Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad rally in the southern Lebanese… (Mahmoud Zayyat, AFP/Getty…)
BEIRUT — The United Nations-backed peace plan to end violence in Syria appeared to unravel Sunday as the Syrian government announced it will not withdraw its forces from cities and towns without written guarantees from opposition groups that they will halt attacks and lay down their arms.
Rebels with the Free Syrian Army quickly signaled that they would provide no written guarantees to a government they do not recognize, suggesting that fighting probably will continue past the Thursday deadline for a cease-fire.
In a statement reported by state media, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the government's pledge to U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan to withdraw troops from cities by Tuesday had been misinterpreted and that it was dependent on Syria receiving such written guarantees. Nor did Annan give "guarantees that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will commit to stop funding and arming" opponents of the government, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency.
Annan's spokesman would not comment Sunday on the regime's demands.
Since President Bashar Assad agreed to the peace plan, which calls for a complete cessation of violence on both sides by Thursday, there has been an escalation in his government's brutal attacks across the country, with hundreds of people reported killed in the last week. The regime blamed the atrocities on "armed terrorist groups," as it has since the uprising began last year.
An officer from the Free Syrian Army office in Antakya, Turkey, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the group's leadership has expressed its commitment to the cease-fire in recent days. "We didn't receive such a request to present a written guarantee from the office of joint envoy," he said.
However, he added, "We don't accept any demands from the Syrian government as it is not a legitimate authority."
The rebel group's commander, Riad Assad, told the Associated Press that his group was prepared to abide by the Annan agreement but rejected the government's new demands.
The opposition Syrian National Council released a statement also reaffirming its commitment to the peace plan, including the cessation of military activities by the Syrian Free Army, but "only in the event the Assad regime withdraws its troops and stops the systematic shootings and bombings carried out by his forces."
The collapse of the peace plan, which most in the opposition had predicted, raises the possibility that outsiders will have to intervene in the conflict, rebels said.
On Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that his country "will implement steps" if the violence doesn't end after Tuesday, Turkish media reported. Erdogan did not specify what measures might be taken, but rebels are hoping Turkey would create a buffer zone along its border with Syria and enable weapons to flow to the opposition.
Turkey, as well as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are waiting to allow the peace process to take its course and will be forced to take action in the wake of its inevitable failure, said Ahmad Zidan, nom de guerre of a member of the Supreme Council for the Leadership of the Syrian Revolution, which holds seats on the Syrian National Council.
Zidan said the violence of the last week opened up the possibility that other nations could begin providing weapons to the rebels and impose a no-fly zone over part or all of Syria, as some countries did during last year's conflict in Libya. Many villages in Idlib province reportedly have been attacked by Syrian military helicopters.
"Maybe [Assad] thought that in this killing in these areas, he could suppress the opposition," he said. "But with all the killing and destroying and burning … there are people who were standing on the sidelines who are now with the revolution."
Marrouch is a special correspondent. Times staff in Beirut contributed to this report.