The slaughter of children and women in the Syrian town of Houla, reminiscent of past massacres that provoked the United Nations to step in, has failed to budge Russia into stepping away from its only Mideast ally.
UN officials said more than 100 Syrians were killed in what may be the worst atrocity in the 14-month conflict, and they said evidence of artillery and tank shelling indicate that forces under President Bashar al-Assad were to blame. His regime denied responsibility, and Russia said knife wounds on some victims reflected the techniques of his opponents.
The episode presents the U.S. and its allies with conflicting moral and practical considerations. While Western leaders denounced Assad, they gave no indication that the latest carnage will be a tipping point for the international community to scrap the failing monitoring mission by UN envoy Kofi Annan, consider joint military intervention, or embrace calls by U.S. Republicans for the Obama administration to supply weapons to Assad’s foes.
“The West is obviously still avoiding going down a military track, so there is an awful chance that you’ll have a flurry of diplomatic activity, a lot of fierce comments, but no reaction from the UN,” Richard Gowan, associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at the New York University Center on International Cooperation, said in an interview. “That sends a dreadful signal to Assad.”
‘Difficult to Imagine’
At an emergency meeting of the 15-member Security Council in New York yesterday, Russia insisted explicit references to Syrian armed forces being responsible for the latest bloodshed be dropped. Alexander Pankin, Russia’s deputy envoy at the UN, told reporters it was “difficult to imagine” the Syrian government would massacre women and children.
General Robert Mood, head of the UN’s observers in Syria, raised the death toll in the town in Homs province from 92 to 116, with 300 wounded, according to two diplomats present who spoke on condition of anonymity about the closed-door deliberations.
So far, the Houla slaughter hasn’t persuaded Russia to drop its support for Syria, a customer for Russian arms. A day before the massacre, Al-Jazeera reported Russia’s latest shipment of arms was arriving in the port of Tartus.
“I don’t think the Russians are going to do anything,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Nor is there willingness by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or Turkey, which shares a border with Syria, to become directly involved, Gowan said. “The West has slapped every possible sanction on Assad. The chances of Western action without a UN mandate remain low so it’s hard to see what kind of response this massacre will trigger.”
The Obama administration is reluctant to confront Russia over its support for Assad, two administration officials said this month, because it wants to avoid a confrontation with President Vladimir Putin so soon after he took office and because it puts a higher premium on gaining Russian support for halting Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons research.
At the same time, tensions with Pakistan have increased the need for U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan to use supply routes through former Soviet republics in Central Asia where Russia still has influence, the officials said.
Still, the killings in Houla make it harder for President Barack Obama’s administration to stick with the same formula in Syria.
“It’s one of those times when our morals and our interests seemingly line up,” Tabler said in an interview. “It’s hard to argue against doing something more. Either way, it puts the Obama administration in a tough spot. Not going the extra step to achieve the goal of getting the Assad regime to go down is going to be held against them.”
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in a statement yesterday that the “horrific” killings show “it is far past time for the United States to begin to lead and put an end to the Assad regime” and that Obama “should work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves.”
Even with such Republican criticism, deeper involvement in Syria may not prove a political plus with a public wary of foreign entanglements such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and concerned most of all about the U.S. economy, according to election-year opinion polls.
The administration hasn’t objected to efforts by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations to funnel arms to the rebels. The U.S. hasn’t done so partly because of concern about who would get the weapons in Syria’s fractious opposition.
There are signs that terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda, may be gaining a foothold in Syria. Elements of the Syrian opposition have begun to adopt tactics that the U.S. and its allies consider terrorism, such as a double suicide bombing outside an intelligence building in Damascus on May 10 that killed 55 people and wounded at least 370.
Syria presents a convergence of two themes that Obama has stressed in his administration’s foreign policy: moral and pragmatic reasons for acting.
Syria is a Iranian ally and ousting Assad would be a strategic blow to Iran at a time when the U.S. and allies are trying to isolate it and halt what they say is its nuclear weapons program.
For now, the two most realistic scenarios are that Assad continues to rule over a weakened state battling an insurgency, or that he will fall and the country will plunge into anarchy and civil war, according to an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity about internal deliberations.
A more optimistic scenario would be a “Yemen-like” solution in Syria, shorthand for the managed transition that the northern African country has managed over the past year, the administration official said.
That would require that elements of the regime and the opposition start negotiating and then for Assad to step down at some point, the official said. A coalition or technocratic Cabinet acceptable to all sides would lead the country through a transition period. The constitution would be amended or redrafted and election laws would be redrawn, culminating in presidential and legislative elections.
The administration thinks that approach is worth trying, especially if Russia can be cajoled into being part of the solution, even though it’s a long shot, the official said.
The future of the Annan-crafted mission of observers, which comes up for formal review in mid-July, is in jeopardy. Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, have described that plan as doomed and Annan’s pending visit to Damascus as his last chance.
“There is a misconception, difficult to correct, about the role of unarmed military observers and what they can and cannot do,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in a letter to the Security Council dated yesterday and obtained by Bloomberg News. This puts their presence on the ground in a “perilous position.”
The key to the Annan strategy was to buy time and create political space for powers such as Russia to force a deal, according to UN officials not authorized to speak for attribution. In the end, it comes down to whether events such as the massacre in Houla will shift Russia’s position, which remains unlikely, the officials said.
Episodes in past conflicts created enough outrage to prompt a change of course. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s unrelenting shelling of Benghazi marked one such turning point, spurring the NATO mission that helped oust him.
Another was in Yugoslavia in 1999. UN observers on the ground were powerless to prevent repeated instances of ethnic cleansing. After Serbian forces massacred 45 Kosovo Albanians in the village of Racak, confirmation by the observers that soldiers under Slobodan Milosevic carried out the killings finally galvanized NATO to use force and carry out air strikes.
About 1,400 observers were in Kosovo, which is a tenth of the size of Syria, where there currently are 271.
-- Editors: Larry Liebert, John Brinsley
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at