sparse, government forces had not pulled out of key cities - an important component of the UN ceasefire plan.

It is hard to imagine that the opposition will immediately lay down its arms. The Annan plan is not meant simply to grant control of the streets to the regime. Syria's armed opposition of army defectors and citizen soldiers first picked up weapons because of attacks on unarmed protesters (peaceful protest is supposed to be guaranteed under this ceasefire plan). As security affairs analyst Ahmed Al Attar writes on the facing page, there are signs of extremist elements becoming dangerously involved, but even ordinary Syrian civilians have every reason to distrust the regime.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran's foreign minister in Tehran on Wednesday, Mr Annan said he'd received "positive" assurances from Damascus. Very few Syrians will believe those assurances, which means that a meaningful demobilisation of forces is still far from assured. The Assads certainly hope the pounding of recent weeks will suffice.

And if forces did stand down and peace were re-established, what then? Another premise of the ceasefire plan is a Syrian-led political process. But after this bloodshed, Bashar Al Assad can never rule as he once did. It is still difficult to see a solution that does not begin with his departure.

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