The Syrian government’s role in the Houla massacre is not in doubt. There is overwhelming evidence that heavy weapons were used on the village. Russia, a Syrian ally, was consequently right to make unanimous the Security Council’s condemnation of Syria.
Having finally taken a welcome principled stand on the conflict -- in contrast with its previous role as an obstacle to military, diplomatic and economic pressure -- Russia should have then resisted the temptation to fall back on its old pattern of providing excuses and cover for the murderous Assad regime.
Yet on Monday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did just that.
“We are dealing with a situation in which both sides obviously had a hand in the deaths of innocent people, including several tens of children,” he said. While he accepted that the government used artillery and tanks, he said many bodies of the 108 villagers killed, 49 of them children, were found with injuries from firearms received at point-blank range. “So the blame must be determined objectively.”
Any objective analysis would find Mr. Lavrov’s insinuation laughable. While there is no doubt both sides in a conflict like Syria’s uprising are capable of violence, the notion that opposition forces in this case essentially allied themselves with the government to participate in slaughtering their Sunni kinsmen is far-fetched to say the least. More likely, the account of surviving villagers, provided to United Nations monitors, is the true one: government thugs acted in tandem with government forces.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday that Russia had “a particularly powerful role to exert pressure” on the Assad regime. Mr. Lavrov gave only the slimmest of hopes that Russia would follow up its Security Council vote with action, exerting its influence on Assad regime. He rebuffed Mr. Hague’s call for a leadership change in Syria, but did allow, “It is not the most important thing who is in power in Syria, what regime has power.” He said it is more important that the killing end.
Russia, more than any other country, could accomplish such a result. The massacre exposed the inherent weakness in the Kofi Annan-engineered ceasefire and peace process in the country. Russia needs to live up to its responsibility.