BEIRUT – U.S. and world leaders dramatically increased pressure on Syria following a massacre of civilians, with special envoy Kofi Annan declaring the country at a tipping point and urging its president to implement a peace plan that could fatally weaken his grip on power.
Annan spoke in the Syrian capital Tuesday as a group of nations – including the United States, Great 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 Syrian township of Houla.
While most victims in Houla were initially thought to have perished 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 U.N. said area residents interviewed blamed shabiha – pro-government militiamen who, human rights groups say, have acted as regime enforcers and executioners.
The Syrian government has denied any responsibility for the massacre in Houla, 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 U.S. would look for ways to “tighten the noose” around Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Germany and Britain each said they were expelling the Syrian ambassador to their country, and the U.S. said it was giving the charge d’affaires, the top Syrian diplomat in Washington, 72 hours to leave.
Adding to the presssure, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested in an interview with Fox News that escalating “atrocities” in Syria could lead to military intervention. The U.S. and its allies, which launched an intensive bombing campaign that helped bring down Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi last year, have generally downplayed the possibility of intervention in Syria.
Annan called on the government and “all government-backed militias” to “stop all military operations and show maximum restraint.”
“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 said.
He did not say what consequences the government would face for defying the peace effort.
It is still far from certain whether there is an appetite among Western countries for intervention. But some analysts said that 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.”
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 powerful 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 U.N.’s six-point peace 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,” said Gerges. “He cannot afford to pull out his armor. He cannot afford to allow demonstrations on a daily basis. That means he will lose control. It would be like Tunisia or Egypt.”
On the other hand, if Assad does nothing he risks alienating Russia, which has vetoed two efforts by the Security Council to condemn his crackdown on protests and stands in the way of tougher economic sanctions, trade restrictions and other punishments.
“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.”
Russia and China did sign on to a nonbinding U.N. Security Council statement on Sunday that assailed Syria for the artillery and tank bombardment of Houla.