Has Syria really agreed to U.N. cease-fire?

McClatchy NewspapersApril 8, 2012 

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Contradicting reports from the United Nations last week that Syria's government had agreed to a cease fire that would have gone into effect on Thursday, the Syrian government said Sunday it would not withdraw troops from restive areas unless it received "written agreements" from armed rebels dedicated to the ouster of Syrian president Bashar al Assad.

Such an agreement appears unlikely, as the groups of Syrian army defectors and volunteers who took up arms against Assad's government last year are loosely organized and highly localized. Although many have adopted the moniker of the Free Syrian Army, few appear to have any real contact or coordination with the defected military officers who claim to lead the armed resistance from Turkey.

Many of the armed groups have stated that their mission is to protect the peaceful demonstrators who have been calling for an end to Assad's rule since March 2011, though some have increasingly attacked Syrian armor and checkpoints as a preemptive measure as the conflict has increasingly taken on the appearance of guerilla warfare.

Syrians activists say that full withdrawal of troops from Syrian cities, towns and villages would result in massive demonstrations in support of Assad's ouster, a sentiment that appears to have only increased as violence has grown in past months.

"All the people with the revolution who are against Al Assad will go into the streets," said Samer al Husain, an anti-government activist in the besieged central Syrian city of Hama.

Al Husain said there were general strikes in some villages around Hama on Sunday after the deaths of more than 70 FSA fighters and civilians in the nearby village of Latamneh on Saturday. But despite the presence of the Syrian military, demonstrations had not stopped.

"The regime can never control the city; they can control it during the day, but at night the Free Syrian Army attacks. Two days ago there were attacks against many of the army positions," Al Husain said. "There were many martyrs from the Free Syrian Army."

Funerals were held Sunday for victims of what anti-government activists said were massacres on Saturday in villages outside of Hama and villages outside Aleppo, the country's largest city. Activists reported the deaths of more than 100 civilians across the country on Saturday, mostly due to shelling by government troops.

According to SANA, the Syrian government news agency, Syrian foreign minister Jihad Makdessi released a statement explaining that Kofi Annan, the United Nation's special representative to Syria, had misinterpreted Assad's agreement to withdraw troops from Syrian cities Tuesday.

"Makdessi said that Syria has undertaken steps to show good faith concerning Annan's plan and informed him of them, adding that Syria has drawn his attention to the escalation in violence by the armed terrorist groups as it announced agreement to Annan's mission," the SANA website read. "Annan has not offered written guarantees to the Syrian government that the armed groups agreed to stop violence, nor has he offered guarantees that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will commit to stop funding and arming terrorist groups."

So far, however, there have been no reports of widespread foreign support for the rebels, who appear to rely mostly on individual donations, largely from the Syrian diaspora, for support. Light arms are trafficked in through Turkey, Lebanon or Iraq, as the Jordanian government so far appears to have resisted pressure from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to allow weapons to be trafficked across their border. Even with the trafficking of arms into Syria, most of the rebels' weapons still appear to come from army defectors.

"Syria won't repeat what happened during the Arab monitors' mission when it committed to pulling out troops from cities, which the armed groups used for reorganizing and arming their members and took over whole neighborhoods, which prompted the Syrian armed forces to interfere in response to appeals by citizens," the SANA report said, referring to the ill-fated monitoring mission sponsored by the Arab League in December and January.

That effort ended shortly after Saudi Arabia and other countries withdrew their monitors, saying the Syrian government was disingenuous in its promises to stop the violence, a view shared by activists.

"We didn't believe this in the beginning that Assad would withdraw his forces," Al Husain said. "There were demonstrations yesterday and today — we demand a response to the massacre that happened yesterday."

The United Nations said in February that based on statistics provided by activists, more than 9,000 Syrian civilians and military defectors had been killed since March 2011. Syrian activists place the number at more than 10,000, and the government has said the rebels have killed more than 3,000 soldiers, policemen and civilians. It's unclear whether those deaths are in addition to those the anti-government activists reported or whether there's overlap between the numbers.

Due to tight restrictions on the presence of independent and foreign media in Syria, activists rely on a network of citizen journalists to bring to light what is happening there. On Sunday, an activist group posted video of a man who said he had survived a massacre in Dier Balbeh, a neighborhood in Homs, on April 2. Since the beginning of February, Homs, the country's third largest city, has been subjected to heavy shelling and activists say government forces have carried out a number of massacres as the government attempts to dislodge the FSA from the area.

"They lined us up in three lines, about 60 people in each line," said the man, who had been shot three times. "I was in the middle line. They sprayed us with bullets and we all fell on top of one another."

The man said he waited until nightfall before climbing onto a nearby roof, the only survivor of those present in the area when the army and plainclothes government militiamen known locally as "shabiha" entered.

"They came early and took all the bodies and burned them," the man said. "I was the only one who escaped. I hid on the roof of the building for five days."

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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