By implementing the April 12 ceasefire which former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed, President Bashar al-Assad has finally recognised the deepening global anxiety over Syria. The fighting has taken a terrible toll; according to the U.N., 9,000 civilians have died since public protests against Syria's regime started in March 2011. The government also says 2,000 soldiers have been killed. As the conflict developed into civil war, the army increasingly used tanks, armoured vehicles, rocket-armed helicopters, and mortars; 42,000 civilians fled the country, the majority to Turkey and the rest to Lebanon and Jordan. The situation on the ground remains potentially unstable, as troops and heavy weapons are still deployed across the country and the government insists it will respond “proportionately” to any attacks, even though Mr. Assad seems to have abandoned his earlier demand for a written guarantee that the rebels lay down their arms first. The Free Syrian Army, the opposition's main military body, had rejected that call anyway, seeing it as yet another attempt by the regime to evade any serious commitment to a ceasefire. The plan, which Mr. Annan conveyed as an envoy of the Arab League also calls for a Syrian-led political process to address the “aspirations and concerns” of the people and, among other things, requires freedom of association, the right to demonstrate peacefully, and freedom of movement for journalists.
The guns may be silent for the time being but the situation remains dangerous. Although the Arab League has heeded Russian concerns by not requiring Mr. Assad to leave office, his departure is a non-negotiable demand by the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC), the key opposition grouping. Secondly, the President can claim popular support of a kind — he has stood up to Israel and the West, especially by supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon — but the opposition, internal and external, is severely divided. The Kurdish faction has walked out of the SNC, as has a senior dissident, and the Council has been criticised for the influence of its biggest single group, the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, some Gulf states want tough action against Mr. Assad, while Lebanon and Iraq do not. The ceasefire is nevertheless to be greatly welcomed. In order to build political momentum in the wake of the ceasefire, India and its fellow BRICS countries should join others in facilitating an inclusive Syrian political process. For Mr. Assad and the Ba'ath leadership, the ceasefire is a last chance to push for such a process. Failure to do so will only increase the clamour for external intervention.