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Syria cease-fire: Could it really happen?

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
October 25, 2012 -- Updated 0651 GMT (1451 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cease-fire could be breathing room for government, expert says
  • Reports say car bomb kills four and troops kill apartment residents
  • Cease-fire would occur during Muslim holiday that starts Friday
  • Diplomats talk as 124 people killed across Syria

(CNN) -- Could this weekend's proposed cease-fire signal the end of Syria's nearly two-year civil war, or is it just more talk?

The Syrian regime has agreed "in principle" to a cease-fire, the United Nations' special envoy to the country said Wednesday.

But rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad are skeptical. They want to know if it's just another case of second verse, same as the first.

A cease-fire in April barely lasted a day before bodies started falling again. In total, more than 32,000 Syrians have died since the conflict began in March 2011, anti-al-Assad groups say.

This time, the proposal to lay down weapons would cover the Eid al-Adha holiday, U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said.

Starting Friday and lasting several days, Muslims around the world will celebrate the end of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

In his office in Cairo on Wednesday, Brahimi said he'd just returned from a trip to the Syrian capital, Damascus, where commanders told him they "agree on the principle of a cease-fire."

UN: Syria agrees to holiday cease-fire

But there's been no formal statement from al-Assad's office, though it has promised one Thursday.

Video reportedly shows bakery attack

Brahimi gave no details on the cease-fire proposal. But France's ambassador gave vague details after a Security Council meeting. After getting an official response from the Syrian government, the United Nations wants shelling in neighborhoods to stop, Gérard Araud said.

In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
Syrian civil war in photos
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Syrian civil war in photos Syrian civil war in photos

If that holds for three days, Araud said, the long-term goal is "to transform this truce into an enduring cease-fire."

Annan: 'I cry everyday for the Syrians'

But, clearly, for the cease-fire to work, the Free Syrian Army has to abide by it.

The Free Syrian Army is a loosely organized group of men fighting al-Assad's well-armed forces, and they haven't given a united statement that they would agree.

However, a self-described deputy commander said Wednesday that there's pretty much no chance the rebels will trust the Syrian government.

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"We don't think the regime is serious with agreeing to the cease-fire, since more than 200 people are martyred every day by the government's forces," Malek Kurdi said.

A woman prays during Eid prayers at the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan, on Saturday, October 27. Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, marks the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and honors the Prophet Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, on the order of God, who according to the religion then provided a lamb in the boy's place. More than 2 million Muslims make the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. A woman prays during Eid prayers at the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan, on Saturday, October 27. Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, marks the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and honors the Prophet Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, on the order of God, who according to the religion then provided a lamb in the boy's place. More than 2 million Muslims make the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which is one of the five pillars of Islam.
Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha
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Photos: Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha Photos: Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha

It's foolish to expect a total cease-fire, said Aram Nerguizian, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Killing is going to continue sporadically, he said. A cease-fire in this context is about a larger goal of getting most rebel brigades and al-Assad forces to temporarily stop or reduce the killing.

The Syrian government, he said, is probably angling for some breathing room.

"They could have a process here to re-engage with major international players who've sought to isolate them," Nerguizian said. "This war could go as long as 2020, so why not give themselves a few days?"

In New York, U.N. Security Council members talked via teleconference with Brahimi. Many said they supported a cease-fire but were not optimistic that it would work.

The German ambassador said that Brahimi painted a "dire and dramatic" view of Syria and that Germany would do everything it could to support a cease-fire. But Peter Whittig said it's important to be "cautious and realistic."

Russia and China have longstanding trade partnerships with Syria and have been accused of favoring the al-Assad regime. Both have repeatedly vetoed attempts in the Security Council to take tougher action against the Syrian government.

The U.N. ambassador to China said he wants a cease-fire but added that there may be a 1% chance it would happen.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that he thought the Syrians would have a formal statement Thursday and that a cease-fire would hopefully lead to a "political end" to the crisis.

Navi Pillay, the U.N. human rights chief, repeated her refrain from the past 19 months: that the international community must take urgent measures to protect Syria's people.

And the U.S. chimed in as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington would "like to see a political transition take hold and begin."

Back in Syria, people were dying.

On Wednesday, 124 people were killed across the country, according to the Local Coordination Committees for Syria, a network of opposition activists.

A car bomb in Damascus killed four people, according to government-run media. Another car bomb detonated in Quntari; regime soldiers died. In the city of Douma, at least 15 people were killed.

Rebels said regime forces stormed a tenement building and slaughtered residents, including women and children.

Rebels blame government forces for the attacks; government forces blame rebels.

It's very difficult to get an accurate description of what's happening inside Syria because the government has blocked foreign journalists.

There was some hope for a cease-fire in April, when the Syrian government agreed to a six-point peace plan. That agreement included freeing detainees and offering access to humanitarian aid. It promised to allow international media into Syria and to allow peaceful demonstrations. The Syrian government also vowed to remove heavy weapons and troops from neighborhoods.

A young man in Homs who has kept a blog of the violence in his neighborhood wrote that he was hopeful. He said it seemed that the calm on his street meant al-Assad was keeping his end of the bargain. Tanks withdrew.

But it was merely hours before U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said Syria wasn't in full compliance.

Things went downhill from there.

Violence was reported the same day, and the agreement collapsed within days. Both sides accused the other of failing to keep their promise.

That weekend, al-Assad's forces began firing again. Shells fell on Aleppo, the nation's second-largest city. Hundreds of people were killed, opposition activists said.

All this plays into pessimism over the current proposal.

"Based on our long experience in dealing with Assad('s) barbaric regime, we know that the Syrian government is just buying time and playing on words," said George Sabra, spokesman for the Syrian National Council, which speaks for rebels fighting al-Assad.

"The whole world knows that the Syrian regime cannot be trusted and doesn't have any credibility in fulfilling any promise that they make to anyone," said Sabra, who is based in Paris. "The crisis is too complicated in Syria, and the Assad regime is trying a diversion."

CNN asked Sabra to name the conditions that the rebels would put down their arms. He didn't name them but instead said he's suspicious that the government is dangling a cease-fire in hopes of attacking the rebels when they are less prepared.

The rebels, Sabra said, are afraid al-Assad's forces will "take advantage of the momentum so they can gain more territories."

But the rebels themselves are partly to blame for this spring's cease-fire failing, analyst Nerguizian said.

They are disorganized and have been just as vicious in their killing as al-Assad's forces.

Getting them on the same page and having them resist the urge to fight, he said, is unrealistic.

CNN's Richard Roth and Salma Abdelaziz contributed to this report.

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