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Unclear if Houla massacre a Syria turning point, experts say

May 29, 2012 |  3:45 pm

Houla

In the wake of the killing of more than 100 women, children and other civilians in the Syrian town of Houla, the United States, Britain and other countries moved to expel Syrian diplomats, and the State Department decried the slayings as an “absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable massacre.” U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan said the Syrian crisis has reached a tipping point, calling the killings “shocking.”

But it isn’t clear yet whether the massacre will be a turning point for the international community to take more aggressive steps or just the latest atrocity condemned by onlookers worldwide.

“How is this going to stop the violence?” one reporter repeatedly asked U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland after  the decision to expel Syrian charges d’affaires Zuheir Jabbour.

“This is a statement of our extreme disapproval and horror at the massacre,” Nuland replied. “We will obviously continue to look at other ways we can pressure the regime -- economically, politically, diplomatically -- and continue to try to tighten the noose.”

Thousands of people have already lost their lives in the Syrian conflict. But the Houla killings on Friday stand out because of the number of women and children killed, the fact that so many were slain at close range and the rapid confirmation of the attacks by U.N. monitors, experts said.

Although the Syrian government has blamed terrorists for the deaths, the U.N. peacekeeping chief said Tuesday there is strong suspicion that the government and its supporting militias are behind the attacks, especially those carried out with heavy weaponry.

The killings seemed to galvanize ordinary people around the world who had not followed the crisis as closely before, said Leila Hilal, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. Even the singer Chris Brown weighed in on Twitter, Hilal said.

Despite the added attention, the fear that has held the U.S. and other powers from wading deeper into the Syrian conflict still exists. The Syrian bloodshed could ultimately demand military intervention, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Fox News on Monday,  but he continued to strike a cautious tone about the eventual results of a military campaign there.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that U.S. military intervention would only cause more chaos and carnage.

The Houla massacre "isn't a game changer," said Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a think tank based in London. "There's been lots of public reaction. But we don't really see any decisiveness.

"The Annan plan is still the only game in town, even though there isn't a great deal of hope for it," Kinninmont said, invoking the six-point peace plan that Annan brokered this year, which has so far failed to halt the violence.

When asked Tuesday whether the Houla massacre was a tipping point, Nuland said that “from our perspective, this has been tipping in the wrong direction for a long time.” However, Nuland expressed hope that the killings could change thinking in Russia, which has blocked U.N. Security Council action on the conflict but agreed to a Sunday resolution that condemned the attacks.

“People are trying to read the tea leaves of what Russia is saying,” said Robert Malley, Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group. “They’ve said they’re not wedded to the survival of this particular regime. Some people believe they can be flipped.”

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: A picture released by the Syrian opposition Shaam News Network shows people watching the mass burial Saturday of more than 100 people killed in the central Syrian city of Houla in a massacre condemned by world leaders. Credit:  Shaam News Network

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