Syria vows to obey dawn truce deadline

Regime promises "to cease all military fighting throughout Syrian territory," as Assad's forces kill 12.

Damage rubble in the old city of Homs_370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Damage rubble in the old city of Homs_370
(photo credit: Reuters)
BEIRUT - Syria promised to observe a UN-backed ceasefire starting on Thursday, but its forces kept up fierce attacks on opposition neighborhoods in the hours before the deadline.
A Syrian defense ministry source quoted on state television on Wednesday said the army would halt operations on Thursday morning, but would confront "any assault" by armed groups.
UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said the Syrian government had also assured him it would stop fighting by the dawn deadline he has set for a cessation of hostilities.
It agreed "to cease all military fighting throughout Syrian territory as of 6 a.m. Thursday, while reserving the right to respond proportionately to any attacks carried out by armed terrorist groups against civilians, government forces or public and private property", Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in a statement, quoting a letter from the Syrian Foreign Ministry.
Russia, a powerful defender of President Bashar Assad against Western and Arab pressure, said the rebels battling to oust him must honor the ceasefire too.
Insurgents, who lack a clearly coordinated command structure, have previously said they will stop shooting if Syrian forces pull back and observe the truce as promised. But few in the Syrian opposition believe Assad has any intention of complying with Annan's plan to end 13 months of bloodshed.
At least 12 people were killed on Wednesday, activists said.
Western powers, too, have scorned Assad's truce pledges, but so far lack an effective policy to curb the bloodshed, given their own aversion to military intervention and the resistance of Russia and China to any UN Security Council action.
"Far from fulfilling their commitment, the regime has cynically exploited the window of diplomatic negotiations to crack down even harder on its own people," British Prime Minister David Cameron said during a visit to Indonesia.
Role of the international community
UN action would need the support of Russia and China, which have blocked previous Security Council draft resolutions on Syria, citing concerns about a Libya-style intervention that would breach Syrian sovereignty.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday to seek a policy change from one of Assad's few foreign friends.
"We will have another go at trying to persuade the Russians that the situation is deteriorating and the likelihood of regional conflict and civil war is increasing," she said.
China expressed "deep worries" about the violence in Syria and called for all sides to respect a ceasefire.
Turkey, hosting nearly 25,000 Syrian refugees, said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would discuss the Syria crisis with counterparts from the Group of Eight major nations on Wednesday evening, via a video conference call.
Ankara has urged the Security Council to adopt a resolution that would protect the Syrian people, saying Damascus had not kept its troop withdrawal pledge and had increased the violence.
Annan said his plan, endorsed by the Council, must be given a chance to work.
"If everyone respects it, I think by 6 in the morning on Thursday we shall see improved conditions on the ground," he said in Tehran, where he was asking Syria's staunchest regional ally to support his efforts.
Click for full JPost coverageClick for full JPost coverage
But the Syrian military has stayed on the offensive, pursuing assaults on several anti-Assad strongholds, instead of pulling back, as Annan's plan required them to do on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, an activist in the city of Hama said at least 20 armored vehicles had moved into two central neighborhoods, while an opposition supporter in Rastan, between Hama and Homs, said heavy shelling of the town began after the announcement by the Syrian government that it would respect the ceasefire.
The SOHR said two people were killed in army raids in Deir al-Zor in the Euphrates river valley far to the east. Artillery shelled the Jebel Akrad area in the coastal province of Latakia.
In Deraa, cradle of the revolt against four decades of Assad family rule, activists said troops backed by armored vehicles had flooded the city and were making house-to-house raids.
Kofi Annan speaks in Tehran
Annan, at a news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, urged Iran to help resolve the violence and warned of "unimaginable consequences" if it worsened further.
Salehi said Syrians should be able to have free elections contested by political parties, but reiterated Iran's opposition to any outside interference in Syria's affairs and made clear the Islamic Republic wanted Assad to stay in charge.
"The opportunity must be given to the Syrian government to make changes, under the leadership of Bashar Assad," he said.
Iran has unstintingly backed Syria, the only Arab nation to support Iran in its 1980-88 war with Iraq and the conduit for Iranian arms to Lebanon's Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah movement.
Syria, where Assad's Shi'ite-rooted Alawite minority dominates a Sunni Muslim majority, has become an arena for a sectarian-tinged regional contest between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Arab rivals aligned with the West and led by Saudi Arabia.
Assad's forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, according to a UN estimate. Damascus says rebels have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and security personnel.