Saturday, December 16, 2017

Syrian assault dashes hopes

BEIRUT — Syria launched a blistering assault Thursday on the outskirts of its capital, shelling residential areas and deploying snipers on rooftops as international envoy Kofi Annan demanded every fighter lay down arms in time for a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.

The bloodshed undermined already fading hopes that more than a year of violence will end soon, and France accused President Bashar Assad of trying to fool the world by accepting Annan's deadline to pull the army back from population centers by Tuesday.

According to the plan, rebels are supposed to stop fighting 48 hours later, paving the way for talks to end Assad's violent suppression of the uprising against his rule. The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have died.

"Can we be optimistic? I am not. Because I think Bashar Assad is deceiving us," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Paris.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said the crisis was getting worse. Activists have accused the regime of stepping up attacks across the country, and they described Thursday's assault in Douma, about 8 miles outside Damascus, as among the worst around the capital since the uprising began.

Activist groups reported about two dozen dead nationwide on Thursday.

Black smoke billowed from residential areas of Douma amid heavy cracks of gunfire. Douma, which has seen anti-Assad activities since the uprising began, has been subjected to several campaigns by Assad's regime over the past year.

Activists said soldiers occupied Douma's Grand Mosque, one of the largest in the area.

"No one dares to walk in the streets because of the snipers," Syrian activist Omar Hamza told the Associated Press by telephone. "They are like stray dogs attacking sheep."

Douma-based activist Mohammed Saeed reported that troops shelled residential areas Thursday with tanks.

He said troops were using detainees as human shields as they marched into one of the suburb's main squares.

"Soldiers in the Ghanam Square near the vegetable market were walking behind detainees," Saeed said via Skype. "They do that so that members of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army do not open fire at the troops."

Analysts say Syria likely will to try to manipulate the terms of the plan to buy more time, or to argue that the regime cannot lay down its arms when "terrorists" are on the attack.

The regime denies that the uprising is the result of a popular will in Syria, calling it a foreign conspiracy being carried out by terrorists and gangs.

Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha said Syria was ready to cooperate with Annan's plan "as long as it also puts an end to the criminal acts being committed by the armed terrorist groups." The Syrian Foreign Ministry disputed the U.N. death toll of 9,000 since the uprising began, saying 6,143 people — "civilians and military, women and children" — have been killed.

Even as the death toll mounts, there is little prospect for international intervention of the type that helped topple Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

Western leaders have pinned their hopes on Annan's diplomacy, with the United States and its allies unwilling to get deeply involved in another Arab nation in turmoil. Several rounds of sanctions from the United States and the European Union have done little to stop the bloodshed, and Syria's main allies of Russia and China are blocking strong action at the U.N. Security Council.

Still, the regime is under great pressure to comply with Annan's plan in some way, because Russia and China have thrown their support behind it.

In planning for a possible cease-fire, a team led by Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood arrived in Damascus to begin discussing with Syrian authorities "the eventual deployment of this U.N. supervision and monitoring mission," Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.

He said the U.N. is looking for a team of 200-250 soldiers to monitor a cease-fire.

The deployment of U.N. monitors would first have to be authorized by the 15-nation Security Council.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the government has not yet agreed on a timetable for peacekeepers. "But we will discuss these issues in a democratic way," he said, "because we do want to listen to them."

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