UN special envoy Kofi Annan began a last-ditch effort to avoid an all-out civil war in Syria on Tuesday, as the European Union began expelling ambassadors from the country in the wake of the Houla massacre.
President Bashar Assad received UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan in the Syrian capital for a make-or-break meeting after an internationally condemned massacre of civilians last Friday.
The European Union, meanwhile, has begun expelling Syria's ambassadors in a coordinated effort. Britain said it had expelled two diplomats in what it called a "stark message" to Damascus. The move comes in response to a Syrian government attack on the city of Houla, in which more than 100 civilians – dozens of them children – were killed. Several countries followed suit, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, the US and Canada.
Australia had already responded by expelling two Syrian diplomats earlier in the day. "This is the most effective way we've got of sending a message of revulsion to the Syrian government," said Foreign Minister Bob Carr.
The United Nations human rights office in Geneva said early Tuesday that its investigators in Syria had confirmed that 108 people had died in the "appalling massacre" in Houla and that most of them had been executed.
UN rights spokesman, Rupert Colville, said that fewer than 20 of the 108 victims confirmed dead died from artillery and tank fire. Survivors in Houla, he said, had told UN officials that most of the victims died in two bouts of summary executions carried out by pro-government Shabbiya militia in the nearby village of Taldaou.
"I believe at this point, and I would stress we are at very preliminary stages, that under 20 of the 108 can be attributed to artillery and tank fire," Colville told a news briefing in Geneva, adding that 49 children and 34 women were among those killed.
UN special envoy Kofi Annan said before his meeting with President Assad that he "intended to have a serious and frank discussion" with the president. He urged Damascus to take "bold steps" to resolve the crisis peacefully.
A 'Yemen' solution for Syria?
Annan is attempting to salvage a six-week-old peace plan that has UN and Arab League backing but has not slowed the bloodshed in the 14-month uprising. More than 9,000 people have died so far, according to UN estimates.
After a meeting in Moscow with his Russian counterpart on Sunday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague appealed for more pressure on the Assad regime.
"It is part of the pattern of behavior of the Assad regime, I believe, to commit atrocities and then try to blame those atrocities on other people," Hague said.
Russiaand China, long defenders of Assad, backed a non-binding Security Council text on Sunday criticizing the use of artillery and tanks against Houla, weaponry Syrian rebels do not have.
Russia, it seems, may be backing away from Assad, afraid of the political fallout for continuing its support of the Syrian regime. Moscow has hinted that it may go along with a plan suggested by US President Barack Obama which would induce a gradual exit for Assad along the lines of the political solution implemented earlier this year in Yemen.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected in Berlin on Thursday for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Syria is likely to loom large on the agenda.
Syrian opposition disillusioned
It is not clear, however, whether the Syrian opposition would go along with a plan that allows Assad to leave unscathed. Although they have received arms from Western countries to shore up their struggle, the political stalemate and inaction of the international community have frustrated their efforts to put more domestic pressure on the regime.
Ferhad Ahma, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council and co-founder of the German-Syrian opposition movement 'Adopt a Revolution,' underscored in an interview with Deutsche Welle that all the international efforts so far had not prevented the ongoing regime massacres.
"I am nearly at wit's end. When you see that every day at least 100 people depart this world in the same barbarous way, and at the same time the international community and Kofi Anna are still content to issue simple press releases, then you have to ask: Why? […] The international community must exercise its responsibility," Ahma said.
"The Syrians have demonstrated a great deal of patience. For a year-and-a-half they have mostly struggled peacefully against one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. But now, the time has come for the international community to unite and act, so that the Syrian people finally get the chance to live in peace," he told DW.
Author: Gregg Benzow
Editor: Neil King