Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to have restrained his security forces, but not completely silenced their guns. Activists reported several deaths on Friday, as well as scattered gunfire, but for the most part the two-day-old ceasefire brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan seems to be holding. The question is, for how long?
In a 13-month conflict that has routinely notched up triple-digit daily death tolls, the drop in predominantly regime-sponsored violence has been welcomed by all sides. There remains, however, widespread skepticism internationally, regionally and locally from Syrian opposition members that Assad will stick with it. After all, can the Syrian president afford to effectively cede control of the streets to his opponents, thousands of whom participated in large, boisterous protests across the country on Friday in a show of defiance?
The fact is, the Syrian opposition movement, both armed and political, will not stop, nor will it deal with an authority it no longer recognizes as legitimate. Recent government offers of amnesty for "armed persons whose hands weren't tainted by the blood of the Syrians" were largely rejected although the state news agency reported that 160 men turned themselves and their weapons in. There's no going back for most, so why would Assad give his opponents an opportunity to rejuvenate the peaceful element of their movement? Some say it's so he can draw them out, identify them and hunt them down.
Less cynical interpretations are that the Syrian leader, under immense pressure from his Russian and Chinese allies who backed Annan's six-point peace plan, must give the appearance of complying with international demands. But then what? A ceasefire is only one of the conditions outlined in Annan's initiative. The withdrawal of tanks and troops from Syrian cities and towns is another, which thus far does not appear to have been implemented. He must also release political prisoners, allow humanitarian aid in opposition strongholds, permit peaceful protests, grant journalists permission to enter the closed-off country, and start a genuine political dialogue with his opponents. In effect, begin the march toward dissolving his own regime.
Still, if the Annan initiative fails, it won't be solely because of Assad's non-compliance. Most elements of the Syrian opposition have refused dialogue with Assad, unless the negotiations are focused on his immediate departure from office. Has the Syrian president reached the point where he is prepared to acknowledge the effective end of his rule and is working on some sort of exit plan? That seems unlikely, so far.
For now though, the Annan deal, is what's on the table. It is not a smorgasbord, as Annan and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said, and while Assad cannot simply pick and choose which elements he will implement (as he did with an earlier Arab League proposal), nor can the Syrian opposition. In other words, it cannot simply ignore the demand for dialogue.