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Protesting Killings, Western Nations Expel Syrian Envoys

Demonstration against Assad regime in Daael, Daraa, Syria, May 2012. (Photo: FreedomHouse)

Beirut, Lebanon – The United States joined with 10 nations to expel top Syrian diplomats on Tuesday, increasing international pressure on President Bashar al-Assad. In Damascus, the United Nations envoy said the uprising had reached “a tipping point” after a massacre of more than 100 villagers, nearly half of them children.

In his remarks, Kofi Annan, the envoy for the United Nations and the Arab League, was dismissive of the Syrian government refrain that outsiders were responsible for the bloodshed. After meeting with Mr. Assad on Tuesday, he called on the Syrian president to take “bold steps” to end the fighting and salvage a peace plan that has been increasingly criticized for failing to end the violence.

“The Syrian people do not want their future to be one of bloodshed and division,” Mr. Annan said after two days in Damascus. “Yet the killings continue, and the abuses are still with us today.”

Even while Mr. Annan made his appeals, in a coordinated action at least 11 nations expelled the Syrian diplomats to express outrage over the deaths of 108 villagers in Houla, near Homs, on Friday. But Syria’s diplomatic chastening did little to sway its public posture, demonstrating the limited leverage of the West as it continues to look to Mr. Annan and a peace initiative that has shown no sign of ushering in an end to more than 14 months of violence.

In Washington, in the midst of a heated political campaign for the presidency, the deterioration in Syria has prompted Republican denunciations of President Obama, but few alternative ideas.

There is little appetite among Americans for a military campaign, officials said, and there is concern that if the government of Syria falls it could be replaced by an extremist Islamist leadership.

With little room to maneuver, the United States joined Australia, Canada, Britain, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain to oust Syrian diplomats. In Washington, the State Department said the United States was evicting the Syrian chargé d’affaires, Zuheir Jabbour, giving him 72 hours to leave the country.

Despite the tough talk, there remained little support for any manner of armed intervention, which is what many Syria analysts and exiles believe is required to make Damascus budge. At the White House, the spokesman Jay Carney said that military intervention was not the right course of action at this time because it would provoke wider carnage and chaos.

In London, William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, said three Syrian diplomats had been given a week to leave. The expulsions were meant to “send a stark signal to President Assad and those around him that their actions have consequences and that they cannot act with impunity.”

The United Nations Security Council condemned Syria at an emergency meeting on Sunday, blaming it at least partly for the Houla massacre, saying it shelled civilian neighborhoods with heavy artillery. The Council was scheduled to meet again on Wednesday on Syria. But divisions with Russia have prevented more weighty international measures like an arms embargo.

Mr. Annan said he appealed to Mr. Assad in their meeting on Tuesday for the Syrian government, as the stronger party, to move first to carry out the six-point peace plan in its entirety. He also appealed to the opposition to lay down its arms.

Mr. Annan, a former United Nations secretary general, said at a news conference: “Pointing fingers always at outsiders, yes, they are involved. But there are measures that we can also take at home, the government can take, to really try to end the situation.” Mr. Annan also offered a subtle endorsement of Syria’s peaceful grass-roots protest movement as a way of pressing the government to take action.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA, reported that Mr. Assad had stressed to Mr. Annan that “armed terrorist groups escalated their terrorist acts noticeably as of late in various areas across Syria.” The countries that were “financing, arming and harboring” the terrorists had to commit to the Annan plan, SANA quoted the president as saying.

Speaking to reporters in remarks broadcast by satellite television networks, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mikdad, said his country expected Mr. Annan to press these other governments, while Syria’s record was unblemished.

“Syria has not committed a single violation of Annan’s plan or the initial understanding between Syria and the United Nations,” Mr. Mikdad said. “At the same time, the other party has not committed to a single point. This means that there is a decision by the armed groups and the opposition not to implement Annan’s plan and to make it fail.”

Syria maintained its standard line even as the United Nations revealed new details about the massacre that pointed blame at the government.

In Geneva, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights announced that most of the victims were summarily executed in their homes.

The initial finding by United Nations monitors corroborated by other sources showed that tank and artillery fire accounted for fewer than 20 of the 108 people confirmed dead in the Houla region, said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the United Nations human rights commissioner. Most of the rest were shot or stabbed, he said, adding, “At this point it looks like entire families were shot in their houses.”

Witnesses to the massacre, including a survivor who was wounded and left for dead, said most of the killing was conducted by pro-government militiamen, Mr. Colville said, adding that they sometimes appeared to operate in concert with government security forces. Witness accounts described how some militiamen went through houses chanting, “Shabiha for you, Assad,” Mr. Colville said in an interview, using a term for pro-government thugs.

Speaking in New York, Hervé Ladsous, the head of global peacekeeping operations for the United Nations, dismissed accusations about “third parties” being involved in the killings — a Syrian government line hinting at terrorists. He said suspicion “probably points the way to the shabihas.”

An antigovernment activist with ties to army defectors, reached via Skype in Damascus on Tuesday, said that standard exchanges of government shellfire answered by light weapons from the Free Syrian Army that controls Houla had been taking place Friday.

But the dynamic changed, he said, after an important local commander from the Alawite minority that controls Syria, Hussein al-Deib, was killed near a government checkpoint by opposition fire. Men loyal to him from local Alawite villages — there are at least three in close proximity — then descended on the collection of Sunni Muslim villages that constitute Houla and began killing residents, the activist said.

The Syrian government sharply limits visas for foreign correspondents and where they can go, so such accounts are impossible to corroborate independently.

Analysts suggested that the Houla aftermath might indeed constitute a tipping point for the Annan plan, but until the Syrian government reached its tipping point, little would change.

Relations with the West were so fraught already that the expulsions of the diplomats would not alter much, and while Russia, Syria’s main international ally, expressed concerns about the massacre, the event did not really shift Moscow’s position.

“The basics are all still the same — this is a regime that is banking on its ability to fight its way out of this,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. “The regime is fighting, not negotiating, and none of this directly impacts the fight.”

But the Annan plan remains significant, he said, because the government might someday reach the point when it feels it is doomed and will need someone to talk to at that point. “We are not there yet,” he said.

Mr. Annan dropped a small hint at his news conference that one way to get there was through public protests.

“I know it is stressful, there are lots of fears and threats, but people can find ways and means of making their feelings known, of getting the message around that we do not accept this; this is enough, no more violence, no more,” he said. “You can play a role in a way that perhaps you cannot imagine, but people and the population do have lots of power, and working together can do a lot.”

Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, John F. Burns from London, Melissa Eddy and Nicholas Kulish from Berlin, Maïa de la Baume and Alan Cowell from Paris, Steven Lee Myers from Washington, and J. David Goodman from New York.

This article, “Protesting Killings, Western Nations Expel Syrian Envoys,” originally appears at the New York Times News Service.

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