The massacre of at least 108 civilians in Al Houla, Syria, on Saturday, May 26, was in the words of Britain's U.N. envoy, Mark Lyall-Grant, a "game-changer" -- an act of brutality so heinous that it made the Syrian regime's reign of repression politically "unsustainable."
Indeed, the massacre of Syrian men, women, and children over the weekend -- which pushed the country's death toll to more than 12,000 -- has subjected Damascus to a rare rebuke from its chief patron, Russia, which joined the U.N. Security Council on Sunday in condemning Syria. It also prompted Western governments today to expel Syrian diplomats from their capitals and clamor, once again, for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
"I have decided to expel the Syrian ambassador in Berlin," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, noting that he was taking the decision in concert with other Western governments. "Even before the events in Al Houla, it was clear that Syria does not have a future under Assad. He must leave to make way for a peaceful transition in Syria."
But at the United Nations, it appeared that the game has not really changed all that much. Britain's U.N. envoy made it clear that joint special envoy Kofi Annan's 6-point plan -- a diplomatic blueprint for resolving the crisis through the promotion of political talks -- was still at the center of international efforts to resolve the crisis, offering the "best chance to resolve this crisis without excessive bloodshed."
The U.N. peacekeeping chief, Herve Ladsous of France, was more blunt. "There is no alternative, there is no other game, nobody has come out with any other plan."
The limits of international action came into sharper relief despite mounting evidence that Syria and its allies carried out Saturday's mass killing.
Ladsous presented reporters with the U.N.'s most direct accusation of Syrian government complicity in the killing. Speaking at a U.N. press conference organized to mark the International Day of U.N. Peacekeepers, Ladsous said that some of "the victims had been killed by artillery shells; now that points ever so clearly to the responsibility of the government. Only the government has heavy weapons, has tanks, has howitzers."
"There were also victims from individual weapons," he added, "victims from knife wounds and that of course is less clear but probably points the way to the Shabiha, you know the local [pro-government] militia."
In Damascus, meanwhile, Annan sought to turn up the heat on Assad, warning that Syria had reached a "tipping point" and that the "international community will soon be reviewing the situation."
"I appealed to him for bold steps now -- not tomorrow, now -- to create momentum for the implementation" of his peace plan, Annan said. "I appealed to the president ... to be bold for the Syrian people."
In Washington, U.S. officials sought to reinforce Annan's appeal through a threat of increased diplomatic pressure.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the United States is reserving the right to go to the U.N. Security Council to press for a new resolution imposing international sanctions on Syria.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went even further, raising the possibility, of some form of military intervention in Syria if the killing continues. Dempsey however cautioned in an interview on Fox News that he would prefer to see increased political pressure on Syria. "You'll always find military leaders to be somewhat cautious about the use of force, because were' never entirely sure what comes out on the other side," Dempsey said. "But, that said, it may come to a point with Syria because of the atrocities."
But there were no signs that the U.N. Security Council was prepared to punish Syria further. While Russia joined in the council's condemnation of the Syrian massacre over the weekend, it has shown no inclination to impose penalties aimed at compelling Damascus to improve its behavior. In fact, just minutes after Russia supported the council's condemnation of Syria, its deputy U.N. envoy continued to defend the regime, saying it was "difficult to imagine" Damascus had massacred its own citizens and raised the prospect that the killing had been carried out by some illusive "third force."
Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, acknowledged that the Syrian government "bears the most responsibility" for the Al Houla massacre, but said that the Syrian opposition shared the blame. "Here we have a situation where both sides clearly had a hand in the fact that peaceful citizens were killed, including several dozen children," said Lavrov.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.