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Russia crucial to truce in Syria

Many doubt ally will coax Assad to deadline today

BEIRUT - Many major players in the Syrian crisis consider the peace plan scheduled to reach its deadline Thursday as the final speed bump in figuring out how to get Russia to accept enough pressure on President Bashar Assad to stop the violence.

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?’’

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In some ways, the Annan plan needs to fail - which appears most likely - in order 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 UN Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity under his ministry’s guidelines.

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 is to take 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 fighting across the country as the final hours ticked away.

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It will probably be impossible to ascertain with any confidence whether a cease-fire takes hold, as there has been no agreement between the Syrian government and Annan’s team about deploying international monitors.

Critics of Syria predicted failure from the outset, accusing 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 Eight 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,’’ Clinton said in a speech Tuesday night. “The Russians have consistently said they want to avoid civil war . . . but their refusal to join with us in some kind of constructive action is keeping Assad in power.’’

So “what next’’ in the Syrian context boils down largely to “what do the Russians want next.’’

The consensus among Russian foreign policy specialists is that Moscow is little moved by the civilian death toll of more than 9,000 people and arguments that there is a moral obligation to intervene. Russia has clearly relished its moment strutting back on the world stage as the critical player, so UN Security Council diplomats and other analysts believe the key is engaging Russia’s confidence that it can deliver on an important international issue.

Analysts say the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, believes that his country changed the entire conversation on Syria by rejecting intervention and insisting that the opposition bear some blame for the violence.

With the anticipated collapse of the Annan plan, the question of military action will resurface.

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