Syrian government agrees to temporary cease-fire

Syria
BEIRUT — Responding to international peace efforts, Syria said Thursday its forces would observe a cease-fire from Friday to Monday, the period of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

In an early evening bulletin, the official state news service and state-run television reported that the "general command" of the armed forces announced a “cease of military operations” for four days as of Friday. Despite the truce,  the  military reserves the right to respond to attacks or counter any efforts to reinforce or resupply rebels from neighboring nations, state TV said.  Further details were not immediately available.

The cease-fire could provide a glimmer of hope in a bloody, 19-month conflict that has  caused vast devastation and loss of life and threatens to destabilize much of the Middle East. But many observers regard the chances of a wider peace in Syria -- or even four days without some violence -- as slim.

Rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad have generally reacted warily to the cease-fire initiative. The government calls the rebels "terrorists" and "mercenaries" and says it will not negotiate with armed groups. Rebels say Assad must step down before any peace talks begin.

Syria’s acceptance of the cease-fire plan was widely anticipated after intensive efforts by Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat who is serving as special peace envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League. Brahimi has been pushing for a truce that, he said, could potentially expand into a broader effort to bring peace to Syria. He met last weekend with  Assad in Damascus.

A lack of central command among the fragmented rebel forces would seem to make it difficult for any kind of cease-fire to function throughout the nation.

The disparate groups of rebels fighting to oust Assad have had a mixed reaction to the proposed truce. Some have backed the plan, but said the government must not use a pause in fighting to re-arm and re-supply troops. Others have dismissed the cease-fire idea as a ploy by Assad.

The truce was first announced by Brahimi in Cairo on Wednesday.

Officials  from Russia, a key Assad ally, had said they expected that Syria would agree to the truce, encouragement that probably helped convince Damascus to go along with the proposal. Moscow has used its position as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to head off any international action against the beleaguered Syrian government.

The first test of the cease-fire will likely come as early as Friday, the first day of the Muslim holiday and traditional day of prayer. It is also a day when demonstrators have traditionally taken to the streets of Syria to protest against Assad.

It remains to be seen whether the government will cease its artillery and aerial attacks, which have bludgeoned rebel-held positions throughout the nation. Fierce battles have been ongoing in many areas, including in the northern city of Aleppo, the nation’s commercial center; the central city of Homs, Syria’s third-most populous; and around Damascus, the capital. Fighting has also raged in many small towns and rural areas.

Rebels exert control over considerable swaths of Syrian territory, though never out of the reach of government warplanes and attack helicopters. Rebels also control a number of international border crossings with neighboring Turkey.

There are no international monitors in Syria who could observe the cease-fire. Nor is the truce linked to any broader peace plan.

A cease-fire in April, brokered by the former peace envoy Kofi Annan, fell apart amid renewed fighting. That truce was part of a broader blueprint that included a U.N. monitoring force deployed to Syria and a six-point peace plan, which, among other things, called on Assad to withdraw his forces and armor from populated areas. But government troops never did so.

Each side blamed the other for the collapse of the April cease-fire. A frustrated Annan resigned the post in August, labeling  his job “mission impossible” and saying that Assad must step down for any kind of peace to take hold.

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 --Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: A Free Syrian Army fighter watches over an enemy position as the rebel fighters carry out a military operation Wednesday at the Moaskar front line in Aleppo. Credit: Narciso Contreras / Associated Press

 
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