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Friday, 13 April 2012

13 April 2012

Suppose you are an opposition activist in Syria. You live in Hama or Homs, Idlib or Deraa, one of the cities that has been under relentless attack by government forces for months.

You have seen friends and relatives killed. Neighbours have vanished; some into jail, others have fled, across the border into Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon, anywhere out of range of Bashar al-Assad's tanks, artillery, and rooftop snipers.

Yesterday morning, you woke up and it was quiet. Perhaps you heard the occasional chatter of an automatic weapon, the thump of an artillery shell or a mortar. Nevertheless, it was -- relatively -- quiet. The ceasefire seemed to be real. The guns were silent.

But then you remembered. For more than a year, you have risked life and limb for a single, simple cause: Assad must go. You were ready to die for that cause, because you hated him, and his regime, so much.

Yet when the guns fell silent yesterday morning, Bashar al-Assad was still president. His tanks and trucks still roamed the streets. The eyes and ears of his secret police, the mukhabarat, were still everywhere. The snipers, probably, were still on the rooftops.

So today, tomorrow, the next day, what will you do? How will you continue your fight without firing a gun? Yes, the Annan peace plan says a "Syrian-led political process" must follow the ceasefire. But you don't want a "process"; you want victory.

You want to see Assad gone -- exiled like ex-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia; or jailed like ex-President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt; or dead, like Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Yes, of course, a ceasefire is a good start -- it means fewer innocent people will die -- but it is only a start.

I am writing this early on Friday morning. Within a couple of hours, tens of thousands of Syrians will flock to the mosques for Friday prayers. Among them will be thousands of opposition supporters and activists. And I suspect they will want to show the world that their fight is far from over.

After all, it's only a couple of weeks since the Gulf states promised to pay the salaries of Syrian rebel fighters. In Riyadh and Doha, they too are committed to seeing the downfall of the Assad dynasty. What better way to weaken the influence of feared Iran than to defeat its main Arab ally?

In other words, even if as you read these words the ceasefire is still holding, the fight goes on. And remember, the ceasefire was only one element in the Annan plan.
Have Syrian government forces withdrawn from population centres (paragraph 2)? Not yet.

Have they ensured the timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting (paragraph 3)? No.

Have they intensified the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons; ensured freedom of movement for journalists; respected freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully (paragraphs 4, 5 and 6)? Er, no.

It's not only journalists and analysts -- paid sceptics -- who doubt whether this ceasefire represents a real fresh start for Syria. Even the notoriously cautious UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, who rarely utters a critical remark if he can help it, commented yesterday that "the world is watching … with sceptical eyes since many promises previously made by the government of Syria had not been kept."

It's possible that, behind the scenes, President Assad's allies in Moscow and Beijing have read him the riot act. In public, both have urged him to implement the Annan plan in its entirety. He may well have been warned that the patience of Russian and Chinese leaders is not infinite -- as one former pro-Putin MP told me a couple of nights ago: "Moscow does not want to be seen always to be backing dictators."

So yes, the Syrian crisis may be entering a new phase (if, that is, the ceasefire hasn't already collapsed by the time you read these words).

But it can't be over, because the root cause of the violence remains: Bashar al-Assad is determined to stay in office, and millions of his fellow countrymen are equally determined to see him go.

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