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Syrian Truce Holds, But Path To Peace Doubtful

After months of relentless shelling and gunfire, activists in Syria reported a quieter daybreak Thursday, as a ceasefire arranged by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan appeared to be largely holding.

Opposition figures said rebel fighters inside Syria would abide by the truce as long as the Syrian military does, while the government says its forces will return fire if attacked. Annan is hoping to progress from the cease-fire to getting humanitarian assistance into the country, and eventually to political negotiations.

But many remain skeptical that there will be a good-faith effort to follow all the steps of the Annan peace plan.

One of the first videos that surfaced online Thursday morning came from activists in Zabadny, west of Damascus. It shows two tanks on the hillside above the town. There's a cloud of smoke near one, and activists claim shells were fired after the 6 a.m. cease-fire deadline, though that's not clear from the footage. Later in the morning, sniper fire was reported in Homs.

What is clear in the unconfirmed video is the sound of birds singing — meaning Syria is indeed quieter than it has been in months. Yet the continued presence of tanks around Zabadny shows that the regime has not complied with Annan's peace plan, which calls for forces to withdraw from population centers.

In remarks Wednesday in Tehran, Annan said he believes calm can be achieved but that maintaining it will require patience and cooperation from all interested countries.

"This is a region that has seen many tensions and has seen many shocks, and I don't think can afford another shock," the special envoy said. "The geopolitical location of Syria is such that any miscalculation and any error can have unimaginable consequences."

Inside Syria, each side seemed ready to blame the other for any breach of the truce. Deputy Foreign Minister Jihad Maqdisi said the onus for achieving a cease-fire is on the opposition fighters, which Syria calls "armed terrorist gangs."

"I'm confident that my government is fully committed to Mr. Annan's plan of six points, but in the same time, since the violence is mutual, I can only guarantee our side," Maqdisi said. "I cannot guarantee the side that the violence initiated from — the armed groups and those countries who are harboring them."

On the other hand, America's U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, said the burden of maintaining calm lies squarely on the government's shoulders. She voiced Washington's skepticism about the conditions Syria laid out in a letter to Annan committing to the cease-fire.

"The caveats in the letter are worrying and yet again cast into doubt the credibility of any such commitments," Rice said. "But nothing casts more doubt on the credibility of the commitments than the fact that commitments have been made and made and made, and broken and broken and broken."

Meanwhile, Syria's allies, led by Moscow, point out that relying on the opposition fighters to maintain the cease-fire is a dangerous risk for the government. By most accounts, the former army officers leading the rebel Free Syrian Army from camps in southeastern Turkey have only limited control over units operating inside Syria.

Opposition Syrian National Council member Mohammad Bassam Imadi told the BBC's Hardtalk program that he believes coordination between the field units and the leadership is improving all the time, though it's far from complete.

"There are what we call the local military councils — in the north, in the south, in the middle, in the suburbs of Damascus and so on," he said. "These are councils that are coordinating with the leadership on the Turkish border, and they have strong coordination but also some freedom in what they do."

If local fighters use that freedom to attack loyalist forces, the cease-fire could unravel quickly. Opposition activists also suspect that the security forces could provoke renewed fighting. Either way, analysts say, the cliche of a "fragile cease-fire" is very much the case in Syria right now, and all eyes will be on Kofi Annan's attempts to reach the vital step of gaining access for desperately needed humanitarian aid into hard-hit neighborhoods.

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Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.