Beirut: The UN insists a fragile truce it brokered in Syria is holding, even though regime forces have been hammering the city of Homs with artillery for days.
It's a sign of the leeway the international community seems willing to give President Bashar Al Assad in hopes of forcing him into the next stage of special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan — talks with opponents who demand his removal.
Al Assad has made it brutally clear that he won't step aside, trying to snuff out a 13-month uprising with tank fire and mass arrests. Even though he ostensibly accepted Annan's plan, he's likely to wriggle out of it since he seems largely insulated from pressure. He does not face a threat of Western military intervention. Poorly armed rebel fighters don't pose a danger to his rule. And Al Assad has the backing of Russia, China and Iran, along with key groups at home.
Some even argue the Annan plan has actually allowed Al Assad to strengthen his hold on the country of 22 million.
"There is nothing to suggest that there is light at the end of the tunnel here," said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Centre, a Gulf-based think tank. "If the end game is the fall of the [Al] Assad regime, I don't think we are any closer to the end game."
From the time the April 12 ceasefire deadline was announced, the regime escalated blanket shelling attacks on rebel-held neighbourhoods, killing dozens every day in what the opposition described as a frenzied last-minute rush to crush the uprising.
Yet the plan by Annan, the joint UN-Arab League emissary, is the only one a deadlocked international community could rally behind and is seen as the only practical way forward.
The West is "half-heartedly supporting the Annan plan although it expects it to fail, because it is even more hesitant at the idea of getting sucked into an armed confrontation," said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group think-tank.
Syria's allies, meanwhile, back the initiative because, unlike an Arab League plan earlier this year, it does not require Al Assad to step down ahead of transition talks.
Still, even Annan demands that Al Assad eventually "address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people" in talks with the opposition.
The behaviour of the regime in the past few days suggests the plan is likely to unravel well before any political talks could begin.
Since a truce formally took effect on Thursday, Syria has violated key provisions. Tanks, troops and widely feared plain clothes security agents continue to patrol the streets to deter anti-regime protests, despite Annan's demand that the army pull back to its bases.
And while there's been a sharp drop in violence since last week, the regime resumed its assault on rebellious Homs, Syria's third-largest city, over the weekend, after only a brief lull.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon hinted on Monday he's ready to overlook Al Assad's transgressions for now. He said the truce is "very fragile" but essential for getting to political negotiations, suggesting Ban is willing to stretch the definition of a cease-fire to salvage Annan's plan.