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Syrians face a grim Easter

11 April 2012

by Gerald Butt Middle East Correspondent

A photo released by the Local Co-ordination Committees in Syria reportedly shows shell-damage to a Homs church COORDINATION COMMITTEES/AA/ABACAPRESS

A photo released by the Local Co-ordination Committees in Syria reportedly shows shell-damage to a Homs church COORDINATION COMMITTEES/AA/ABACAPRESS

THE Orthodox community in Syria will mark Easter this weekend rather than celebrate it, in the grim know­ledge that the latest international initiative to end violence in the country has failed.

The Syrian government failed to withdraw its heavy forces from urban centres by Tuesday this week, as it had earlier promised to do under a plan drawn up by the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. Op­position forces had said that they would stop fighting once the au­thorities had completed their side of the deal.

Syrian Christians of the Latin tradition marked Easter last weekend — which coincided with a period of intense bombardment of several population centres. Homs continues to be the focus of both armed opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the government’s response to it.

Church leaders in Homs declared officially that Easter would not be celebrated this year. Thousands of Christians in this predominantly Muslim city have been trapped by the prolonged bombardment, ruling out the possibility of reaching churches or mosques. Buildings belonging to both faiths have been destroyed or damaged in the fighting.

Nadia Jaber, a Syrian Christian student at the American University in Cairo, said that her family’s only concern was to stay alive. “There is no time for them or me to think about Easter. We are all praying for an end to this nightmare.”

How that end might be reached is still far from clear. The Annan plan appeared to offer some hope. But the Assad regime’s last-minute insistence that the opposition should provide written guarantees that they would lay down their arms derailed it.

While the Damascus government is willing to accept in principle the idea of a ceasefire and the opening of talks, it still also believes that it can crush the opposition by the con­tinuing use of overwhelming force. As Russia and China still back it, the Assad regime feels that it can with­stand international pressure — for the time being at least.

The prospect, then, is for thou­sands more Syrian civilians to join the long list of those killed and injured.

The increasingly vocal chorus of demands from Gulf and other Arab states for arms to be supplied to op­ponents of the Damascus govern­ment reflects more than anything else the frustration at all other attempts to end the crisis in Syria. Sending yet more weapons into Syria will in­tensify the conflict and lead to still more losses of civilian life. It will not speed up the departure of Assad: only increased economic and diplomatic pressure will achieve that.

Few people know the workings of the Syrian leadership’s minds better than the former Vice-President Abdel Halim Khaddam, who went into exile in 2005 after three decades in office. In a recent interview, he said that the call for weapons to be delivered to dissident troops was nothing more than “an unrealistic slogan”.

He described the Free Army as “a group of honourable people who broke away because they don’t want to kill their fellow citizens; so they joined the revolution.” But, he said, “they do not constitute a real strength on the ground in the face of an army that has thousands of missiles and artillery pieces.”

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