BEIRUT/LONDON/WASHINGTON (EJP) --- UN special envoy Kofi Annan met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Beirut on Tuesday to discuss his “bold steps” for peace in the civil war-torn country, as the international community united to condemn last week’s Houla massacres.
Increasingly horrific details and amateur footage have emerged of violence in Houla, west-central Syria, which saw more than 100 people murdered, shot primarily at close range, many of them children and women killed in their own homes.
According to a statement by Annan’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi, “Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan met President Bashar al-Assad this morning (Tuesday) to convey the grave concern of the international community about the violence in Syria, including in particular the recent events in Houla”.
The UN confirmed details of the massacre as fresh doubts emerged over the ability of international diplomacy to end 15 months of violence against civilians in Syria which has left approximately 10,000 dead.
The UN human rights office in Geneva issued the following statement, via its spokesman Rupert Colville: “Almost half of the ones we know of so far are children – that is totally unpardonable – and a very large number of women as well. At this point, it looks like entire families were shot in their houses.”
France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, the us? Canada and Australia all responded by expelling Syrian ambassadors to their countries, in a move coordinated with US policy, in attempt to further isolate the Syrian president from the international community.
The US State Department announced on Tuesday that the charge d’affaires at the Syrian Embassy had been given orders to leave the country within 72 hours, with department spokesman Victoria Nuland saying the US holds “the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives”.
Assad’s government responded to the outcry on Monday by denying responsibility for the attacks and blaming the massacre on radical Islamists.
In an open letter to the UN Security Council on Monday, the Syrian administration claimed that “not a single tank entered the region and the Syrian army was in a state of self-defence...(the terrorist armed groups) entered with the purpose of killing and the best proof of that is the killing by knives, which is the signature of terrorist groups who massacre according to the Islamist way.”
In a sign of the EU’s failure to respond quickly to the incident, Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nikolaus Lutterotti announced their Syrian ambassador would not be expelled as he holds additional functions as the representative to UN organisations in Vienna and in any case, an EU expulsion policy had not yet been instituted. The ambassador would, he said, however be called to the foreign ministry to explain the incident.
Australian foreign minister Bob Carr confirmed that the two most senior Syrian diplomats to his country had been given orders to eave Australia within 72 hours in response to the “hideous and brutal crime” in Houla. Of his decision to expel the diplomats, he said: “This is the most effective way we’ve got of sending a message of revulsion of what has happened in Syria”.
The Syrian ambassador to Germany, Radwan Loutfi, was similarly given 72 hours to leave the country, with foreign minister Guido Westerwelle saying it was hoped the united international approach would give an “unambiguous message (that) does not fall on deaf ears in Damascus”.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius followed up President Hollande’s announcement of the expulsion of their Syrian ambassador in a statement to French newspaper Le Monde: “Bashar Assad is the murderer of his people. He must relinquish power. The sooner the better.” France was in fact the first country to expel diplomats, following close consultation with Great Britain on Monday and Hollande’s joint commitment with British Prime Minister David Cameron to work with Russia to bring an end to violence in Syria.
British foreign secretary William Hague also confirmed that coordinated efforts were being made by the international community, including the US, to expel Syrian diplomats. The British foreign ministry is expected to officially confirm it has expelled three Syrian diplomats on Tuesday.
The Dutch government, while unable to officially expel their ambassador, who lives in Brussels where he also represents Belgium, the foreign affairs ministry nevertheless declared him unwelcome in the Netherlands, declaring in an official statement: “The Netherlands has taken this decision in consultation with other European Union partners.”
Russia, long seen as a key protector of the Syrian government, since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, is also thought to have given Assad an ultimatum, after he placed the majority of the blame for the Houla killings on his government. Speaking after a meeting with his British counterpart Wiliam Hague in Moscow on Monday, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov issued his most damning indictment of the Syrian administration yet:
“The government bears the main responsibility for what is going on”, he said. “Any government in any country bears responsibility for the security of its citizens.”
According to Middle East expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center, Alexei Malashenko, this is the strongest hint to date that Russian might finally be abandoning its support of the controversial Syrian leader:
“Bashar Asad is driving himself and Russia into a corner”, Malashenko said. “Bashar has definitely gotten the sense that he may lose Russia’s sympathy, and he may step back a bit.”
Although Russia has benefitted from defence ties to Syria, supplying them with arms – a controversial move which they have consistently stood by – Lavrov continued to distance himself from such links, saying “we don’t support the Syrian government, we support Kofi Annan’s plan”.