Beleaguered Syrian cities, including Idlib, Homs, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Aleppo and Damascus, have enjoyed about ten hours of relative quiet so far on Thursday as President Bashar al-Assad’s gunmen silenced their weapons.
But concern is rising that both sides are using the lull to restock and resupply to fight more fiercely within days or even hours. The ceasefire is already starting to look like an opportunity for all sides in the emerging proxy civil war to lick their wounds and regroup.
The humanitarian need to bring relief to the people is a top priority but the UN peace broker Kofi Annan is being forced to tread softly. He said today Syrians were experiencing a rare moment of calm in the fighting that has killed some 9,00 people by UN estimates and over 11,000 people according to local activists. But UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon admitted in Geneva that the world looked on with skepticism since al-Assad has broken promises several times.
So far, very little has happened to get humanitarian workers, including the International Red Cross, to enter the afflicted cities with succor. In turn, the UN Security Council is still struggling over sending perhaps 30 unarmed UN observers inside Syria to monitor the ceasefire, which al-Assad has said is conditional on the anti-government fighters laying down their weapons. The army will respond with force if its soldiers are attacked, although they remain provocatively in various cities complete with tanks, heavy weapons and snipers.
The civil war by proxy is ranging Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the US and Europe, against Iran and its friends, including Syria, Hezbollah and Russia. Since the Saudis and their Muslim allies are Sunnis, the war looks increasingly like a Sunni attempt to snuff out a grab for power by Shiite Iran. The religious undertones cannot be discounted since al-Assad belongs to a Shiite sect called the Alawis.
But the core of this proxy war lies in the Saudi desire to maintain hegemony over the Gulf region by disallowing Iran to profit from the power vacuum in Iraq. This concern is justified since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a friend of Iran.
The Bashar al-Assad regime fears that Saudi Arabia and its allies will use the pause to supply arms to anti-government fighters, in particular the Free Syrian Army made up of defectors from the regular army. Even if arms do not flood in, the supply of communication equipment from the US could help the fighters to cause serious harm to regular soldiers. The Arab League has earmarked $100 million to arm and support the Free Syrian Army though it has not yet taken action.
The defectors fear that the regular army will receive new lighter and stealthier weapons from Russia to fight a smarter war against them through more effective tracking and smart strikes to kill them. So far, the Syrian army is not well equipped to fight a domestic rebellion or civil war since its training and weapons have been focused against Israel. Now, after a more than a year of blood-letting, it would like to fight with stealth, targeted strikes and smart weapons like Israel does against enemies in the Gaza strip and West bank.
American ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, continued her tough talk. “They (Syrian soldiers) need to be pulled back and forces returned with their equipment to barracks,” she insisted. But US bark looks louder than its bite at this time. Neither Anan nor Rice can do more than make condemnations and threats. Because of opposition from Russia and China, there is no international consensus on deposing al-Assad or punishing him through military intervention.