UNITED NATIONS/ BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria has pledged to withdraw all military units from towns by April 10 to pave the way for a ceasefire with rebels two days later, though Western envoys were skeptical yesterday about Damascus’ intent to halt its year-long assault on opponents.
The UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan briefed the UN Security Council on the deadline behind closed doors. He told them there had been no reduction in violence so far, but urged them to consider an observer mission nevertheless in light of Syria’s acceptance of the April 10 deadline, diplomats said.
Washington’s UN Ambas-sador Susan Rice, president of the 15-nation Security Coun-cil this month, said some council members “expressed concern that the government of Syria not use the next days to intensify the violence and expressed some skepticism about the bona fides of the government in this regard.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly pro-mised to stop his campaign against anti-government activists, which has brought the country to the brink of civil war, but has not kept his word.
Annan told the council that the Syrian foreign minister sent him a letter on Sunday saying the government accepted his proposal – the first time the Syrians have accepted a specific deadline.
“The Syrians have told us they have put a plan in place for withdrawing their army units from populated zones and surrounding areas. This plan … will be completed by April 10,” Annan’s spokes-man Ahmad Fawzi said in Geneva.
“If we are able to verify this has happened on the 10th, then the clock starts ticking on the cessation of hostilities, by the opposition as well. We expect both sides to cease hostilities within 48 hours,” he told Reuters.
Whether or not Assad plans to comply with the deadline, Western diplomats said Syria’s acceptance of it might not have come if the Russians had not urged him to accept it.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was up to Damascus to make the first move towards a ceasefire as called for in Annan’s plan, suggesting a shift in Russia’s public position. Until recently Moscow had been saying Syria’s army and opposition fighters should halt fighting simultaneously.
“The Syrian government must take the first step and begin the troops’ pullout – that is written in the Kofi Annan plan and we support this obligation,” Interfax quoted Lavrov as saying.
Russia and China have vetoed two council resolutions condemning Assad for turning the army on civilians.
Annan met Assad in Damascus on March 10 and presented him with a six-point plan calling for the military pullout. His spokesman said a week ago that Assad had accepted the terms, adding that “the deadline is now.”
Syria’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, confirmed to report-ers that Damascus had accepted the April 10 deadline but said the government wants the opposition on board.
“The Syrian government is committed but we are expecting Mr. Kofi Annan and some parties in the Security Council also to get the same kind of commitments from the (opposition),” he said. “A plan wouldn’t be successful unless everybody is committed.”
Diplomats said the Security Council might try to issue a statement in the coming days formally endorsing the deadline. Rice said Annan told the council he would have liked an earlier deadline and urged Damascus to “start immediately and to ensure that forces move no further into population centers.”
One diplomat said Annan confirmed to council members that there had been “no progress on the ground” toward halting the violence and there are daily reports of army shelling and battles with rebels of the Free Syrian Army.