Kofi Annan, the special mediator for Syria, told the UN Security Council last night that the Syrian government had agreed to a 10 April deadline to implement the first stages of his ceasefire plan, but admitted he would have preferred the date to have been sooner.
Diplomats at UN headquarters in New York remained cautious before heralding the development as a breakthrough. Nonetheless, they said that planning was already under way for a first contingent of UN monitors to leave for Syria as soon as possible to determine whether the government is keeping its word.
The US Ambassador, Susan Rice, said the Council was standing behind the peace plan but voiced concern that the Syrian government may exploit the delay and intensify bombardments before 10 April, even if anyone assumes that the deadline itself will be honoured by the regime.
"Let's be realistic," she said. "The proof is in the actions not in the words. Past experience leads us to be sceptical and to worry that over the next several days that rather than a diminution of the violence we might see an escalation."
Separately, Russia appeared to be altering course and making an effort to apply pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad to comply with the Annan timetable. "The Syrian government must take the first step and start the troop withdrawal in line with Kofi Annan's plan," Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said during a visit to the former Soviet territory of Armenia. Previously, Russia, along with China, has protected Assad at the UN by vetoing resolutions seeking his removal from power.
Mr Annan, acting for the UN and the Arab League, said a letter from Syria's Foreign Minister, Walid Moallem, received on Sunday confirmed Damascus's acceptance of the deadline for partial compliance with his six-point plan which would include ending the movement of troops into Syrian towns, a withdrawal of heavy weapons and the start of a more general troop pullout from troubled areas.
In the longer term, the plan envisages negotiations by both sides for a political "transition" and the deployment of peacekeepers and monitors.
The agreement was confirmed by the Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari. "The Syrian government is committed," he said, but added that Damascus expected the UN and Mr Annan to get a similar undertaking from the opposition forces. "A plan wouldn't be successful unless everybody is committed to it," he said.