The United Nations has returned to the issue of Syria today, after a massacre in villages near the flashpoint city of Homs that killed at least 116 people, including 32 children.
Syria is currently under a UN-managed ceasefire between its military and anti-government rebels, but the massacre in Houla after Friday evening prayers shows the ineffectiveness of that process. Unlike some other outrages, however, this one appears to be well-documented and has received the attention of the international community.
The UN Security Council is meeting today with a lot of pressure being administered to Russia, an ally of Syria’s.
The UK wants Russia, Syria’s only major foreign ally, to put pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to halt civilian deaths.
The Syrian government has denied any involvement in the Houla killings, blaming “terrorists”.
The closed meeting was called after Russia rejected a joint UK-French statement condemning the killings, diplomats say.
Russia was said to first want a briefing from the head of the UN observer mission in Syria, Maj Gen Robert Mood.
Gen. Mood, who viewed the aftermath of the massacre, was a bit equivocal in his remarks so far, saying that “Whoever started, whoever responded and whoever took part in this deplorable act of violence should be held responsible.”
For their part, the Syrian government blamed “armed terrorists” for the killings in Houla, as they have done throughout the 15-month uprising, playing the Al Qaeda card to avoid responsibility. But the dead in Houla were victims of, among other things, shelling from heavy artillery and only the government security forces have that kind of firepower. Gen. Mood actually confirmed the use of artillery and tanks. In addition to the shelling, activists say that militia ordered by the regime conducted house-to-house raids, executing the villagers. Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations tried to play off the attacks by saying that it was unclear who was responsible for them.
What nobody can deny, thanks to multiple videos and documentary evidence, is that a massacre took place in Houla, though the regime and its defenders will try to shift the blame. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton labeled the massacre appalling, and added that the Syrian regime’s “rule by murder and fear must come to an end.”
However, any response to the massacre is likely to run into the same roadblocks as before – China and Russia, both permanent members with veto power on the Security Council. The Arab League has also assembled to give a response to the attack, but their efforts to hold the Syrian government accountable during the uprising have been pathetic, including their ill-fated observer mission. The UN’s mission is looking just as feckless at this point. Activists said they called the UN monitors while the massacre was taking place, to no avail.