Syria's decision today to hold its fire may prove yet short-lived, confirming critics' contention that President Bashar al-Assad simply cannot be trusted to fulfill his commitments.
But for one brief instance, Syria's action helped to turn the narrative on its head, providing a rare opportunity for Damascus and its closest friends to make the case that a consensual, softball approach to the crisis could bear fruit.
China's U.N. ambassador, Li Baodong, who has scarcely uttered a word in public on the Syrian crisis, stepped out before the Security Council stakeout today to claim credit, in Mandarin and English, for his government's role in pursuing a cease-fire. In a lengthy exchange with reporters, he pointed out that special envoy Kofi Annan had "spoken highly" of China's role in backing his mediation efforts.
Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said that today's development vindicated his government's much-maligned stance on Syria and that the world should recognize Moscow was right. He said that top Russian diplomats, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, had intervened at critical moments in the diplomatic process to help Annan secure Syria's support for his plan, and that its contribution had been unfairly dismissed by the press. "You should give us credit; we have every right to be given credit," Churkin said.
Syria's U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jaafari, said that the world's recognition of its decision to stop shooting only provided further evidence that it is Syria alone that has pursued peace in good faith, while its critics -- from Washington to Istanbul to Riyadh -- have been seeking to "torpedo" Annan's peace efforts by providing support to opposition military forces. While most observers agreed that the cease-fire was largely holding, both Damascus and the opposition accused the other of some violations.
"The credibility of the Syrian government has been confirmed," Jaafari told reporters. "There are still some officials who are totally disappointed and frustrated ... because the cessation of violence succeeded this morning."
The effort to secure plaudits for pursuing a political settlement contrasts with the blocking role these governments have played in recent months in downplaying and minimizing the brutality of Syria's crackdown on anti-government protesters, a campaign of violence that has left more than 9000 dead, mostly of them unarmed civilians, during the past 13 months.
In a closed-door briefing to the U.N. Security Council, Annan reminded the council's 15 members that he personally visited a refugee camp this week in Turkey, which absorbed a flood of more than 6,000 Syrian refugees during the past five days, victims of a government assault on Syrian towns.
"As of this afternoon, as of this moment, the situation looks calmer. We are following it very closely," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Geneva today. "The world is watching, however, with skeptical eyes since many promises previously made by the government of Syria had not been kept. The onus is on the government of Syria to prove that their words will be matched by their deeds at this time."
But while Ban cautioned that a single gunshot could unravel the cease-fire, pitching the country into an even more deadly civil war, he made it clear that the world's key powers would now have to approach the conflict in a new way, and would now be required to apply pressure on the opposition to make compromises in a diplomatic process that places Assad's government at the center of action.
"Today's lessening of violence in Syria is a first, fragile step towards peace that needs to be strengthened and sustained," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague. "The Syrian government has a record of failing to keep its promises. It has the opportunity to change that now: it should seize it. We need to see visible, verifiable, and indisputable signs of change. The opposition must also ensure that they adhere to the cease-fire and work to strengthen and broaden it."
Indeed, the immediate focus of attention today shifted from the talk of sanctions or the threat of military action against the Syrian government to plans for a U.N. monitoring mission in Syria. Ban said that Annan had informed him of the intention to send a top military advisor, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood of Norway, back to Syria as early as tomorrow to help prepare the way for a U.N. mission. He said that Annan is also weighing a possible return visit himself to Damascus if there is sufficient progress in the peace process.
To that end, Annan urged the Security Council to move swiftly to adopt a resolution establishing an advance team of U.N. monitors to try to solidify the pact.
Following Annan's briefing to the council, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters after the briefing that Annan said that while a "fragile calm appears to be prevailing" there were "confirmed reports of some violence in some cities." But she also told reporters that he urged the council of the need to "get eyes and ears on the ground" to gather a clear picture of what was happening.
Annan said that Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, wrote him in a letter on Wednesday that said while Syria would observe the cease-fire it reserve the "the right to respond ‘proportionately' to any attacks carried out by so-called terrorists against civilians, government force, and public and private property," according to Rice.
Rice also noted that Annan has emphasized that Syria's action today "does not constitute full compliance" with its commitments under the Annan peace plan, and that "Syrian troops and armor must return to their barracks immediately."
The United States circulated a draft Security Council resolution that would establish an advance team of up to 30 U.N. personnel to monitor the cease-fire. Rice said she hoped the council could vote on the resolution tomorrow, but that it was too early to predict whether that was possible, or whether the cease-fire would even hold.
"Today, we saw for the first time in a long time a brief, positive step, which we hope will be sustained," said Rice. But Syria's "track record up until today has been dismal. We hope, but we clearly remain cautious in our assessment that today becomes the start of a new way forward. But I think, frankly, we have a year's worth of evidence that leads us all to enormous skepticism."
The draft would require Syria provide the monitoring team full freedom of movement throughout the country, unobstructed use of communications equipment, and the freedom to speak to anyone they choose. The Security Council is expected to follow up in the coming weeks with a second resolution that would establish a full-fledged monitoring mission with as many as 250 monitors, most of them recruited from other U.N. missions in the region.
There was broad consensus in the 15-nation council about the need to support Annan's request for U.N. monitors. Russia's envoy even said it was possible the council could approve the mission by tomorrow.
"The international community will support this process," said Britain's Hague. "We urgently need to see monitors in Syria to assess implementation. It is crucial that their remit allows them freedom of movement and access."
China and Russia lauded the Syrian government's commitment to observe the cease-fire, but pressed both the armed opposition and Damascus to take advantage of the pause in fighting to start a meaningful political dialogue. "We believe the cease-fire is very important and also pulling troops out of the towns and cities by the Syrian government is also very, very important," said Li.
Both China and Russia, which vetoed two previous Security Council resolutions on Syria, sought to highlight the role they played in pressing Damascus and the opposition to embrace Annan's peace process.
Churkin said his government supports the immediate deployment of U.N. monitors, and that his government had already agreed to a request to allow the transfer a Russian monitor based in the Golan Heights to Syria. "Someone must be there as soon as possible," he said. "The quicker the better."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.