A veiled tug-of-war between the Syrian government and supporters of the opposition, mainly from the West, over the deployment of ceasefire monitors from the U.N. appears to be holding up a durable truce in Syria.

Both sides seem to be clashing over the fine-print — how many monitors should be deployed and what should be their nationalities?

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wants 300 people to be posted in Syria to supervise the truce. In a report to the Security Council on Wednesday, he said 300 monitors, 50 more than the number agreed upon, would be required because the ceasefire launched on April 12 was faltering.

Initial obligations

Mr. Ban accused Damascus of not fully implementing “its initial obligations regarding the actions and deployments of its troops, or to return them to barracks”.

On their part, the Syrians said the number of monitors should be limited to 250 in accordance with the plan scripted by U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

On a visit to China — a country that, along with Russia, vetoed attempts in the Security Council to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem said 250 monitors was a “reasonable number”. More significantly, reading in the nationalities of monitors the possibility of partisanship, Mr. Moualem insisted that the U.N. supervisory team must include sufficient number of personnel from Russia, China and India.

So far, an advance team of monitors seem to be having a rough time. During a visit to Arbeen on the outskirts of Damascus, the team was apparently caught in the crossfire of fighting between government forces and the opposition, forcing it to flee to a military checkpoint. The team has been denied access to the battle-scarred city of Homs, with Syrian authorities citing “security considerations” as the basis of their denial. The incident underscores yet another point of contention: Can the Syrian government be by-passed or, as the Syrians say, should any proposal regarding the movement of U.N. monitors be routed through the government? Nevertheless, on Thursday, Syria and the U.N. observers signed a preliminary agreement that regulates the team's monitoring work, Xinhua reported.

Militant approach

While Mr. Annan's plan calls for an all-Syrian process of dialogue, Western supporters of the opposition appeared to persist in encouraging anti-regime forces to adopt a more militant approach. At the third meeting of the Friends of Syria, hosted by France, French President advocated the establishment of “humanitarian corridors” inside Syria. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the crisis in Syria can be resolved once humanitarian corridors were set up “so that an opposition can exist in Syria”.

Analysts say that such corridors can exist only if they are protected, possibly from the air — a step that would necessarily violate Syrian sovereignty, and would be a deal breaker.

Foreign supporters of the opposition have also been urging Russia — a key ally of Syria — to exert its influence on Damascus so that it enforces the ceasefire plan. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to turn the argument on its head. “The success of the plan depends on the countries which have some measure of influence over opposition groups —— the U.S., France, the U.K., Turkey, the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf and a number of other countries,” he said.

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