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Brahimi's plan for Syria cease-fire takes two steps forward, one step back

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(Read caption) In this photo, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (l.) greets United Nations Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi prior to their closed-door meeting in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, Oct. 21. Brahimi met with Assad as part of his push for a cease-fire between rebels and government forces for the four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which begins Oct. 26.

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United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said today that the government agreed to a cease-fire over the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, but Syrian officials almost immediately dismissed his statement, claiming that it was still considering the proposal. 

There are high stakes for the potential cease-fire, which is currently the only proposal on the table for ending the 19-month conflict that has killed between 20,000 and 34,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. But there seems to be little optimism that the three- or four-day break in violence will bring about a substantial change.

A cease-fire agreement in April (described as “so fragile it could collapse with a single gunshot,” reported the Associated Press at the time) failed within days, with both rebels and the Army accusing one another of breaking the agreement. 

"After the visit I made to Damascus, there is agreement from the Syrian government for a cease-fire during the Eid," Mr. Brahimi told a news conference at the Cairo-based Arab League. Rebel groups have also agreed to the truce “in principle," Reuters reports.

However, an hour after Brahimi's announcement, the Syrian government said it was still "studying" the proposal and would announce its decision tomorrow. 

Rebel sources earlier told the news agency there was “little point if it could not be monitored and enforced,” according to a separate Reuters report, and Brahimi’s plan didn’t note the presence of international observers to monitor the cease-fire, according to the first report. 

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"If this humble initiative succeeds, we hope that we can build on it in order to discuss a longer and more effective cease-fire, and this has to be part of a comprehensive political process," Brahimi said.

Brahimi's announcement follows another bloody day in Syria. One of the few bakeries still operating in Aleppo was shelled yesterday, as about 100 people waited in line for bread, reports the Los Angeles Times. An estimated 20 people were killed and another 50 wounded in the blast in the Masaken Hanano neighborhood.

This was the third day in a row that the opposition-held neighborhood came under Army shelling. Abu al-Hasan, an activist from an Aleppo suburb, told The New York Times that residents in the area were too scared to leave their homes the past few days because of the intense shelling but “finally took the risk in order to buy food for Eid al-Adha,” the widely celebrated holiday that starts at the end of the week. The N.Y. Times notes how important bakeries have become in the three-month battle over Aleppo, Syria’s largest city:

…[B]akeries in rebel-held areas of Aleppo have emerged as vitally important resources that are clearly potential targets for Syrian forces seeking to starve the insurgents and their sympathizers into submission. Many of the bakeries are run by the insurgents, who have learned how to bake bread as part of the war effort.

Nearly a dozen bakeries have been targeted in Aleppo since fighting broke out there. Abu Firas, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Council for Aleppo and its suburbs, told the L.A. Times that the Assad regime has targeted bakeries because it wants “life to stop.”

"They are directly targeting the bakeries because many people gather there. Why are they shelling it? There aren't any Free Syrian Army fighters," Abu Firas said, referring to the main rebel fighting force, also known as the FSA.

The Syrian Army is relying more and more on air strikes as it has lost territory to rebel groups.

"Some of the bombs were so big they sucked in the air and everything crashes down, even four-story buildings. We used to have one or two rockets a day, now for the past 10 days it has become constant, we run from one shelter to another. They drop a few bombs and it's like a massacre," a 20-year-old refugee named Nabil told Reuters at a camp in the Syrian town of Atimah, which overlooks the Turkish border.

Bakeries aren’t the only targets. The BBC reports from the town of Marea near the Turkish border, about 20 miles north of Aleppo, that funeral processions, the weekly market, and other quotidian activities seem just as likely to be targeted by bombs.

Almost everyone we meet has lost someone to the enemy in the sky – here, a boy was shot dead from the air as he rode his motor bike – there, a group of teenage lads were blown to pieces by a bomb dropped from a MiG fighter as they loaded potatoes onto a truck.

There seems to be no object to the random bombing, other than to sow terror.

"It's revenge," says Yasser al-Haji, a businessman from Marea who moved abroad, then returned last year to join the revolution. "Marea was one of first cities to demonstrate.

"It's an economic war, too. Above all, they want to humiliate us for rising up against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad," he adds.

The bakery hit yesterday in Aleppo was housed in a large warehouse, according to Abu al-Hasan who spoke to the N.Y. Times. He says it’s actually unclear whether the bakery was the target.

“The problem is those kinds of missiles are not guided to their intended targets,” he said. “They’re not precise. They fall on random buildings.”

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that there are now more than 358,000 Syrian refugees in the region, according to the L.A. Times. Last week alone more than 5,500 Syrians registered with UNHCR.

“The longer Syrians remain in exile, the more likely they are to seek help as their savings are depleted. Many refugees fled home with few resources because work has been disrupted for more than a year in some areas of Syria,” the LA Times reports.

With a potential cease-fire on the horizon, many are speculating about the future of Syria and President Bashar al-Assad. James Van de Velde, a lecturer at the Center for Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins University writes in a commentary for The Jerusalem Post that no regime that follows Assad could be worse, “though it may not be much better in the near term.”

Mr. Van de Velde lays out five potential outcomes in Syria, none of which he expects will include Assad:

1. Assad flees and those Alawite members of the regime who remain pledge to join and cooperate with the new (Sunni-dominated) Free Syrian Army (FSA) government (the optimal, ideal, Western-driven future, although sadly there is no evidence the United States is pursuing such an outcome)….

2. Assad resigns at the direction of Russia, which creates a new Syrian government (a Russian-driven future). A UN-Russian plan creates a transitional government made up of FSA members and current regime elements, made possible and heavily influenced by Russia, which wishes to maintain a favored-nation status with the new Syrian government, which affords Russia special influence for pulling Assad. The United States is largely shut out of the new government, given the perception that the United States was indifferent to the opposition….

3. Assad flees at the direction of Iran (an Iran-driven future). A UN plan creates a transitional government made up of FSA members and current regime elements, but one that is heavily influenced behind the scenes in Syria by Iran, which wishes to keep Syria a client state and to continue to support Lebanese Hezbollah through Syria. The United States is largely shut out, given the perception that the United States was indifferent to the opposition.

4. Assad flees or is killed and leaves behind chaos (a “no one is driving” future). The FSA takes over the country; the Alawites are purged from the new government. There is a scramble among the FSA, al-Qaida in Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran to secure and control Syrian chemical and biological weapons and shape the new government. The outcome of such violence is uncertain. here is no sympathy for the United States, given the perception that the United States was indifferent to the opposition.

5. Assad flees or is killed and Alawite members of the SSRC, the Republican Guard and former regime elements – including thousands of private Alawite militia, retreat to the Latakia Province and create a defensive enclave, armed with Syrian regime weapons, perhaps including chemical and biological weapons (a sectarian-driven future) – perhaps the most likely future now....

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