The brutal killing of 110 people, including dozens of children in a Syrian village, is set to increase international pressure on Syria and pave the way for louder calls for action against President Bashar al-Assad's administration as a UN peace plan for the country falters in the wake of the massacre.
The massacre in Houla was one of the bloodiest incidents since the start of the clashes between the regime and opposition in Syria more than a year ago, and also after a shaky truce brokered by Annan, which is supposed to have been in effect since April 12. The mass killings prompted sweeping international criticism of the Syrian regime and calls for action, although world leaders were divided on whether Assad's forces were exclusively to blame.
In a press statement on Sunday, the UN Security Council “condemned in the strongest possible terms” the killings and blamed Syrian forces for artillery and tank shelling of residential areas. It also condemned the killings of civilians “by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse,” but avoided saying who was responsible for the attacks.
But the differences among world powers only give time to Assad to carry on with the offensive, observers say. Ali Semin, a Middle East expert from Bilgesam, told Today’s Zaman on Monday that the lack of consensus within the UN and the tolerant approach to the Syrian regime by some of Security Council member countries [namely Russia and China] only increases the severity of the government crackdown on opponents in Syria.
In Brussels, Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament, said it was time for military action to stop brutality in Syria. “We have all been watching the most horrendous pictures of dozens of children who have been brutally murdered. This is once more an intolerable crime against humanity,” he said in a statement, declaring that the “time for peace talks is over, we need action now.”
“While the UN Security Council is meeting, the same massacre is happening in Hama. After Homs and Houla, this will be the third Syrian Srebrenica,” he said, referring to the 1995 killings of 8,000 Bosniaks by Serbian forces.
Vehofstadt said if the UN is unable to act, then NATO should. “There is only one way to stop this insanity. We need an international intervention in Syria right now. I appeal to the UN to intervene, beginning with the creation of two safe-zones: one in the north and another in the south. If the UN Security Council is going to be that irresponsible not to decide to intervene, it is the duty of NATO to do so,” he said.
According to Semin, continued violence clearly points to the collapse of the Annan plan, maintaining that harsh measures by the international community, including in the form of military action, seem to be a last remaining option. But he said military action seems to be a remote probability due to differences among world powers.
“While [UN Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon has tended to hold the Assad regime responsible for violence, no such clear statement has come from Russia so far,” Semin said. He also accused the Syrian government of falsely blaming the opposition for violence. “What Syrian regime mainly tries to do is to put the blame on Syrian opposition groups from the conflict in the country,” he added, referring to Syrian government statements that blamed the opposition for the killings.
The head of a UN observer force in Syria, Gen. Robert Mood, briefed the Security Council on Sunday, claiming that the attack “did not link directly the [army’s] shelling with numbers of deaths.” Ban also sent the council a letter that seemed to pick no side between two conflicting accounts of the massacre.
Hasan Kanbolat, the president of Ankara-based think tank ORSAM, agreed with Semin that military action is not likely in Syria, given the disagreement among world powers but estimated that the regime could be preparing its own end by reacting to unrest with brutality. “The constant conflict situation is not sustainable for the regime as well, because the economic and military means at its hand are also in the course of diminishing as conflict drags on,” Kanbolat noted.
Turkey, which called on the international community to raise its voice after the Houla massacre, considers the UN’s reaction as strong, but not enough. “We are anticipating an urgent end to the bloodshed in Syria. UN should continue its efforts in the most active way for that,” said a Turkish official on Monday, speaking to Today’s Zaman.