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Syria's Assad unbowed by Annan plan

BEIRUT — The U.N. insists a fragile truce it brokered in Syria is holding, even though regime forces have been hammering the rebellious city of Homs with artillery for days.

It's a sign of the leeway the international community seems willing to give President Bashar 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.

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 Assad has the backing of Russia, China and Iran.

Some even argue the Annan plan has actually allowed 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 Center, a Gulf-based think tank. "If the end game is the fall of the Assad regime, I don't think we are any closer to the end game."

From the time the April 12 cease-fire deadline was announced, the regime escalated blanket shelling attacks on rebel-held neighborhoods, 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 U.N.-Arab League emissary, is the only one a deadlocked international community could rally behind and is seen as the only practical way forward.

Syria's allies back the initiative because, unlike an Arab League plan earlier this year, it does not require Assad to step down ahead of transition talks.