Four days into the United Nations-mandated ceasefire, the conflict in Syria continues, albeit at a smaller scale.
The Security Council, with Russian support, hopes to ensure that envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan is being implemented seriously by all of the parties on the ground. On Saturday, it passed a resolution to send a preliminary team of thirty monitors to observe compliance.
Yet despite the council’s newfound unity, nothing in Syria is guaranteed. The civilian casualty toll over the past few days was low when compared to last week’s violence but the fact remains that no one knows for sure what President Bashar al-Assad and his military advisors are thinking behind closed doors.
Both the Syrian government and the Free Syrian Army, the main armed group resisting the regime’s efforts to consolidate control, have all said the right things when asked about Annan’s plan. Syrian ambassador Bashar Jaafari has told the council and news media that the Assad regime is fully committed to the plan’s success. Rebel commanders have uttered similar rhetoric, reiterating their policy of not shooting unless the Syrian government renews its offensive.
Their words need to be taken with a grain of salt. Bashar al-Assad has a terrible track record of misleading Arab League and United Nations diplomats and sidestepping his promises. The restraint of the militant fighters is anything but assured. Without a command and control system, any defector can break the truce agreement in its entirety by disregarding the Free Syrian Army leadership and taking matters into their own hands.
The observer team deployed inside Syria to monitor the Annan proposal is a departure from the United Nations’ previous reluctance to send its own people into conflict zones. The monitoring mission is not a strong one however. The observers will be unarmed, have a difficult time traveling the entire country, and that is assuming that the regime allows them to.
The cessation of major hostilities between the government and the opposition is understandably receiving the most attention. But the Security Council must not forget that the Annan plan is a multidimensional one with the ultimate goal of getting both sides to negotiate. There is no evidence to date that Assad has complied with any other point in the Annan agreement. Syrian troops continue to man checkpoints in major cities while heavy artillery remains positioned either inside neighborhoods or on the fringes of towns in preparation for another offensive.
The tens of thousands of prisoners taken by the authorities have not been released either, nor has there been a noticeable influx of foreign and Syrian journalists into the most damaged areas.
As was demonstrated by last Friday’s demonstrations across the country, the Syrian army will still not allow civilians to protest against in large groups. Five demonstrators were killed on Saturday, others were beaten on Friday.
This is an obvious calculation. The larger the group, the more likely the regime will have to confront a change in momentum toward the demonstrators.
The violence is undeniably lower and the shelling of neighborhoods that was previously the norm has either lessened or stopped entirely. But the ceasefire, which could break with a single incident, is only part of the package. For the Security Council, there is still work to be done.