A massacre in the Syrian town of al-Houla has sparked international outrage but is unlikely to break a year-long impasse on the U.N. Security Council between Syria’s ally Russia and Western powers calling for President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster.
The massacre was among the worst carnage of the 14-month uprising against Assad’s government, which began as peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations but has become increasingly militarized, with signs that battled-hardened Islamist militants have come from abroad to join the fight against Assad using trademark tactics like suicide bombings.
At least seven Western nations expelled Syrian envoys from their capitals on Tuesday in a coordinated action against Damascus spurred by revulsion over the killing of more than 100 civilians in al-Houla, including many children.
But such moves are largely symbolic. In New York, where the United States and its European allies have tried in vain since last year to persuade Russia and China to back sanctions against Damascus, the 15-nation Security Council remains deeply split.
“There are no signs Russia and China are ready to support tougher steps at the U.N., despite what happened in al-Houla,” a council diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Russia and China vetoed two resolutions that condemned Damascus for the bloodshed, though they recently joined the rest of the council in approving the deployment of unarmed military observers and backing international mediator Kofi Annan's peace plan. The Annan plan has so far failed to stop the violence.
What would change Russia’s views and the dynamics on the council in favor of tougher action against Damascus and Assad? According to David Bosco of American University in Washington, the impasse on the council will be in place as long as Assad is able to fend off efforts to topple his government.
“The council dynamics likely won't shift until the dynamics of the Syria conflict itself shift,” he said. “As long as the government has a reasonable chance of holding onto power, I’d expect Russia and China to oppose aggressive measures to weaken the regime's power.”
Russia supported a non-binding U.N. Security Council statement on Sunday that condemned the massacre “in the strongest possible terms” and criticized the government for using heavy weapons against population centers, while simultaneously calling on all sides to end the violence.
The unanimously approved statement also said the massacre might constitute a violation of international law.
Western powers clearly hoped that the horrific nature of al-Houla would persuade Moscow and Beijing to sanction Syria. Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told reporters in New York on Tuesday that he and other delegates raised al-Houla massacre again during a closed-door council meeting.
“Most Security Council members raised Syria during the discussions just now, including me, making the point that the current situation was not sustainable, that more than 12,000 people had been killed, the massacre at al-Houla is seen by many in the region, and more widely, as a game changer,” he said.
He said the council was looking ahead to Wednesday's meeting on Syria, at which it will receive a briefing from Annan's deputy Jean-Marie Guehenno on Annan’s talks with Assad in Syria.
“We would like to see a proper strategic discussion at that meeting about what the next steps are going to be,” he added.
“Next steps” is usually diplomatic code for sanctions.
But Russia does not appear to see al-Houla as a game changer and continues to blame both sides for the killings at al-Houla.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking with Annan by phone on Tuesday, urged the government and rebels to stop violence and repeated a call for an investigation into al-Houla.
Lavrov “expressed deep alarm in connection with the tragedy in Houla and underscored that all Syrian sides should reject violence without delay with the aim of preventing such incidents in the future,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The Syrian government has blamed Islamist militants for the killings in al-Houla.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin also condemned the “cruel killings” of al-Houla, comments that marked an intensification of Beijing’s condemnation of the bloodshed. But Liu stopped short of directly condemning Assad's government.
On Sunday U.N. officials said it was not yet clear who was responsible for the massacre. But U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous was much less ambiguous when he spoke to reporters in New York on Tuesday.
He said that the army and “shabbiha” militia supporting Assad were “probably” responsible for massacring 108 people with artillery, tanks, small arms and knives.
Despite his “strong suspicions,” he said the evidence was less clear about the shabbiha militia's involvement in the close-range killings with knives and small arms. By saying that, he did not definitively clear the rebels of blame.
That lack of clarity gives Russia and China a chance to withhold judgment and leaves the deadlock in place until a full-scale investigation presents irrefutable evidence that the government was to blame - assuming that is what U.N. investigators find.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland welcomed the Russian acceptance of a full investigation and said Washington had no doubt irrefutable evidence will arrive.
“We think it’s indisputable what that investigation is going to show,” she said. “It is going to show that these were regime sponsored thugs who went into villages, went into homes, and killed children at point blank range and their parents.”
So far Annan’s six-point peace plan and mediation efforts, as well as the deployment of nearly 300 unarmed U.N. observers, have failed to bring about a truce and launch that political dialogue between the government and opposition aimed at a “political transition” that is the core of Annan’s plan.
At the same time, Ladsous made clear that there is no “Plan B” to Annan effort’s, which Russia and China strongly support.
“There is no alternative, there is no other game, nobody has come out with any other plan,” he said. “This is the one that we support, the one that we work for.”
The U.N. observer force’s 90-day mandate expires in late July. Diplomats say it is unclear if the council will renew it if the situation in Syria does not improve.