The Houla massacre in Syria is fueling debate about whether the United Nations should take actions such as imposing sanctions and expanding its monitoring mission, neither of which is likely to force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to yield to his opponents.
The worst atrocity in the 15-month uprising against Assad is raising tensions within the UN Security Council over how to quell the violence in Syria, exposing rifts over the UN observer force as well as the continuing impasse on sanctions.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told reporters that if the Security Council can’t agree on additional measures, Western nations and others supporting the Syrian opposition may emphasize actions outside the council’s authority.
“We may be beginning to see the wheels coming off this bus,” Rice said yesterday after a council briefing on Syria.
The mass killing in Houla, where women and children accounted for 83 of the 108 deaths, has produced symbolic responses, such as the ejection of top Syrian diplomats from Western capitals. It hasn’t broken a deadlock in the UN Security Council, where veto-wielding Russia continues to block attempts to impose more economic pressure on a country slipping into civil war.
“Our attitude to sanctions frankly continues to be negative,” said Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin.
While the U.S. has publicly raised the possibility of expanding the numbers of observers in Syria, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his team are opposed on safety grounds.
The Security Council is unlikely to want to override him, according to a UN diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. In addition, any deaths of observers might force the mission to be withdrawn without a back-up plan in place.
The UN has 291 unarmed military observers and 89 civilian watchers to oversee a peace plan crafted by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan. The mission is scheduled to meet its full contingent of 300 military observers by today, and its 90-day authorization will be reviewed in July.
The UN has no “Plan B” to end the crisis in Syria, Ban told Turkey’s NTV news channel in an interview today. Annan’s initiative to halt the fighting and assist a political transition hasn’t yet collapsed, he said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told NTV in an interview from Istanbul that the “UN needs to take a decisive stance to prevent a civil war.”
“Annan’s effort was very good willed, but for it to succeed there needs to be a serious counterpart,” he said. “The Houla massacre showed that there is no such counterpart,” he added.
Kuwaiti Foreign Minister, Sheikh Sabah Khalid Al Hamad Al-Sabah, said at a China-Arab meeting in Tunisia today that he hoped China would double its pressure on Syria to stop the violence and implement the Annan peace plan. The Local Coordination Committees in Syria said a further 10 people have been killed so far today, adding to the 10,000 the UN says have died during the conflict.
The UN’s observers have reduced violence in the areas where they were present, though the “frustration” of Syrians has sometimes “taken the form of threats” against the monitors, damage to their vehicles, and restrictions on their movements, Ban said in a May 25 report to the council. The observers played a role this week in documenting the atrocities in Houla.
“We’d like to see as many as possible,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said of the observers at a briefing yesterday in Washington.
U.S. President Barack Obama discussed the violence in Syria yesterday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, the White House said in a statement.
During a video teleconference, Obama and the European leaders talked about “their shared perspectives on the importance of ending the violence of the government against its own people and the urgency of achieving a political transition,” the White House said.
Annan, who visited Assad in Damascus in the aftermath of the Houla massacre, is running out of time to bring the government and the opposition into a political dialogue that could eventually persuade Assad to step aside.
His progress will be the focus of a June 7 briefing to the Security Council, which he will make in person in New York for the first time since he was named peace broker.
Monitors are only a means to an end -- the start of a political process -- and there is urgency to know if a dialogue will ever start, according to a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
In New York, Rice said a worst-case scenario is that the “council’s unity is exploded, the Annan plan is dead, and this becomes a proxy conflict with arms flowing in from all sides.”
Should that happen, the international community is “left with the option only of having to consider whether they’re prepared to take actions outside of the Annan plan and the authority of this Council,” she told reporters.
Annan’s deputy, Jean-Marie Guehenno, told the council yesterday that, while negotiations between two sides are the only way forward, any engagement is impossible following the tragedy in Houla, according to a UN diplomat present at the briefing who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.
More than 5,000 Syrians, mostly women and children from the scene of the weekend massacre, were found on May 29 without food or water by a joint team of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
According to UN estimates, the killings in the Houla region of western Syria left 108 people dead, including 49 children. Most of the victims died in their homes and entire families were summarily executed by gunmen at close range, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said May 29, citing witnesses and survivors.
The UN says pro-government shabiha militiamen were responsible for the slaughter, a version supported by the U.S. and European nations on the Security Council. The Assad government blamed the deaths on foreign-backed terrorist groups. Russia, its ally, continues to say the circumstances remain unclear and it is waiting for an investigation to be completed.
Russia routinely brings up the specter of al-Qaeda to deflect responsibility for violence from forces loyal to Assad, as well as warning against the risk of outside military intervention every time Western powers suggest further steps to challenge Assad’s non-compliance.