BEIRUT - A UN-brokered peace plan for Syria appeared to collapse Sunday as the government demanded a written guarantee that opposition rebels would lay down their arms before the government would withdraw troops from cities and towns.
Rebel leaders immediately rejected the demand that they surrender their weapons while the Assad regime continues to attack civilians.
The new conditions cast serious doubt on hopes that the peace plan could quell the violence stemming from a government crackdown on a yearlong uprising against the government of President Bashar Assad. The plan is the only initiative thus far backed by Syria’s allies - China, Russia, and Iran - as well as the United Nations, Syria, and the Arab League.
Kofi Annan, the joint UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, issued a statement in Geneva saying he was shocked by “a surge in violence and atrocities’’ that were in violation of assurances given to him by Syrian officials.
The plan called for a withdrawal of Syrian forces from populated areas by Tuesday, followed within 48 hours by a cease-fire by both sides.
UN reports that Syria had pledged to pull its forces back from cities by the Tuesday deadline resulted from a misunderstanding, according to Jihad Makdissi, a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry. He instead presented new conditions that were not part of a six-point peace plan forged last month by Annan.
The new terms call for written guarantees from armed groups that they would lay down their arms in exchange for security forces withdrawing from cities, and demand that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey withdraw their support for armed opposition, according to Syrian state media.
Makdissi’s statement seemed to contradict UN officials who have said that they had been informed that Assad had endorsed the plan on April 1 and that forces had begun withdrawing from urban areas, beginning in the troubled Idlib Province in the north of the country.
Colonel Malik Kurdi, an assistant commander of the Free Syrian Army rebel group, dismissed the request. “We do not refuse to give guarantees, but this regime is still shelling and bombarding Syrian cities as well as committing massacres,’’ he said by telephone from Turkey.
The commander of the Free Syrian Army, Riad al-Asaad, said that while his group is ready to abide by a truce, it does not recognize the regime, the Associated Press reported.
The statements from both sides came after two days of particularly heavy violence in the country, in which activists say 100 to 200 people were killed, including dozens of soldiers. In recent days, instead of preparing for a withdrawal, regime troops have stepped up shelling attacks on residential areas.
On Sunday, 21 civilians, 12 soldiers, and five armed opponents of the government died, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Reports are difficult to verify because Syria restricts journalists’ access to the country.
A spokesman for the Syrian National Council, the most prominent opposition political group, expressed little faith Sunday in the Annan plan.
The council has previously backed it, but said at the time it feared the plan was a delaying tactic to crush the opposition. Instead, spokesman Ausama Monajed said, the group was focusing on unifying a disparate armed opposition movement and encouraging international intervention.
He added that it would not be possible at this stage for one leader to issue a written guarantee of a cease-fire, as the Syrian authorities have requested, as the armed opposition consists of many groups that operate independently. But he stopped short of saying that there was no hope for the peace plan, until after the April 10 deadline expires.
The opposition, backed by some Arab states including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has regarded the peace plan as irrelevant and has been more focused on obtaining money and weapons, Fawaz A. Gerges of the London School of Economics said last week. “Even though they disagree about the post-Assad political order, one thing they agree on is militarizing the uprising,’’ he said.
Should the plan collapse entirely, said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the international community should look again at effective ways of supporting an armed opposition, something the West has shied away from. “Conflict is the constant in Syria for the foreseeable future,’’ he said. “This is not settling down.’’
Some analysts suggested that if the plan fails, it will strike a blow to the relationship between Syria and Russia, a firm backer of Assad and strong supporter of the peace plan.
“This is ultimately a blow to Russia,’’ said Richard Gowan, an expert on the UN at New York University. “The West supported the Annan plan in the hope that Moscow would force Assad to comply. Assad’s actions this weekend suggest that he holds Russia’s concerns and influence in contempt.’’
The Syrian foreign minister is expected to travel to Moscow on Monday, but it is not clear whether Russia will step in to try to salvage the Annan plan. Despite growing criticism of Assad, Russia has shielded him from international condemnation.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia are creating a multimillion dollar fund to pay rebel fighters and possibly arm them, but many analysts expected the Assad regime to create new obstacles to a truce because it has little to fear from the world community.