BEIRUT (AP) — Artillery shatters homes in opposition areas. Regime tanks roll though city centers. Civilians dig graves for dozens of corpses, scrawling their names on headstones with black markers.
Six days on, this is the cease-fire in Syria.
But U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and others stand by the U.N.-negotiated truce, saying the violence is sporadic and that President Bashar Assad’s regime has lessened its assaults. Even with dozens reported dead over the past two days, the world powers struggling to stop Syria’s bloodshed are reluctant to declare the cease-fire dead.
“That process needs to play itself out before we judge it a success or a failure,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Ban, speaking in Luxembourg, said there has been “sporadic” violence taking place, but “we think that the overall cessation of violence has been generally observed.”
In somewhat more critical comments of the Syrian regime, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad’s forces have complied with the cease-fire “in the most grudging way possible” and “not yet met all of its terms.”
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said “the situation is not improving. The violence is continuing, the bombardments, particularly in Homs, seem to be increasing, and the conditions that one would want and need to see for the effective deployment of the balance of the monitors are not at present in place.”
Nevertheless, Rice called the U.N. plan “perhaps the best and potentially the last best effort to resolve the situation through peaceful diplomatic means.”
“It may be impossible to do so,” Rice acknowledged. “It may be that the government’s logic is that it will continue the use of violence despite its repeated commitments as long as it can get away with it.”
But a lack of alternatives exist for calming Syria’s 13-month-old crisis. The U.N. said recently that more than 9,000 people have been killed in the conflict since March 2011, and the death toll has risen daily since then.
The U.N. has ruled out the type of military action that helped oust Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and the U.S. and its allies balk at intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil. Several rounds of international sanctions have done little to slow the bloodshed, even though France said Tuesday that the measures have eroded Syria’s foreign currency reserves by half.
The opposition is weak and divided, wracked by infighting and power struggles. The rebels are low on money and guns, and a plan by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to funnel millions of dollars a month to rebels known as the Free Syrian Army has gone nowhere. Qatar’s prime minister said Tuesday that his country is not arming the rebels.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said cease-fires in Middle East conflicts are rarely perfect.
“Usually these things are violated by the stronger side because they see an advantage and they can take more land, and right now the opposition is weak,” he said.
Also, Assad can violate the cease-fire terms because he knows the international community won’t intervene further.
“The international community is frightened,” Landis said. “Assad has laid down the gauntlet. He said, ‘I’m not going to leave, I’m going to burn the country down,’ and the world isn’t sure it wants to go down that road.”
Kofi Annan, a joint emissary for the U.N. and the Arab League, brokered the cease-fire that began Thursday.
The truce is part of a plan to launch talks between Assad’s regime and the opposition. The plan has the backing of Assad’s allies, including Russia, and even with setbacks it is seen as the only way forward.
Under the plan, Assad was supposed to withdraw his troops from populated areas and both sides were to lay down their guns — neither of which has happened. The cease-fire is to allow for a dialogue to end the crisis.
Some opposition leaders have not agreed to the plan, insisting that Assad has killed too many people to be part of the conflict’s solution.
“If he (Assad) makes corresponding statements and proves his innocence before the Syrian and international courts, we will be prepared in this case for a dialogue with him,” said Abdul-Aziz al-Kheir, spokesman for National Coordination Body for Democratic Change.
Both sides have accused the other of violations from the start, but government shelling attacks on rebellious areas have returned.
On Tuesday, anti-regime activists reported shells raining on cities and towns in the country’s north, center and south as well as raids to hunt for activists elsewhere.
Activist Fadi al-Yassin in the northern Idlib province said government shelling around the regional capital had killed dozens of people in recent days, many of whose bodies were collected Tuesday.
“It was random shelling,” he said via Skype. “They were targeting any area where they thought there were Free Army fighters or army defectors.”
An amateur video posted online Tuesday showed what appeared to be more than 20 recent graves, each hastily marked by a flat headstone with a name scrawled on it in black marker. Women and children looked on as men with shovels filled a grave.
Activist claims and videos could not be independently verified. The Syrian government rarely comments on specific incidents and has barred most media from working in the country.
For its part, the Syrian government said five security offices were killed in attacks in Aleppo and Daraa, as well as in clashes with rebels in Idlib.
World leaders have acknowledged that the truce is fragile.
Ban suggested a U.N. observer mission of 250 members, as envisioned under Annan’s plan, may not be big enough “considering the current situation and considering the vastness of the country.”
Kieran Dwyer, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping department, said the observers “completed their first patrols today in Daraa.”
“Discussions with Syrian authorities are continuing on ground rules for how they’ll operate, but its not stopping them from moving around and doing the observation work the Security Council has authorized them to do,” Dwyer said.
The Security Council is to approve the terms of the mission later this week, after talks between Ban and Syrian authorities. Ban also said he has asked the European Union to provide planes and helicopters for the observers.
A Security Council diplomat said council members should be able to judge by the end of the week whether Syria is complying with the requirements of the resolution — not only the cease-fire, but the operational requirements for the observer force, especially freedom of movement.
If the cease-fire doesn’t hold, the larger mission won’t go ahead, the diplomat said.
A six-member advance team of U.N. monitors arrived in Damascus over the weekend. On Tuesday they traveled to Daraa province, where the uprising began 13 months ago.
There were no details about the trip, and U.N. officials said the team was still planning where to go and whom to meet.
A previous Arab League observer mission was hampered by regime restrictions on movement, and Ban has demanded his monitors be given free access. The head of the observer team, Col. Ahmed Himiche, suggested it would take time to get to the hardest-hit areas.
Despite predictions by the Obama administration and others that the Syrian regime’s days are numbered, Assad still commands a strong army that is unlikely to turn on him.
Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, said that while Annan’s plan is unlikely to succeed in its entirety, it could press the sides to at least lessen their attacks while providing reprieve for embattled civilians.
“It could play a positive role if the number of dead is reduced,” he said. “But the only way it can work is if it causes greater movement toward a wider solution.”