By Oliver Holmes / Reuters
BEIRUT: Syrian troops bombarded two restive cities on Tuesday, pursuing an assault on President Bashar Al-Assad’s foes instead of halting the use of big guns and leaving towns as promised under an international peace plan that now looks in peril.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy shelling in the Khalidiya area of Homs and said rebels had killed six soldiers in attacks on two checkpoints on a road near the eastern desert town of Marqada, south of the Turkish border.
The rebel Free Syrian Army has said it will cease fire only if convinced that Assad’s forces have pulled back.
As the deadline for Damascus to implement the plan crafted by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan ran down, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem demanded guarantees from the former United Nations chief that armed insurgents would honor a truce.
“We will not ask the terrorist groups, which are killing, kidnapping and destroying infrastructure, for guarantees. We want Annan to give us these guarantees,” he said in Moscow.
China, which along with Russia, has blocked punitive UN Security Council action against Syria, said it hoped all sides would immediately obey a UN-backed ceasefire aimed at stopping a 13-month uprising from sliding into full-scale civil war.
Moscow and Beijing have both supported Annan’s plan, which diplomats say still gives Assad until midnight in Syria (2100 GMT) to start withdrawing troops from urban areas.
Extra conditions set by Damascus have fuelled widespread doubts that the deadline for a full truce to start by 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Thursday, April 12, would be respected.
Moualem also said Annan had told him in a recent telephone call that the rebels would be disarmed after a ceasefire.
No let-up in conflict
There was no respite from violence on the ground.
Syrian troops shelled Hama overnight and mortar bombs were crashing into parts of Homs on Tuesday morning, local opposition activists said. Tanks remained in both cities.
The Observatory, which collates reports from its contacts in Syria, said there was no clear sign of troop withdrawals. Rebels and troops clashed in Deraa, in southern Syria.
Government curbs on the media limit independent reporting from inside Syria.
Russia told Syria to act “more decisively” to implement the terms of Annan’s plan but also urged foreign states to use their influence on opposition groups to stop shooting forthwith.
“We told our Syrian colleague … we think their actions could be more active, more decisive in regard to the fulfillment of the points of the plan,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters after talks with his Syrian counterpart Moualem.
Lavrov said Moualem told him Damascus had begun implementing requirements regarding “the use of weapons” in urban areas.
Moualem told reporters in Moscow some troops had already been pulled back from cities in line with the peace plan, but he tied a full ceasefire to the entry of foreign monitors.
“An end of violence must be simultaneous with the arrival of the international observers,” he said, adding that Syria wants a say in how the ceasefire monitoring team is composed.
The UN peacekeeping department sent an advance team to Damascus this month to discuss how to carry out Annan’s plan for “an effective United Nations supervision mechanism”.
An Arab League monitoring effort collapsed in January as intensifying violence made a mockery of an Arab ceasefire plan.
Assad’s forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, according to a UN estimate. The government says it has lost more than 2,500 soldiers and security personnel killed.
The violence has alarmed Syria’s neighbors, especially Turkey which already hosts almost 25,000 Syrian refugees. At least five people, including two Turkish citizens, were wounded by cross-border fire into a refugee camp in Turkey on Monday.
“They are even shooting these fleeing people from behind,” Anatolian news agency quoted Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as saying in Beijing. “They are mercilessly shooting them, regardless of whether they are children or women.”
Despite accepting Annan’s plan, Assad was “continuing to kill 60, 70, 80, 100 every day”, Erdogan said.
“What should Turkey do in the event of a border violation? Whatever other countries do according to international politics and international law, naturally Turkey will also do this in the end,” he said without spelling out what action it might take.
Another neighbor, Lebanon, condemned the killing of a local journalist by Syrian soldiers firing over the border on Monday.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the incidents were another indication that Assad was unwilling to meet his commitments to Annan, saying the Syrian leader was simply trying to “stall for time”.
“The world gave Assad a deadline,” said opposition activist Mohammad Abdallah. “But he sees it as an opportunity.”
Annan himself was due to visit refugee camps in Turkey, close to the border, on Tuesday. His deputy was to brief the UN Security Council on the fate of the peace plan later in the day. That meeting in New York is to start at 10 a.m. (1400 GMT).
Failure to end the violence would highlight the diplomatic stalemate pitting Assad’s Western and Arab critics against his friends in Russia, China and Iran. They all call for calm but differ sharply over how to achieve this or any political transition that could satisfy the warring parties in Syria.
Moscow and Beijing both mistrust what they see as a Western drive for UN intervention in member states on the basis of a “right to protect” that was invoked for Libya last year, when NATO airpower helped topple Muammar Gaddafi.
Popular uprisings have also ousted Arab autocrats Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, but the conflict in Syria, at the volatile heart of the Middle East, could be longer and bloodier.
“For the time being the regime feels comfortable with the situation as it is. It wants more time to carry out its own approach to the popular challenge, in a military fashion,” said Peter Harling, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Syria would rely on Russia, which sells it arms and has a naval base on the Syrian coast, as well as on Iran and China to help counter its Arab, Turkish and Western adversaries.
Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri said much depended on how far “the Russians and the Chinese can withstand being identified with this regime which is carrying out such terrible deeds against its own unarmed people, for the most part.” –Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Jonathon Burch and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Turkey, Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Dominic Evans, Douglas Hamilton, Mariam Karouny and Erika Solomon in Beirut and Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman