The massacre of more than 100 people in Syria on Friday might just be the game-changer that leads to an end to the 14-month civil conflict that has killed some 10,000 Syrians.
The brutal killings, even more extensive than initially thought, were revealed in gory detail in video recordings emanating from Syria over the weekend and circulated worldwide. They were confirmed by United Nations observers who visited the Houla district near Homs where the attacks took place.
Whether carried out by pro-government elements or not – and Syria is vociferously denying the accusation – the regime of Bashar al-Assad is getting the blame.
At an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council Sunday afternoon in New York, the council unanimously condemned the killings “in the strongest possible terms” and said that those responsible “must be held accountable.”
The council blamed the Syrian government for shelling Houla, but it fell short of blaming Syria for the full extent of the massacre.
In a press statement issued after the meeting, the council also “condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse,” but it did not say who it considered to be responsible for the close-range attacks.
Norwegian Major General Robert Mood, head of the UN mission in Syria, told the council from Damascus that 108 people are known to have been killed in the massacre and that many of the deaths were from “shrapnel” and bullets fired at “point-blank” range, diplomats said.
Earlier, the White House said in a statement: “We are horrified by credible reports of targeting killing, including stabbing and axe attacks on women and children in Houla.” It went on to say “these acts serve as a vile testament to an illegitimate regime that responds to peaceful political protest with unspeakable and inhuman brutality.”
The situation has placed enormous pressure on Russia, the one country believed to have the capacity to persuade Mr. al-Assad to comply with the UN peace proposal being attempted by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, and fully withdraw Syrian forces from populated areas.
Washington hopes Russia can use its influence with Damascus to press for a political transition similar to that seen recently in Yemen.
In February, longtime Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was persuaded by his powerful benefactor, Saudi Arabia, to pass power to his vice-president in exchange for immunity from prosecution and a gradual transition to democracy.
Adding his country's weight to the pressure on Russia, British Foreign Secretary William Hague is to go to Moscow Monday to discuss the matter further.
“The tragic events in Syria and the deaths of tens of people deserve condemnation,” said Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, writing on Twitter, Sunday.
“However, it is necessary to seriously examine the causes of what happened.”
While many are exasperated by the slow pace of international action, the Houla massacre may accelerate things.
“It's true there hasn't been any real action taken yet,” said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, referring to pressure on Syria coming from Russia. “But it's getting closer.”
The carnage in Houla included the savage slaying of dozens of women and children.
Locals report that bands of unknown men entered the villages after heavy shelling of the area stopped. They wielded knives and axes and fired guns at close range.
“The fact that UN monitors ended up confirming the massacre should come as a further proof of the accuracy of reports and videos produced by field activists,” said an impatient Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian activist and fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“If we don't draw the line at Houla, larger massacres will follow,” he warned, “and the fragmentation of Syria will become unstoppable, with regional and global consequences.”
Indeed, the massacre raises fears of a cycle of sectarian killings if the mostly Sunni Muslim rebels take revenge on nearby villages inhabited by Alawites, the sect to which the Assad regime belongs.
In Ottawa, Foreign Minister John Baird called the attack “very disconcerting because of its depravity,” adding that the number of children killed is “especially reflective of the regime's utter contempt for humanity and decency.”
Canada, he said, is calling on all parties to immediately respect a ceasefire, co-operate with UN observers and support efforts by Mr. Annan, the joint special envoy, to resolve the crisis with the international peace plan.
Syria insists it was terrorists from the opposition who carried out the killing, intending that the regime would be blamed, thereby justifying foreign intervention in the country.
“We unequivocally deny the responsibility of government forces for the massacre,” Jihad Makdissi, the spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, said at a news conference in Damascus Sunday.
“No Syrian tank or artillery entered this place where the massacres were committed,” he said, although he did not say that no tank or artillery fired on the place.
“The security forces,” Mr. Makdissi added, “did not leave their places because they were in a state of self-defence.” His statement does not rule out the possibility that it may have been pro-government civilian thugs who carried out the attacks.