Negotiations resume with new support from Russia.
BEIRUT - International efforts to pressure Syria intensified Monday as U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan resumed negotiations in Damascus and the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff warned that continued atrocities could make military intervention more likely.
Annan traveled to Syria seeking to salvage his peace plan, which appeared more precarious than ever after the massacre of at least 108 villagers in the Houla area of central Syria. He urged the government to hold to its commitment in March to honor the six-point plan, which included not only a cease-fire but also a political dialogue with the opposition and freedom for Syrians to demonstrate.
Questions about the viability of the plan were thrown into sharp relief by the massacre in the villages that constitute Houla, near Homs, on Friday, whose victims included 49 children and 34 women by the United Nations' count. The U.N. Security Council on Sunday unanimously condemned the massacre and, while not assigning blame, censured the Syrian government for using heavy artillery and tanks against the civilian population.
Shops forced open
The aftermath of the killings continued to reverberate inside Syria. Shops stayed shut as part of an opposition-led call to observe three days of mourning, including the famous Hamadiyah bazaar of Damascus, according to opposition activists and residents.
Damascus has been a bastion of government support. The activists and residents said government agents forced some stores to reopen, particularly in the nut and candy bazaar, by prying open their metal shutters.
Annan, the envoy of both the United Nations and the Arab League and a former U.N. secretary-general, arrived with a new mandate from the Security Council -- including Russia, which had usually blocked action against its ally in Damascus -- to implement his plan. He was scheduled to hold talks with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem on Monday and with President Bashar Assad on Tuesday. He also will meet with opposition figures.
From the beginning, the peace plan has been given slim chances of success. But it was seen as an acceptable means to try to bridge the differences over Syria between the West and the Arab states on one side and Russia, China and Iran on the other.
Some analysts have called it an international stalling measure, because the Western appetite for military intervention in the conflict is low, even in the absence of Russian opposition.
In Washington, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the massacre in Syria "horrific" and "atrocious" and said he was prepared with military options in Syria should they be requested by the White House. But he otherwise spoke cautiously about any U.S. intervention by force.
"There is always a military option, but that military option should always be wielded carefully," Dempsey said. "Because one thing we've learned about war, I have learned personally about war, is that it has a dynamic all its own; it takes on a life of its own."
White House officials said Dempsey's television appearances were not a coordinated administration response to Syria but had been planned previously as part of the administration's commemoration of Memorial Day. In recent days, the Obama administration has come under intensified criticism by some in Congress and by Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, who accused President Obama of not doing enough to help the Syrian opposition.
Syrian claims echoed
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was slightly more expansive in holding the Syrian government responsible for the violence, during comments after a meeting with his British counterpart, William Hague. He and Hague agreed that the main priority was to fully implement the peace plan.
Lavrov repeated Russia's position that it was not tied to Assad staying in power, rather that the Syrians pilot their own political transition.
Despite the increased Russian public pressure on the Syrian government, Lavrov did echo Syrian government claims that the violence was being fomented by imported terrorists working at the behest of foreign governments.
In Houla, where survivors buried their dead in a mass grave Monday, new accounts of the killings emerged, adding to earlier statements that some of the attacks were by pro-government thugs who went house to house to find victims.
Human Rights Watch quoted one elderly woman from the Abdul Razzak clan as saying she survived by hiding in a back room while gunmen dressed in fatigues killed most of her family. "I heard several gunshots," she said, describing how she collapsed in terror until the soldiers left. "I looked outside the room and saw all of my family members shot."