U.S. says it fears ‘potential massacre’ planned by Syrian government in Haffa

Demonstrators protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Maraa, near Aleppo. The placard reads: “Your tanks never scared us, we are staying here, you are mortal.” (Reuters)

The Syrian government appears to be planning a massacre in the opposition stronghold of Haffa, the U.S. State Department said on Monday, and it warned that Syria’s army will be held to account for killings.

A spokesman for former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, who drafted a fledgling U.N.-Arab League peace plan, earlier warned that civilians were trapped in the northwestern city and demanded the immediate entry of U.N. monitors.

“The United States joins joint special envoy Kofi Annan in expressing deep alarm by reports from inside Syria that the regime may be organizing another massacre,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

“We are calling this out now in the hope that we can stop what could be a potential massacre,” Nuland said, citing reports from U.N. monitors on the ground in Syria.

Syria has already experienced two major massacres recently, with 55 people killed last week in al-Qubeir and at least 108, about half of them children, killed in al-Houla on May 25.

Nuland said that the tactics showed that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, cracking down on the most severe threat to his family’s four-decade rule, was “increasingly desperate.”

“What government voluntarily uses helicopters and fires from them on their own civilians if they’re not desperate? What government depends on a bunch of thugs in trucks -- irregulars -- if they’re not desperate?” she said.

“This constitutes a very serious escalation,” Nuland said.

“And we remind Syrian commanders of one of the lessons from Bosnia: The international community can and does learn what units were responsible for crimes against humanity and you will be held responsible for your actions.”

But Nuland again ruled out U.S. military intervention. Russia has strongly opposed the prospect of force to remove Assad, whose family has been a key ally of Moscow since the Cold War.

“The concern has been that putting foreign military forces into this situation -- which is on the verge, as everybody has said, of becoming a civil war -- will turn it into a proxy war,” Nuland said.

“The better course of action here is to use all of the economic, political, other pressure we can use to peel off from Assad those people who are still obeying his orders,” she said.

Nuland said Washington would continue to support the U.N. monitoring mission, deployed under a peace plan put forward by Annan but ignored by both sides, but dismissed growing calls by activist groups and some U.S. allies in the region for potential military intervention.

“Among the things that we are continuing to talk about is working with those countries that are still supporting the Assad regime, including supporting him militarily, to stop doing that,” Nuland said.

She said the United States would continue to consult with its allies on the possibility of seeking a “Chapter 7” mandate from the U.N. Security Council which could authorize actions ranging from sanctions to armed intervention.

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