Syria Tells Envoy Will Withdraw Troops from Cities by April 10

Photo Courtesy of UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has informed United Nations envoy Kofi Annan they will begin withdrawing troops from population centers and will finish the pullout by April 10, Annan told the UN Security Council on Monday. The United States is waiting to see if Assad keeps his commitment.

According to a readout of Monday’s Security Council meeting from US Representative to the UN Susan Rice and published in a press release by her office, Annan said he received a letter yesterday from the Syrian foreign minister regarding the pullout plans.

Rice reported that Annan said the letter promised that “the Syrian military will begin immediately, and by April 10th will complete, the cessation of all forward deployment and use of heavy weapons and will complete its withdrawal from population centers.” She noted those are the first three of the six points in Annan’s peace plan for Syria, which was endorsed by the Council in March.

The uprising in Syria began more than one year ago, with the Assad government responding with a brutal crackdown on the opposition that has killed thousands and reportedly included the shelling of civilian areas.

What began primarily as peaceful mass protests by the opposition has turned into increasing violence by opponents of the regime as well, leading to fears Syria could decline into a civil war. Assad is under a variety of international sanctions over the regime’s actions in the conflict.

Annan told the UN Security Council he is still expecting a response soon from the regime regarding the other steps in his proposal, including a daily two-hour ceasefire for humanitarian purposes and a political process that will recognize the legitimate rights of the Syrian people.

Rice said Annan’s deputy, Nassar al-Qidwa, has also had “constructive exchanges” with the opposition calling on them to halt their “operations” within 48 hours of a complete stop to hostilities by the regime. This mutual ceasefire would fulfill the opposition’s half of the initial three steps to Annan’s peace plan.

Annan further reported that preparation has begun on a potential UN peacekeeping monitoring mission. He requested the UN Security Council endorse the April 10 deadline and begin considering a monitoring mission for Syria.

A recent meeting by the so-called “Friends of the Syrian People” group highlighted the need for a deadline for the Assad regime to take the steps in Annan’s peace plan. It appears the Security Council accepted Annan’s timeline, based on Rice’s recap.

“All members of the Security Council expressed full support for Joint Special Envoy Annan and called for his Six-Point Plan to be implemented immediately,” said Rice, “including a political process leading to a transition that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people for democracy, a key point reiterated more than once by the Joint Special Envoy.”

Despite the dramatic headlines that Syria was committing to withdraw troops from cities within 10 days, Rice said the US is reserving judgment until Assad acts on his promise.

“We have seen over the course of the last many months promises made and promises broken,” said Rice. “We have seen commitments to end the violence followed by massive intensification of violence. So the United States, for one, would look at these commitments and say, yet again, that the proof is in the actions, not in the words.”

The regime has committed not to move further into population centers, although Rice said some members of the Security Council said that the Syrian government should not step up their violent crackdown in the days leading up to April 10. Rice expressed concern on that point on behalf of the US.

“Past experience would lead us to be skeptical and to worry that, over the next several days, that rather than the diminution of the violence we might yet again see an escalation of the violence,” the US representative said. “We certainly hope that is not so.”

Rice, noting the restrictions caused by the circumstances in Syria, said that they will be relying on the limited observation techniques available over the last year to determine if Assad is keeping his withdrawal commitment.

She said that, in general, the Security Council members were open to considering a UN monitoring mission if Annan does indeed secure a ceasefire.

(By Joshua Spurlock,, April 2, 2012)