U.N. envoy Kofi Annan met with Syria’s Bashar Assad to try to salvage a peace plan.
, Associated Press
West expels Syrian envoys to protest massacre
- Article by: PATRICK J. MCDONNELL
- Los Angeles Times
- May 29, 2012 - 9:42 PM
BEIRUT - U.S. and world leaders on Tuesday dramatically increased pressure on Syria following a massacre of civilians, with U.N. envoy Kofi Annan declaring the country at a tipping point and urging its president to implement a plan that could fatally weaken his grip on power.
Annan spoke in the Syrian capital as a group of nations, including the United States, Britain, France and Australia, expelled Syrian diplomats in an orchestrated response to last week's massacre of more than 100 people, the majority women and children, in the central Syrian township of Houla.
While most victims in Houla were initially thought to have died in government shelling, the United Nations' human rights office said Tuesday that evidence indicated most were summarily executed in a house-to-house killing spree. The United Nations said area residents blamed shabiha -- pro-government militiamen who, human rights groups say, have acted as regime executioners.
The Syrian government has denied any responsibility, but graphic images of bloodied and mangled corpses have drawn global revulsion. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Tuesday condemned what she called an "absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable massacre." Nuland said the United States would look for ways to "tighten the noose" around President Bashar Assad's regime.
Germany and Britain both said they were expelling the Syrian ambassador to their countries, and the United States said it was giving the charge d'affaires, the top Syrian diplomat in Washington, 72 hours to leave.
Annan called on the government and "all government-backed militias" to "stop all military operations ... We are at a tipping point. The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division. Yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today."
He did not say what consequences the government would face for defying the peace effort. "For the sake of Syria, and for the region, we must end this violence and begin to restore hope in a political transition to a democratic future," he said.
It is still far from certain whether there is an appetite among Western countries for intervention. But some analysts said Assad appeared more boxed in now than at any time during the 14-month rebellion.
"Houla was really a watershed," said Fawaz Gerges, who heads the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. "Assad is in [a] very precarious position right now. ... If I were President Assad in Damascus, I would think twice before I do the same thing I have been doing for the past 12 months."
Russia heavily invested
Before the massacre last Friday, Assad seemed to have reached a stable position, pursuing what he called political reforms and what his critics dismissed as window dressing. Meanwhile, he used his security apparatus to put down the rebellious masses. On the international front, he could count on the protection of Moscow.
But Russia is heavily invested in the U.N. peace plan, which calls for Assad to pull his troops and heavy weapons out of Syria's cities.
The opposition has been skeptical of Annan's peace plan, generally viewing it as a smoke screen for Assad to buy time and placate his international patrons, notably Russia. Complying with the plan now, however, is fraught with profound risks for Assad. The opposition would benefit if he is pressured to withdraw forces, allow freedom of expression and release political prisoners -- all mandates of the United Nations' six-point plan.
True compliance would allow Syrians to demonstrate freely, a scenario that would open the door for opposition forces to exert control of large parts of Syria that are sympathetic to the uprising.
"For Assad, the Annan plan is political suicide," Gerges said. "He cannot afford to pull out his armor. He cannot afford to allow demonstrations on a daily basis. That means he will lose control."
But if Assad does nothing, he risks alienating Russia, which has vetoed two efforts by the U.N. Security Council to condemn his crackdown on protests and stands in the way of tougher economic sanctions, trade restrictions and other punishments already imposed on Syria.
"Moscow has acquired [a] central role through the Annan plan, wants to see it survive and may realize that the conflict is deteriorating to the point where [the plan's] sustainability could be compromised," said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group think tank. Russia may conclude "that this is the time to push for a genuine political solution."
© 2013 Star Tribune