Until now, world capitals have only squabbled over the issue, or dodged it. Kofi Annan, the main architect of the plan on behalf of the United Nations and the Arab League, said starkly this week as the deadline neared, “I think the plan is very much alive, and if you want to take it off the table, what would you replace it with?”
In some ways, the Annan plan needs to fail — which appears most likely — to persuade Russia and China not to wield their veto on Syria resolutions as they have twice previously, diplomats and analysts said. China is basically considered to be following Russia’s lead. “They have been pushing and pushing and pushing for Annan and for mild action at the council, and it didn’t work,” said a United Nations Security Council diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity under his ministry’s guidelines.
Mr. Annan was in Tehran on Wednesday, lobbying Syria’s other main patron to back his initiative. He announced that he had received a letter from the Syrian Foreign Ministry saying the government would respect the cease-fire, which took effect at 6 a.m. local time. But the letter also said the government reserved “the right to respond proportionately to any attacks carried out by armed terrorist groups against civilians, government forces or public and private property.”
It is possible that the guns will fall silent, for a time. But the government statement carved out a large enough caveat for tank battalions to drive through. And although the Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella group, and the Free Syrian Army — both based in Turkey — committed to the plan, it is unclear whether they control every group of fighters.
Activists reported no fighting across the country after the deadline for the cease-fire went into effect.
Abu Rami, an activist reached via Skype in the embattled city of Homs, said there had been no gunfire, shelling or other attacks for several hours. “That followed a very bloody night, but the early morning has been very quiet,” he said, noting that there is often a lull around dawn, so more time was needed to see if it really was a cease-fire. The security forces’ checkpoints still dotted the city and government soldiers were still fully deployed, he said. But it will probably be impossible to ascertain with any confidence whether a cease-fire actually takes hold, as there has been no agreement between the Syrian government and Mr. Annan’s team about deploying international monitors. The Syrians have simultaneously demanded their immediate deployment and undermined the effort to negotiate terms, Security Council diplomats said.
Critics of Syria predicted failure from the outset, accusing Mr. Assad of exploiting serial peace initiatives — first by allies he has since alienated, then by the Arab League and now the United Nations — to stall while trying to annihilate his opponents. Experts said that nobody expects the peace plan to take root because ultimately its provisions — allowing for peaceful demonstrations and democratic change — will doom the Assad regime.
Senior diplomats have been contemplating options for “what next.” Even before the foreign ministers of the Group of 8 gathered Wednesday in Washington for two days of negotiations, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was talking about the next step.
“There will be a very rough couple of days in trying to determine whether we go to the Security Council seeking action, knowing that Russia is still not on board,” Mrs. Clinton said in a speech Tuesday night. “The Russians have consistently said they want to avoid civil war, they want to avoid a regional conflict, but their refusal to join with us in some kind of constructive action is keeping Assad in power, well armed.”
So “what next” in the Syrian context boils down largely to “what do the Russians want next.”
Reporting was contributed by Ellen Barry from Moscow, Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul, Steven Lee Myers from Washington, and Hala Droubi from Beirut.