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National demonstrations will put Syrian ceasefire to the test

Syrian armoured personnel carriers are seen at the Wadi Khalid area near the Syrian border in northern Lebanon April 12, 2012.

Jamal Saidi/Reuters/Jamal Saidi/Reuters

Having survived 24 hours, the Syrian ceasefire brokered by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan faces its first big test as the opposition has called for nationwide demonstrations against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. For its part, officials in the Syrian government say they will move to quash any demonstrations that are conducted without permission.

The showdown looms as the United Nations Security Council meets to vote on a new resolution dispatching an observer force to Syria beginning next week to see how well the Annan ceasefire is being observed.

All this comes a day after the ceasefire went into effect across Syria. While a number of attacks by government forces in several cities Thursday left about 20 people dead and at least one opposition assault on a military convoy killed one, the day's violence was markedly lower than has been the norm in this 13-month conflict.

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"Syria is apparently experiencing a rare moment of calm on the ground," said Mr. Annan, the former diplomat who has been charged by both the Security Council and the Arab League with the mission of finding a solution to the continuing conflict in Syria.

That calm, however, now is threatened by the prospect of protesters and military forces facing each other Friday.

Fawaz Zakri, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council, told reporters it was time for protesters to again make their voices heard.

"If the Syrian regime indeed stops the killings and abides by the ceasefire, then we think, we are sure, that the demonstrations will come back more powerful and will cover all of Syria very nearly," Mr. Zakri said in Istanbul, Turkey, where the SNC is based.

Should such protests turn violent, however, or if the forces of Mr. al-Assad overreact, the ceasefire and peace plan will be short-lived.

"If the protests are well-managed [non-violent]and the military limits its fire, this will be a good sign," said a former high-ranking official in the al-Assad regime, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But the parties need to move quickly to the political phase [envisioned in the Annan plan]if this initiative is to succeed."

Indeed, if the plan survives Friday it will have no more than two weeks to demonstrate its effectiveness. Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, is the day of choice for the largest demonstrations in Syria, and while millions are not likely to turn out immediately, they may well do so next Friday or the Friday after that. That day, when it comes, will be the ultimate test.

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For the political phase to begin, neutral UN observers must be on the ground and able to confirm a ceasefire. France on Thursday presented a draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council calling for the deployment of a UN observer force.

The resolution calls for "an advanced team of a few dozen observers in the coming days, to be immediately followed by a force that could number several hundred," said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, after a meeting with his G8 counterparts in Washington.

Russia, a staunch ally of Damascus, has vetoed two previous resolutions on Syria, but says it will support this latest effort. A resolution could pass as early as Friday and an observer force could start its work next week, said Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations.

The political process outlined in the Annan plan and accepted by the Syrian regime calls for dialogue that involves al-Assad authorities and representatives of the opposition. The idea of meeting with the al-Assad regime is a bitter pill to swallow for the SNC, a large group of mostly Syrian exiles based in Istanbul.

"The SNC has no interest whatsoever in such a political process," said the former senior Syrian official. "They see everything as a zero-sum game: They want an end to the regime before they'll even talk about what happens next."

For their part, some opposition representatives have produced their own six-point plan. It calls for arming resistance forces and establishing a safe haven for civilians and aerial support for opposition fighters. It also calls for increased diplomatic pressure on the al-Assad regime as well as incentives to encourage defections by government officials.

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"Such an approach will only lead to more killing," cautioned the former al-Assad official.

"What we need now is for the U.S. and other big states to put pressure on the regional powers that are supporting the uprising in Syria," he said. "Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have to turn down their rhetoric and slow down the funding of the militants."

On Thursday, Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu warned that if the peace collapsed and the international community failed to respond, Turkey had "the right to make any preparation to protect the border and to help people who are escaping from massacres." Mr. Davutoglu hinted at Turkey's willingness to deploy its armed forces on the Syrian border.

With such prospects in the offing, getting the parties to begin a political dialogue is now "a race against time," said the former senior al-Assad official.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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