Even the most incurable pessimist might have been surprised by how quickly and completely the Kofi Annan peace plan for Syria has unravelled. Just as a ceasefire was supposed to come into effect, the killing has dramatically escalated. Today was planned to be the day when Syrian troops and tanks would leave major cities, in preparation for a total ceasefire from 0600 Thursday onwards.
What has happened? The army is reported to have bombarded Homs and Hama, killing some 11 people in the last few hours. And yesterday saw one of the most serious incidents of the entire conflict, when Syrian troops fired across the border into Turkey for the first time, wounding refugees inside a camp located near the frontier.
All this carries an unmistakable message: President Bashar al-Assad’s word is clearly worth nothing. He officially accepted the Annan plan a fortnight ago, but the idea of actually keeping his promise does not seem to have occurred to him. Instead, Syria’s regime scents a decisive victory against its armed opponents and the army wants to press home its attack. Any claims about a willingness to accept a ceasefire or negotiations are clearly just gambits to avoid international pressure for another day.
Despite the ambitions she expressed for liberalising Syria before the uprising, Mrs Assad, 36, displays no misgivings about the regime’s bloody crackdown, which has accounted for most of the estimated 8,000 lives lost.
Her correspondence with Bashar al-Assad, his aides, friends and family portray her as highly supportive of her husband.
In an email to a family friend on Jan 10, she praised a speech the president gave for conveying a sense of being “very strong, no more messing around”.
In another, she complains that ABC News unfavourably edited an interview with him.
On Jan 17, she circulated an email cracking a joke at the expense of the people of Homs, shortly before a regime onslaught that would claim hundreds of lives.
Thousands of emails purporting to be from the presidential couple and their inner circle have been disclosed by Syrian opposition activists, throwing open the private life of the country’s dictator.
They appear to portray Mr Assad, 46, as a whimsical, light-hearted figure, apparently untroubled by his country’s bloodshed. Meanwhile, Asma al-Assad, 36, seems to spend many hours shopping online and searching out the latest Harry Potter DVDs, presumably for the couple’s three children.
On February 5, at the outset of the assault on Homs that escalated to become the bloodiest episode of the country’s conflict, Mr Assad is purported to have sent his wife the lyrics of a song by Blake Shelton, the American country and western singer.
The words might reflect a sense of remorse from the man whose soldiers were bombarding a city of one million people on his orders.
“I’ve been a walking heartache / I’ve made a mess of me / The person that I’ve been lately / Ain’t who I wanna be,” reads the first verse.
Hadi Abdallah, a Syrian activist in the besieged central city, said the bodies of 26 children and 21 women, some with their throats slit and others bearing stab wounds, were found in the Karm el-Zaytoun and Al-Adawiyeh neighbourhoods.
“Some of the children had been hit with blunt objects on their head, one little girl was mutilated and some women were raped before being killed,” he said.
The main opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to discuss the “massacre”, which it said took place on Sunday.
“The Syrian National Council is making the necessary contacts with all organisations and countries that are friends with the Syrian people for the UN Security Council to hold an emergency meeting,” the SNC said in a statement.
And in a clear reference to Russia and China, the SNC said that allies of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad shared responsibility for the “crimes” committed by his regime.
Mr Annan, the special envoy to Syria for both the United Nations and the Arab League, was scheduled to meet Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, within hours of his arrival.
The veteran Ghanaian diplomat has faced growing anger from the Syrian opposition by insisting that he would urge both sides in the conflict to seek peaceful compromises, a position closer to Russian rather than Western policy.
More than 70 civilians were killed on the eve of Mr Annan’s arrival, according to Syrian human rights activists, as pro-regime forces mounted offensives in both Homs and the province of Idlib, two of the most restive parts of the country.
Just two days after Baroness Amos, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator, visited Homs, Mr Assad’s army and allied militiamen carried out attacks on four of its districts in an attempt to regain total control of the city.
At least 30 people were killed, according to the London based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, among them nine civilians, one of them a child, who had taken shelter in a mosque.
The United Nations said 2,000 people were at or near the Lebanese border where it comes close to the city of Homs, with more sheltering in nearby towns and villages.
The Fourth Division, led by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, and given the role of spearheading the attack because of concerns over the loyalty of other troops, turned its attention to nearby suburbs after retaking Baba Amr, scene of the uprising’s worst fighting, at the end of last week. Other units were attacking northern parts of the country that had also been freed from regime control.
Activists said at least 12 people, including three children and three women, died on Sunday in shelling on the Homs suburb of Rastan. On Friday and Saturday, it was alleged by several activists and refugees that men from Baba Amr had been rounded up separately from the women and children and taken away.
Ten were lined up against the wall of the Consumer Society, which was being used as a holding centre, and shot outright, they said.
Homs is less than 20 miles from the Lebanese border, and large tracts of territory that lies in between have been under the control of the Free Syrian Army, which has been able to set up its own patrols openly until now.
The last defenders of the free Syrian village of Ain al-Beida were huddling from a biting wind in a Turkish border town. They were still covered with mud from their desperate escape over the mountains.
The previous day, the unit of 50 ragged fighters were driven out of their village by 500 Syrian soldiers backed with tanks. Afterwards, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces burnt the buildings and planted landmines.
“We’ve never seen them fight like that before, they were crazed,” said Jamal, a rebel commander, on Saturday. “You shot them and they didn’t drop. They must have been drugged or something.”
Many other villages in Idlib province, in the north along the Turkish border, got the same treatment last week. While the world’s attention was focused on the horror being inflicted on Homs, where Syrian troops were accused of “medieval barbarity” by David Cameron, President Assad expanded his scorched-earth policy northwards in an apparent bid to destroy the rebel movement altogether.
“There are soldiers everywhere now,” said one man who escaped out of Idlib province on Friday night. “They have flooded the countryside, shelling the villages, searching and raiding everywhere.”