Security forces killed 41 people in the flashpoint city of Hama, activists said Monday, after the United Nations envoy to Syria slammed the killing of more than 100 people in a nearby city as an “appalling crime.”
Kofi Annan, a former UN chief now serving as its Syria envoy, urged President Bashar Assad to prove he wants a peaceful resolution to the crisis racking his country for well over a year. With international criticism of Assad growing, Annan arrived in Damascus for talks on his faltering peace plan.
Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said the massacre in the central city of Houla had been the work of “armed terrorist groups” – the Syrian government’s term for the rebels. He dismissed the “tsunami of lies” from the British, French and German envoys, who blamed the government for the massacre, among the worst carnage in an uprising that has cost more than 10,000 lives.
Assad’s ally Russia initially toed the Syrian line.
“We are dealing with a situation in which both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference with visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Later on Monday, however, Russia toned down its rhetoric, conceding that Damascus bears the brunt of the blame for the violence.
“The government bears the main responsibility for what is going on,” Lavrov said. “Any government in any country bears responsibility for the security of its citizens.”
Tony Badran, a Syria expert at the US-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the latest killings notwithstanding, the international community remains loath to contemplate military intervention in Syria.
“The only initiative the international community is willing to pursue remains the Annan plan, which has already proved to be a failure,” Badran told The Jerusalem Post.
“What the Obama administration might now try is attempt to ‘shame’ Russia into coming on board. This approach, however, is misguided and will also fail, as evident from the Russian response to the Houla massacre.
“The Russians will not change their position on Syria because the current situation ensures a continuity of their relevance, as a result of the Obama administration’s continued insistence on making them a central player in Syria – a role they otherwise would not have,” he said.
On Monday Annan explicitly urged the Syrian government to “take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully,” before adding: “This message of peace is not only for the government, but for everyone with a gun.”
Russia and China, which had previously vetoed resolutions condemning Assad, both approved a non-binding UN statement in New York that criticized the use of artillery and tank shells on homes in the city, but declined to blame the government alone.
The rebels do not have artillery and tanks.
China also expressed strong language about the killings.
“China feels deeply shocked by the large number of civilian casualties in Houla, and condemns in the strongest terms the cruel killings of ordinary citizens, especially women and children,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.
In Paris, France’s AFP news agency quoted the French president’s office as warning, “The murderous folly of the Damascus regime represents a threat for regional security and its leaders will have to answer for their acts.”
UN monitors say at least 108 people were killed, among them dozens of children.
Many of the victims were also hacked to death or shot at close range, as shown in graphic images distributed by activists.
The UN Security Council has also condemned the bloodshed in Houla, which took place Friday. UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon told the council the killings could have been the work of either rebels or government forces who moved in after the bombardment.
Annan’s plan calls for heavy weapons to be pulled out of towns and cities, followed by an end to fighting, and dialogue.
But the renewed assault on Hama, a center of resistance already devastated by Assad’s artillery this year, was a reminder that the agreement, policed by just 300 monitors, has done little to stem the violence.
“The six-point plan has to be implemented comprehensively, and this is not happening,” Annan said.
Opposition sources said Syrian tanks and armored vehicles opened fire on several neighborhoods in Hama on Sunday after attacks by rebel Free Syrian Army fighters on roadblocks and other positions manned by Assad’s forces.
In the course of 24 hours, the dead included five women and eight children, the Hama Revolution Leadership Council said in a statement. The report could not be independently verified.
Russia suggested that the violence in Houla, in particular, had been intended to sabotage the visit by Annan, who was to meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on Monday and Assad on Tuesday.
“We don’t believe the Syrian government would be interested in spoiling the visit... by doing something like that,” Russian Deputy UN Ambassador Alexander Pankin said in New York.
A video distributed by activists showed an injured woman, who said she had survived the massacre, blaming members of Assad’s “shabbiha” militia for the carnage.
“They entered our homes...men wearing fatigues herding us like sheep in the room and started spraying bullets at us. My father died and my brother, my mother’s only son. Seven sisters were killed,” said the woman, lying next to another injured woman and near a baby with a chest wound.
Russia has accused the US and Europe of pursuing Libyan-style regime change in Syria, and is wary of endorsing any measures that could become a prelude to armed intervention.
Media reports have suggested that Washington is trying to enlist Russia’s support for the kind of plan that brought about a handover from Yemen’s leader of three decades, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to an administration led by his own vice-president.
Russia has leverage over Syria through its Security Council veto and arms supply contracts, but does not wield the kind of influence that Saudi Arabia had over Saleh as his main financier.
Russia also has a strong interest in keeping its Syrian naval base at Tartous, and may still see Assad’s survival as the best guarantee of this.
Washington has explicitly said Assad must step down, and Gen. Jack Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN television, “Of course we always have to provide military options and they should be considered.”
But he stressed that the international community should use economic and diplomatic measures first to try to push Assad to “make the right decision.”
“The events in Syria over the weekend are just horrific – atrocious,” he said.
Syrian state media on Monday quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi as reiterating the government’s denial of responsibility for the killings in Houla.
“The savage pattern of killing as shown by the images – children, elderly and women were killed in a way which is alien to the morals of the valiant Syrian Arab army,” Makdissi said.
“What happened does not serve the interests of the Syrian state, and we are committed to Annan’s plan and wish him success,” he said. “We don’t trade in Syrian blood.”