x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Syria says it will pull out troops next week

The regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has reneged on earlier pledges to end the violence that has killed more than 9,000 civilians and 3,000 government forces in a year-long uprising.

NEW YORK and ISTANBUL // Syria promised yesterday to pull its troops off the streets by next Tuesday and rebel forces are expected to follow within 48 hours.

The United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said Damascus had agreed to an immediate withdrawal of troops before the April 10 deadline, but "the proof is in the acting".

"Some members of the Security Council expressed concern that the government of Syria not use the next days to intensify the violence and expressed some scepticism about the bona fides of the government," Ms Rice said.

The regime of President Bashar Al Assad has reneged on earlier pledges to end the violence that has killed more than 9,000 civilians and 3,000 government forces in a year-long uprising.

Ms Rice said opposition forces had been asked to pull back 48 hours after the government forces, but did not say if the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had agreed.

UN Security Council delegates received a briefing from Kofi Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy, by video link from Geneva, in which he told them time was running out for Syria to implement his six-point plan that it agreed to last week.

Unlike the Arab League's initial peace plan agreed to by Damascus, Mr Annan's proposals do not call for Mr Al Assad to step down as president.

"We are committed to implementing the six-point plan," said Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian representative at the UN.

Syrian forces have routed rebels from several towns and cities over the past few weeks and it remained unclear whether the rebels would take advantage of the 48-hour window to regain lost territory, jeopardising the deal.

A UN peacekeeping team will join Mr Annan's staff in Syria this week to prepare for a monitoring mission that would police a ceasefire. The team is expected to consist of about 250 unarmed observers pulled from neighbouring peacekeeping missions.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 10 civilians were killed yesterday in the province of Homs.

"Today doesn't feel much different from yesterday or the day before, or the day before that," opposition activist Waleed Fares said from inside Homs. "Shelling and killing."

In Syria's largest city, Aleppo, a bomb blast at a kiosk killed the owner, an Al Assad supporter. At least five people were killed and eight wounded in army bombardments of villages in northern Idlib province, which borders Turkey.

Some countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are calling openly for the rebels to be given weapons. Mehmet Sahin, a political scientist at Ankara's Gazi University, said the promise by Arab states to pay the wages of rebel soldiers, made at the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul on Sunday, showed countries in the region did not expect the conflict to be solved overnight.

"The experience of other Arab Spring countries has shown that governments lost their power when the army changed sides," he said. The promised payments had the aim of "strengthening the process of erosion" within the Syrian regime.

Cenap Cakmak, head of the department of international relations at the Osmangazi University in Eskisehir in western Turkey, said the Istanbul conference had weakened the Annan plan because a group of countries showed their willingness to step up support for the Syrian opposition.

He said a proxy war between forces supported by Iran and troops supported by Sunni Arab states was possible.

"Without decisive action by the UN Security Council to stop the Assad regime a civil war in Syria is becoming unavoidable," Mr Cakmak said.

Even if Syria's main ally Russia - which opposes a deadline for troop withdrawal - could be convinced to back tougher measures against Damascus, Mr Al Assad was not likely to change his ways.

"He knows that he will be put before an international court for war crimes if he loses power. For him, there is no way back."

Mr Annan's plan includes a ceasefire and unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid.

Some areas that have seen the worst fighting are desperately short of food, water, medicine and other essentials, activists say.

Celalettin Yavuz, deputy director of the Turkish Centre for International Relations and Strategic Analysis, a think tank in Ankara, said the threat of a civil war in Syria was real.

"I hope everyone wakes up to that fact," he said. The offer of arms to the opposition was "very wrong".

Turkey's opposition criticised the Ankara government for burning all bridges with the Syrian regime while the outcome of the crisis was far from clear.

"We have a saying: Don't jump into muddy water, and if you do, jump in with your feet first," said Umut Oran of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).

"On the Syrian issue, the prime minister took a header into muddy water."

tseibert@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by Reuters