The Syrian government has agreed to halt the use of heavy weapons in cities immediately and to withdraw forces from residential areas by April 10, UN special envoy Kofi Annan said on Monday.
With his peace plan for Syria coming under intense criticism, Mr Annan asked the UN Security Council to give it more time and called for the creation of a UN monitoring mission to observe any actual ceasefire, which he hoped would be implemented 48 hours after the government troops withdrew.
Amid reports on Monday of new attacks by the Syrian army, Western governments said they remained sceptical about the Annan plan, but said they would continue to back the former UN secretary-general for the time being.
“We have seen over the last few months promises made and promises broken,” said Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN. Members of the Council were willing to look at the proposal for a monitoring mission, she said, but several were concerned that the Syrian government would use the next week to escalate, not scale back attacks on rebel groups. “So the United States, for one, would look at these commitments and say, yet again, the proof is the actions, not in the words,” she said.
Mr Annan’s plan for Syria was first outlined two weeks ago and calls for Syrian government troops to stop moving towards cities, for an end to heavy shelling and for troops to begin withdrawing. Under pressure over the open-ended nature of the plan, he used a closed door briefing at the UN Security Council on Monday to set an April 10 deadline for implementation to begin.
The announcement came as Syrian troops hunted down activists and destroyed their homes in the country’s rebellious areas, according to opposition groups. Activists said fierce clashes had taken place in the central region of Homs, after which rebels took control of the national hospital in the Jouret al-Shayah district.
After previous UN resolutions on ending the year-long violence in Syria werevetoed by Russia and China, Mr Annan was appointed as a joint UN-Arab League envoy to broker a diplomatic solution.
However the plan, which Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, has agreed to, has come under international criticism in recent days as it became clear the Syrian authorities were continuing their military campaign against rebel groups.
The growing scepticism about the plan was reflected at a weekend meeting in Istanbul of the “Friends of Syria” group, where the US and other countries signalled they could support the arming of Syrian rebel groups amid signs of continuing violence.
Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, said that the US and other countries would take action to prevent Mr Assad from completely suppressing the opposition, which is being grouped together under the banner of the Syrian National Congress.
“We are going to be supporting the SNC with direct assistance, in areas such as communications,” Mrs Clinton said on Sunday. “Others are going to be supporting fighters associated with the SNC.”
Saudi and Qatari officials at the meeting reaffirmed their intention to supply rebel forces directly within Syria, a position the US, the UK and Turkey said that they welcomed.
Although Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, did not raise any objections to the April 10 deadline, Moscow indicated that it could oppose efforts to put more international pressure on the Assad regime.
“Ultimatums and artificial deadlines rarely help the matter,” Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was quoted as saying by the Interfax agency. “We are trying to be friends for all Syrians and not only for one part of the Syrian nation.” Russia and China did not attend the Friends of Syria meeting.