Syrian govt to stop military operations Thursday morning

Damascus says all military operations will be halted by Thursday morning, but their troops will "remain on alert” to confront any possible threat. The announcement comes as Tuesday failed to bring the truce provided by Kofi Annan’s peace plan.

"After our armed forces carried out successful missions in combating the criminal acts of terrorist groups and imposed the authority of the state on its land, (it has been) decided to end operations starting tomorrow morning," reads a statement aired by Syrian state television.

A similar pledge has been made to international envoy Kofi Annan.

"I have received government assurances they will respect the ceasefire. If everyone respects it I think by 6 in the morning on Thursday we shall see improved conditions on the ground," Annan said, as quoted by Reuters.

The Syrian authorities still want the guarantee of the truce from the opposition, Annan said.

On Tuesday, the Free Syrian Army, one of the largest groups fighting government forces, said it would respect Annan's plan, but vowed to continue its struggle if Damascus violates the ceasefire agreement.

The Middle East "cannot afford another shock," noted Annan, saying that any miscalculation or mistake in Syria could have unimaginable consequences.

Kofi Annan was speaking after a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, during which he appealed for support from Tehran, which is one of Syria's strongest allies. Salehi replied that Syria should be allowed change "under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad."

On Wednesday, opposition activists claimed the forces loyal to Assad were still shelling residential areas across the country. Residents of the western city of Rastan in the Homs province tell Reuters they are under attack. A fresh eyewitness video claims to show tanks entering the neighborhood of Homs, the cradle of the Syrian uprising.

Opposition activists claim twelve more people were killed on Wednesday, in addition to 62 killed on Tuesday. They report over 1,000 deaths since Annan brought his six-point peace plan to Syria nine days ago.

The plan, endorsed by the UN, called on Assad to pull out government forces from cities by Tuesday, to be followed by a full cease-fire by both sides by 6am (Syria time) Thursday.

Damascus insists it is fighting "illegal armed groups," which have killed over 2,000 government troops since Syria plunged into civil conflict a year ago. The UN estimates some 9,000 people have died in the stand-off.

­ A matter of good will

­Despite the drive to stop hostilities in Syria, Jeremy Salt, an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Turkey, says the viability of the ceasefire rests on “good will.”

However, Salt says little good will was shown by US Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman during a recent visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey.

“They both called for more arms to be given to the rebels, and Senator McCain’s last remark to reporters was: ‘See you next year in Damascus.’ Now this kind of attitude is hardly helpful to the ceasefire that Kofi Annan is trying to set up,” Salt said.

But Salt says among the opponents of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar should be singled out for wanting “the Syrian government destroyed.”

“Their interest is not reform in Syria.  Their interest is not the freedom of the Syrian people.  Their interest is not the human rights of the Syrian people; their own people don’t have those rights. They want the Assad government toppled, and that is for largely sectarian reasons.”

Salt says that in order to create a “Sunni Muslim wall across the Middle East to block Iran and to block the rise of Shi’ism across the region,” Saudi Arabia and Qatar have “agitated against Syria and the Arab League.”

Salt argues that the heart of that game ultimately lies in Iran.

“We know the United States has effectively declared economic warfare against Iran, and the United States has been chasing Syria for a long, long time.  Now those two countries have a strategic relationship.”