x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Syria ceasefire begins with a 'fragile calm'

The UN Security Council is united in demanding that Syria comply with a ceasefire agreement by pulling its troops and heavy weapons from towns and cities, the US ambassador to the UN says.

UNITED NATIONS // The United Nations Security Council is united in demanding that Syria comply with a ceasefire agreement by pulling its troops and heavy weapons from towns and cities, the US ambassador to the UN said yesterday.

Susan Rice, the US ambassador and council president, revealed that the joint UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan told the council yesterday that Syria was not in compliance with his six-point peace plan, though a "fragile calm" took hold after a 6am ceasefire deadline.

"What happened today does not constitute full compliance as Syrian forces and weapons remain in and around population centres," Ms Rice said.

Armed oppositions groups had given Mr Annan assurances that they would comply with the ceasefire, Ms Rice said. Mr Annan told the council that there were unconfirmed reports of violence in some cities, but that this was normal in the first days of a ceasefire, Ms Rice said.

Mr Annan also called for a quick deployment of UN observers to monitor the ceasefire. The Security Council was working on a resolution to authorise them that could be passed today, Ms Rice said.

By yesterday afternoon, both sides had reported infractions. Activists said tank shells had hit Zabadani and three people were killed by security forces. Syrian state media said an army officer was killed and 24 others wounded in a bomb attack on a military bus in the city of Aleppo.

In Damascus, where there has been little violence during the uprising, yesterday was routine for its residents. They endured the usual traffic jams and most students and government workers appeared more interested in getting an early start on the weekend than the effectiveness of the peace plan.

After weeks of escalating bloodshed in which human-rights monitors say hundreds of civilians have been killed in military offensives involving heavy weapons - the ceasefire more or less held.

"It has been largely quiet today. The main test will come tomorrow," a leading Damascus-based activist said last night. "We are expecting large protests and we will have to see what happens."

Just how durable the ceasefire proves to be should quickly become clear when activists try to hold large, peaceful anti-regime demonstrations today - something they are entitled to do under the terms of Mr Annan's plan.

Opposition groups have made it clear they believe President Bashar Al Assad's regime will not permit widespread public dissent and has survived as long as it has only because of a deadly security repression of protesters. In the past, security forces have responded to mass protests with live ammunition, particularly those involving attempts by activists to converge on important central squares where they could potentially stage long-term sit-ins.

In Damascus and its suburbs, checkpoints manned by soldiers and security offices remained in place yesterday afternoon. These have played an important role in confining demonstrations to individual neighbourhoods, or even streets.

Typically on Fridays, checkpoints block all traffic around the time of prayers, when demonstrations are at their peak. Security units tolerate limited protests as long as they do not try to link up with other rallies.

Syrian officials say they will honour the agreement and yesterday Sana, the state-run news agency, announced missions by the armed forces had been stopped after the state had regained control of the entire country.

However, it cited the ministry of defence as saying troops would remain on alert in the event of any attack by "armed terrorist groups".

On the diplomatic front, Ms Rice said the onus for Mr Annan's plan to work was on the Syrian government, "which for over a year has been brazenly killing its people. Its track record is dismal."

She said yesterday's events "were hopeful, but we have a year's worth of experience that leads to enormous scepticism."

Vitaly Churkin, the Russian UN ambassador, told reporters he was worried that mass demonstrations could provoke more violence.

Mr Churkin said that 20 to 30 unarmed UN monitors could be in place by next week followed by a contingent of about 300. "It is crucial they be on the ground."

Asked whether Russia would demand that Syria withdraw all its forces, Mr Churkin said Moscow "very strongly" endorses Mr Annan's plan, which includes the pullback.

Likewise, Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong said that Beijing fully supports Mr Annan's plan.

In a statement earlier Thursday, Mr Annan said he was "encouraged by reports that the situation in Syria is relatively quiet and that the cessation of hostilities appears to be holding."

"Syria is apparently experiencing a rare moment of calm on the ground," he said. "This is bringing much-needed relief and hope to the Syrian people who have suffered so much for so long in this brutal conflict."

But Syrian ambassador Bashar Ja'afri blamed armed opposition groups for eight violations of the ceasefire starting within two hours of the deadline.

He said that his government had indeed withdrawn all its forces, in direct contradiction to Mr Annan's report. The Syrian envoy said Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were "totally disappointed and frustrated" because Mr Annan's plan and the end of violence had succeeded.

"The moment of truth has come," Mr. Ja'afri said. "We are challenging the forces who were betting on the failure of Mr. Annan's plan."

psands@thenational.ae

* Phil Sands reported from Damascus