The ceasefire in Syria, intended to bring an end to 13 months of civil conflict, passed its first big test but its future remains in doubt as the United Nations Security Council failed to agree on how to proceed next.
Thousands of Syrians took to the streets in anti-Assad protests following Friday midday prayers across the country, but the majority of demonstrations were reportedly peaceful and the state's security forces responded with greater restraint than has been seen for months.
While security forces fired in the air to disperse a large number of the protests – consistent with prior statements that they lacked the requisite permits to demonstrate – reports indicate that six protesters were killed, a much lower number than usual during the past several months. The regime of Bashar al-Assad insisted Friday night that at least two of the deaths were as a result of protesters' firing at government troops, while Syria's state-run television also said gunmen shot and killed an army officer on route to Hama, in central Syria.
That there were so few fatalities, considering the more than 9,000 believed to have been killed since the uprising began in March last year, is a remarkable development that bodes well for the peace initiative undertaken by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan.
In keeping with Mr. Annan's proposals, the UN Security Council met Friday in New York to vote on a proposed resolution that would deploy hundreds of observers to Syria to verify that the ceasefire is being observed by both sides. Some 30 observers are said to be ready to travel this weekend to Syria to begin the process of verification and confidence-building, with about 200 more observers expected to arrive over the next two weeks.
The resolution hit a serious snag, however, when Russia balked at the wording of the U.S. draft resolution, claiming Moscow was a victim of a kind of bait-and-switch tactic.
"We had this understanding yesterday that [the resolution]should be to the point, pragmatic, specific about putting in boots on the ground an advance party of the monitoring team," Vitaly Churkin, Russia's UN ambassador, said.
Instead, the U.S. version, supported by France, Britain and Germany, went on to say the council condemns "the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities, recalling that those responsible shall be held accountable," with little or no mention of violations by armed opposition units and their consequences.
The Security Council, which met late Friday in an attempt to iron out these differences, reached no conclusion, but is expected to vote on the resolution Saturday.
While getting the ceasefire through its second day is a major accomplishment, there is an enormous amount of work to do in order to achieve a real end to this bitter conflict. The country's determined and largely unarmed opponents of the al-Assad regime have failed to overcome the country's huge military might, but still have not yielded. Neither is there any sign of weakening by a regime that has not hesitated to kill large numbers of civilians.
The next order of business according to the Annan plan is for the military to complete a withdrawal of its forces and its armoured equipment from the country's cities and towns. Such a move was to have been concluded earlier this week but it was only partially carried out.
Following that, the government is to provide access to all parts of the country for the sake of humanitarian relief. At the same time, the armed elements of the popular uprising are to desist from carrying out attacks.
Most important, both sides must move as quickly as possible (lest some large-scale confrontation eliminates all confidence) to the political phase of the Annan plan if there's to be any hope of a viable end to the conflict.
Like many Syrians who want to see an end to the killing and hold no love for the current regime, Mr. Annan has concluded that the most realistic formula for ending the al-Assad regime and bringing in a more democratic model of government is by negotiating a transition, rather than toppling the system.
It is an approach such as this that Russia also favours, one that was responsible for removing Yemen's long-time dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from office earlier this year.