Kofi Annan, the United Nations’ and Arab League’s special envoy to Syria, has told a closed-door session of the UN Security Council on Monday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has agreed to start implementing a ceasefire beginning April 10th.
Within 48 hours of that date, there should be a “full cessation of hostilities,” Mr. Annan told the council.
The development at the UN Security Council follows another significant development that emerged from a meeting on Sunday in Turkey of 83 countries, including Canada, that belong to the Friends of Syria Group.
“This is high noon for action,” Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the Syrian National Council, a coalition of exiled opposition groups, told world leaders at the gathering in Istanbul.
World leaders decided to create a $100-million fund to pay rebel fighters and woo soldiers to defect from the Assad regime. Also, the United States announced that it will provide communications equipment aimed at helping Syrian rebels in their struggle against the much better equipped Syrian Army.
Together, the development at the Istanbul meeting on Sunday and the development at the UN Security Council today could mark a significant turning point in the efforts to halt the regime of Mr. al-Assad and its brutal year-long crackdown that has claimed the lives of over 9,000 Syrians.
Here are three things to watch this week in the ongoing Syrian conflict.
Details of any military assistance
Western countries have long been hesitant to directly arm Syrian rebels with guns and rocket-propelled grenades. There is a fear that flooding the conflict zone with military equipment could inflame the situation and further transform it in to a sectarian war.
The Istanbul meeting did not decide to arm rebel fighters directly. The communications equipment to be provided by the U.S. will help rebel fighters better coordinate their efforts and evade the Syrian Army.
But, as reported by the New York Times, the Syrian National Council expects U.S. equipment will include night-vision equipment. Arguably, this is direct military assistance.
More important that the U.S. contribution is the influx of money from Gulf nations such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. On paper, the $100-million is intended to pay the salaries of rebel fighters over the next three months. How the Syrian National Council uses this money is going to be difficult to monitor and control.
The bottom line is that Gulf nations are strident when it comes to the idea of arming the rebels. “We support the arming of the nationalists,” Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, told a news conference over the weekend in Riyadh, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton standing at his side.
If the implementation of a UN-backed ceasefire fails, talk and action around a proxy war will ramp-up.
Kofi Annan’s ‘mission impossible’?
Credit to the former UN Secretary General and joint UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria for securing an agreement from Syria on a ceasefire date.
Until his closed-door briefing to UN Security Council Monday morning, Mr. Annan had the Syrian regime's support for his six-point peace plan but no timeline for its implementation.
But all he has now is a ceasefire date. Who will monitor the ceasefire and Syrian troop and heavy weapons withdrawal from towns and cities is still a big question mark.
The United States was already pouring doubt over the ceasefire date.
“Past experience would lead us to be skeptical and to worry that over the next several days, that rather than a diminution of the violence we might yet again see an escalation of the violence,” U.S. ambassador Susan Rice told reporters on Monday after the Security Council meeting.
Also, several aspects of Mr. Annan’s six point peace plan are still without a timeline: the release of prisoners, the creation of humanitarian corridors, access for journalists and a political process that will end with a new government.
The Syrian regime has friends on the UN Security Council. Ahead of Mr. Annan’s briefing to the UN Security Council, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov warned against “artificial” deadlines and “ultimatums.”
However, Mr. Lavrov did press the Syrian regime to take the first step and withdraw its forces from cities and towns. Once the regime had done so, Mr. Lavrov argued, rebels ought to reciprocate and also withdraw.
Syria’s allies, including Russia, will view any aid – even if it is only communications equipment – as direct military assistance, which undermines the efforts of the Kofi Annan peace plan.
The timing of the decision by the group of nations at the Istanbul meeting has been interpreted as a realization that the Annan initiative has failed.
There is another way to look at events in the last 24 hours: the Syrian regime is now faced with the option of accelerating the implementation of the Annan plan, or facing a significant ramp-up in a potential proxy war in which Arab countries seek new ways to deliver help to rebel fighters.
Battle for Idlib
After a withering military campaign to subdue the city of Homs, the Syrian regime turned its attention to the rebel bastions in the north western Idlib province.
The promised assistance by countries at the Istanbul meeting was welcomed by fighters on the ground.
But this is not the full-scale military assistance rebel fighters have been calling for.
“This is what we have been asking for, but if they had decided to do this months ago, we could have avoided a large number of martyrs,” said rebel fighter Fadi al-Yassin in Idlib, according to AP. “We know that there is no way to topple the regime without force.”
On Monday, according to Syrian monitors speaking AFP, Syrian troops backed by tanks stormed the town of Al-Maghara in Idlib, “raiding houses, burning some of them and arresting youths.” Other villages in the region were also targeted, with Syrian monitors reporting at least 11 people, rebels and civilians, killed across the region.
The Syrian regime has said it will not agree to a ceasefire until the situation in towns and cities return to normal.
As the Syrian soldiers push through with their offensive, there is a fear among human rights monitors that the Syrian Army will have completed its brutal crackdown by the time any ceasefire is implemented.