UN envoy Kofi Annan's plan to bring an end to the bloody violence that has rocked Syria for more than a year has received the backing of the Syrian government. But critics of the regime were quick to doubt that Syria's commitment to peace is genuine.
Annan's six-point plan calls for Syria to commit to a ceasefire, an immediate stop to the use of heavy weapons in populated areas, a daily two-hour halt to fighting to allow for the evacuation of injured and the delivery of aid, and Syrian-led talks aimed at finding a political solution.
Annan calls Syria's acceptance an important first step, which now needs to be immediately implemented, his spokesman said.
News of the Syrian government's backing came as the UN boosted its civilian casualty estimate in the crackdown.
"Violence on the ground has continued unabated, resulting in scores of people killed and injured," Robert Serry, the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process, told the UN Security Council. "Credible estimates put the total death toll since the beginning of the uprising one year ago to more than 9,000."
The new estimate tops the previous one of more than 8,000 deaths.
China offers support
Annan met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing on Tuesday. He later told reporters that his Syrian peace plan had received a "positive" response from China.
"We've had very good discussions about the situation in Syria, and they have offered me their full support," Annan said after the meeting with Wen. Annan said Russia had signalled similar support for the peace plan on the weekend.
Wen said work on a solution to the crisis is at a "critical juncture," adding that China backed Annan's mediation efforts.
The support from China and Russia may have been important in persuading Syria to accept the plan. China and Russia have twice vetoed proposed UN sanctions over Assad's crackdown.
Annan called Syria's acceptance "an important initial step that could bring an end to the violence and the bloodshed, provide aid to the suffering, and create an environment conducive to a political dialogue that would fulfill the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in a statement.
Annan "stressed that implementation will be key, not only for the Syrian people, who are caught in the middle of this tragedy, but also for the region and the international community as a whole," Fawzi said.
Is the plan a step toward peace? Take our poll.
A spokesman for Canada's foreign affairs minister, John Baird, said the Assad regime will be judged on its actions rather than its words.
"We've seen his regime delay and obfuscate before while continuing to kill innocent civilians," said Joseph Lavoie in a statement. "Canada stands with the Syrian people in their efforts to secure freedom and democracy, and looks forward to a new Syria that respects the rights of all of its people, and lives in peace with its neighbours."
The former Canadian ambassador to the UN, Paul Heinbecker, told CBC News the plan's acceptance must be seen as progress, but said the sincerity of the Syrian government is certainly in doubt.
"If you follow this plan to [its] conclusion, whether that will allow the Assad regime to remain in power is debatable at least, and they are not in the business of giving up power — or at least they haven't been so far."
A spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council was similarly skeptical, saying the Assad regime has accepted other peace initiatives, but the violence hasn't stopped.
"We are not sure if it's political manoeuvring or a sincere act," said Louay Safi during an opposition conference Tuesday in Turkey. "We have no trust in the current regime. We have to see that they have stopped killing civilians."
Rami Jarah, another opposition member, said Assad was just trying to stall for time. "The Syrian government is going to depend on propaganda as it has over the past few months," he said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called for the plan's immediate implementation, saying it "would represent a significant first step toward bringing an end to the violence and the bloodshed, but only if it is genuinely and seriously meant."
Even as world leaders welcomed news of the peace plan's acceptance, there were conflicting reports about whether Syrian troops physically crossed the border into Lebanon.
Two Lebanese security officials told the Associated Press that no Syrian soldiers had entered Lebanon. "There is no Syrian military presence on the Lebanese side of the border," a military official said. But two witnesses told the news agency they saw dozens of Syrian troops cross the border, chasing Syrian rebels.
This weekend, 60 countries will attend a "Friends of the Syrian People" conference in Istanbul. Many Western countries have said Assad must step down.
The conference in Istanbul comes as Turkey edges closer to setting up a buffer zone in Syria to protect civilians. Turkish officials have long been hesitant about the idea, but now say a surge of refugees from Syria might compel Turkey, preferably with international backing, to establish a buffer zone on Syrian soil to guarantee the security of its own southern border as well as the welfare of civilians fleeing violence.
Chinese analysts said Beijing was unlikely to support the buffer zone proposal, especially if the possibility of Western military action against Syria is not ruled out.
Under the essential elements of Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, Syria commits:
- To work with Annan "in an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people."
- To stop fighting and to immediately stop troop movements and its use of heavy weapons in populated areas. As these actions are being taken, Syria should work with Annan to end all violence under UN supervision. Annan will seek similar commitments from the opposition to stop all fighting.
- To a daily two-hour "humanitarian pause" to deliver aid and evacuate the injured.
- To intensify "the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons" and provide a list of all places where such people are being held.
- To ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists "and a nondiscriminatory visa policy for them."
- To "respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed."