United Nations diplomats scrambled Wednesday to salvage some vestige of a peace plan that has failed to halt the fighting in Syria or protect civilians from the kind of savagery that took more than 100 lives last week in the town of Houla, most of them women and children.
A deputy of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, architect of the six-point peace plan that purportedly went into effect last month, briefed the special closed-door Security Council meeting in New York on Annan's talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad following the Houla massacre.
Jean-Marie Guehenno, a French diplomat who also visited Damascus in recent days, said Annan urged Assad and all parties to the conflict to "recommit" to the peace plan in order to stave off a further descent into all-out civil war.
"The parties need to recommit to a full cessation of violence. We have seen that the cessation of violence is under threat," Guehenno told reporters in Geneva after addressing the Security Council gathering via video linkup. "Today, as the stronger partner, the government [of Syria] needs to take steps to this end.... After 15 months of violence, only strong signals will have an impact."
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice told reporters after the council session that the member states continue to have “a difference of views” on the need for further sanctions on Syria and on who bears responsibility for the killings in Houla. She said the United States was convinced that forces loyal to Assad were the perpetrators.
In terms of the Annan peace plan, “the Syrian government has made commitments and has blatantly violated those commitments,” Rice said. “We have said for weeks that if they continue to do so there should be consequences.”
Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, took offense at the accusations, saying a government investigation of the killings hadn't yet drawn conclusions about who was responsible and that the probe needed to be done through proper legal channels.
"We are not a banana republic. We need an investigation. We need judges, we need to go through the law," Jaafari said.
He condemned the Houla killings as “a heinous crime, an appalling crime that is unjustified and unjustifiable,” but he suggested it was the work of terrorist groups that have infiltrated the rebel forces fighting for Assad's ouster -- a claim Damascus has been making since the rebellion began peacefully last year. Jaafari accused Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey of clandestinely arming the rebels, and warned that shipping weapons into the conflict only threatened to escalate it.
Few details of what was discussed by the Security Council members surfaced during the comments made by half a dozen of the ambassadors, but it was clear some proposals had been made for tightening sanctions and supporting the outgunned opposition forces.
Russia's ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, described as a "bilateral matter" the decisions by at least 11 countries, including the United States, to expel Syrian diplomats to censure Assad's government for the Houla killings. But he warned that the gesture could undermine Annan's peace plan by encouraging the anti-Assad forces to press on with the rebellion.
“I do believe this can be a signal that might be misinterpreted by those who want foreign military intervention and further fighting in Syria. You pull out diplomats when you are preparing for the worst,” Churkin said.
The diplomatic expulsions brought about a high-profile defection in Southern California, where Honorary Counsul General Hazem Chehabi announced he was resigning his post and severing ties with the Assad regime.
"You get to a point where your silence or inaction becomes ethically or morally unacceptable," Chehabi said in a phone interview from his home in Orange County, calling the Houla killings the breaking point for him.
Diplomatic efforts to salvage the peace plan are continuing, but the persistent divisions among Security Council members and Syria's denial of responsibility for the killings has left the crisis in a stalemate. The 47-nation U.N. human rights commission plans to meet Friday to discuss the deteriorating situation in Syria, but it has neither the mandate nor likely the consensus for any more effective intervention than the world body has so far authorized.
Unarmed U.N. observers deployed to Syria should reach their full strength of 300 by the end of this week, but senior U.N. officials reported yesterday that the observers are shot at on a daily basis and manage to deter fighting only in the limited venues where they patrol.
-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, talks with a staff member while waiting to brief reporters after a closed-door meeting of the Security Council on the violence in Syria. Credit: Justin Lane / European Pressphoto Agency