William Katz:  Urgent Agenda

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SYRIAN AGONY CONTINUES – AT 9:52 A.M. ET:  Syria has been out of the headlines, in part because of a vague "deal" reached between the Syrian regime and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to end the horrible violence against Syrian protesters. 

Like everything else Annan has ever announced, you have to take any "deal" with many grains of salt.  The man's track record should have sent him back to a diplomatic farm team years ago. 

(Reuters) - Syrian troops and tanks battled rebels on Friday, opposition activists said, only four days before the deadline for a troop pullback agreed to by President Bashar al-Assad as part of peace envoy Kofi Annan's plan to end a year of bloodshed.

The violence was unrelenting despite assurances from Syria that troops had begun withdrawing under the plan.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday said the conflict was worsening and attacks on civilian areas persisting.

In a letter to the United Nations released on Friday Syria said rebel forces, whom it refers to as terrorists, had stepped up their attacks on state security forces since Damascus agreed to Annan's peace plan nearly two weeks ago.

"In recent days terrorist acts committed by armed groups in Syria have escalated, especially since reaching an understanding on Kofi Annan's plan," the letter said.

The United States and other Western governments who doubt Assad's commitment to withdrawal say they are concerned that his forces are using the pre-ceasefire period to intensify attacks.

COMMENT:  We've noted here intelligence reports that Iran and Hezbollah have stepped up their aid to Assad.

It is not likely that the Annan plan will succeed because, at Syria's insistence, it contains no mechanism for Assad to be replaced.  Some 9,000 Syrians have died in the revolt.  It's unlikely, after that, that the opposition will simply lay down its arms and allow Assad to remain in power. 

This is a continuing tragedy, but it can affect us.  Syria is Iran's closest ally in the Arab world.  If the Assad regime can be brought down, it will be a severe blow to Iranian aspirations.  But if Assad survives, with Tehran's help, Iranian prestige will only grow.  In the Middle East, as the saying goes, it is the strong horse that people follow.

April 6, 2012