Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa, left, consults… (Khaled Elfiqi, European…)
Reporting from Beirut — Under intense pressure from Arab states, Syria has signed a pact to pull its armed forces from the streets, release political prisoners and engage with opposition groups after seven months of unrest that has ravaged the strategically situated nation and unsettled the entire region.
On the surface, the move appears to be a major concession from an increasingly isolated President Bashar Assad, who has been the target of international condemnation and sanctions.
But some of Assad's opponents question whether the agreement signals a true change in attitude to the uprising, or is simply an effort to buy time for his regime.
The deal, brokered by the Arab League, was announced late Wednesday in Cairo after talks between ministers from Syria and other Arab nations. The Syrian government's crackdown has angered fellow Arab nations, many of which face their own internal pressure for reform.
"We are happy to have reached this agreement, and we will be even happier when it is implemented immediately," said Qatar's foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al Thani.
The Qatari official read a statement outlining the main points, including an end to violence and a plan for a "national dialogue" in Syria within two weeks.
It was uncertain which groups in Syria's disparate and sometimes fractious opposition would be invited to join any discussions. Several major factions have demanded Assad's ouster, a demand the government seems certain to reject.
The deal makes no mention of an exit by Assad, who became president in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez Assad.
A leading Syrian activist, Razan Zeitouna, said via email from Damascus, the Syrian capital, that she had "no illusion" that the deal would mean an end to the violence and that it pointed to Assad's weakened status.
"It's an evidence of the difficult situation of the Syrian regime," said Zeitouna, a human rights lawyer.
Huge demonstrations are expected in coming days, she said.
Another activist in Syria who asked not to be named for safety reasons said the agreement represented "significant progress" because it proved the "lie" of the regime's frequent assertion that "armed groups" and "terrorists" were behind the violence.
The deal came as activists said at least 24 people were killed Wednesday in political violence in Syria. Among them, activists said, were 11 workers found slain in a factory near the volatile city of Homs. The violence in Syria has claimed the lives of at least 3,000 people, mostly civilians, since mid-March, according to the United Nations.
The Obama administration, which reiterated its call for Assad to step down, reacted cautiously to news of the deal, saying it would need to see evidence that Assad intends to follow through on promises because he has not done so in the past.
"Let's see what they actually do," said Victoria Nuland, the State Department's chief spokeswoman. "There is a risk here that they are trying to string out diplomacy, that they are trying to offer their own people half steps, or quarter measures, rather than taking the real steps."
Some of Assad's critics suggested that the agreement was an attempt to stall. The regime has been accused of promoting phony "reforms" designed to maintain its power. Although Assad has vowed to establish a new constitution, critics believe it would maintain power in the hands of his Baath Party.
Yet the continuing violence has caused a host of problems for the government. It has undermined its ability to sustain its patronage of militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as creating a deep rupture in relations with neighboring regional powerhouse Turkey, a onetime Assad ally whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has predicted victory for Syria's "glorious resistance."
As part of Wednesday's deal, Syria agreed to provide access to the interior of the country for Arab League officials and journalists, whose efforts to report in Syria have been severely restricted since protests inspired by the "Arab Spring" erupted in mid-March.
The violent demise of Libya's Moammar Kadafi last month may have played a part in Assad's calculation. His death seemed to revitalize Syria's protest movement and evoked the specter of some kind of foreign intervention in Syria, despite disavowals from Washington and elsewhere of any intent to intervene.
In announcing the deal, the Syrian government stated that fellow Arab leaders supported "the absolute rejection of foreign interference or any option from outside Syria's borders."
The Syrian government confirmed acceptance of the deal, including "stopping all acts of violence from any source" against Syrian citizens, and "clearing the cities and residential areas" of an armed presence, reported SANA, the official news agency.
Assad has faced a dwindling number of options as international condemnation of his crackdown grew.