As the civil war veers toward what the UN’s peace envoy called a decisive moment, grisly details from the scene of a massacre have prompted Canada and several other countries to expel Syrian diplomats.
“We are at a tipping point,” former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said, as he emerged on Tuesday from an emergency meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Annan had been briefed earlier in the day by UN investigators about what appears to be the most flagrant violation so far of the peace plan he negotiated almost two months ago: the slaughter of more than 100 people, almost half of them children.
A Western official familiar with the UN investigation said that foreign observers faced danger in their visits to the massacre site in the town of Houla but managed to speak with witnesses who discredited the claims from Damascus and Moscow that “terrorists” or anti-government forces participated in the attacks on Friday.
Preliminary reports suggest that 20 of the 108 killings were inflicted by artillery and tank fire, almost certainly from government forces; the rest were likely perpetrated by pro-government militias known as shabiha. Many were shot execution-style, and others slain with knives.
The sheer viciousness of the attack, coupled with reports that the violence was perpetrated by members of one religious group upon those of a rival denomination, has raised the nightmare scenario of a descent into sectarian war. Some analysts suggest that the massacre may radicalize the Syrian rebels, who already struggle with extremism in their ranks.
In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird took to the radio airwaves to announce he was kicking the remaining Syrian diplomats out of Canada.
It was part of a co-ordinated diplomatic protest, which saw capitals around the world – an alliance of nations in Europe, North America and Arab League countries – expel al-Assad’s representatives.
In Canada’s case, two Syrian diplomats, including the chargé d’affaires, Bashir Akbik, have been declared persona non grata and told they have five days to leave. A third, on his way to Canada to take up his post, won’t be allowed in.
The move is largely symbolic, but the simultaneous expulsions sent a powerful message of international disdain in the wake of the Houla killings, after months when the West’s complaints seemed to pack a weakening punch.
The expulsions also increased pressure on Russia, a stalwart ally of Damascus that has blocked measures such as global economic sanctions at the UN Security Council. The body is to hear an update on Syria from Mr. Annan on Wednesday.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was “alarmed that some countries … are starting to use this event as an excuse to put forth demands of the need for military action in an attempt to put pressure on the UN Security Council.”
The Russians and other allies of the Syrian regime have cast doubt on the UN reports, asking why the government would execute children. Canada’s Foreign Minister placed the blame squarely on the regime, however, and the pro-government shabiha gangs.
“There is obviously two groups at play here: directly, the Syrian forces, and then the pro-government thugs who act in concert with the regime,” Mr. Baird told Ottawa radio station CFRA.
A Western official said the UN continues to investigate what relationship existed between government troops and pro-government militias on the day of the massacre. Some early reports suggest that Syrian troops co-ordinated with the militias by providing covering fire for their rampage; if correct, Syrian commanders could be held legally responsible for war crimes committed by the militias.
Besides ratcheting up external pressure on the regime, some analysts worry that heightened emotions inside Syria may increase support for the most extreme branches of the rebellion.
Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the massacre could boost the popularity of fringe anti-regime groups such as the Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front), which take a more sectarian view of the conflict than the mainstream Free Syrian Army. “You could see a real radicalization of the opposition.”
Brian Fishman, a research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., agreed that the incident raises the risk of Sunni-Shia violence.
However, the terrorism scholars said that it’s almost impossible to believe the claims from Damascus that Sunni terrorists were to blame for the latest massacre – because there is no historical precedent for Sunni extremists targeting their own side in order to blame their opponents for an atrocity.
“There are no known incidents of al-Qaeda groups attacking what they would consider their own constituency,” Mr. Fishman said.