The White House has expressed its "absolute disgust" over the latest massacre in Syria. Nine Western nations have expelled Syrian diplomats from their territories to underscore their revulsion. Senior United Nations officials have warned both sides in the 14-month-old Syrian conflict that the widely ignored six-point peace plan is the only option for ending the suffering and senseless death.
What the international community's gestures of censure show most clearly is that, even after the horrific massacre of 100-plus civilians in Houla, there is neither consensus among world powers on how to halt the bloodshed nor any appetite for the large-scale operations necessary to compel Syrian President Bashar Assad to stop waging war on his own people.
Russia and China have vehemently opposed the idea of arming the anti-Assad rebels so they can defend themselves against the Damascus regime's heavily armed soldiers and brutal shabiha militiamen, the latter blamed for the execution-style slayings that killed most of the victims in Houla on Friday.
The two powers that have blocked more forceful intervention lent their support to a weekend U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Houla massacre, and some analysts believe that Russia might be drafted to support the broader international community efforts to contain the Syrian violence. But Moscow reiterated its concern Tuesday that the Assad leadership was being blamed unfairly for the latest atrocity. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for an "objective and impartial" investigation into the Houla killings and accused unspecified countries of using the massacre “as a pretext for taking military measures.”
As has been the pattern after other deadly incidents in Syria since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, the international community has found symbolic sanction and isolation to be the lowest common denominator of what the outside world is willing to do.
At the U.S. State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the Houla massacre "the most unambiguous indictment to date of the Syrian government’s flagrant violations of its U.N. Security Council obligations." She said Washington would continue to look for ways to pressure the regime economically, politically and diplomatically.
Britain's U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, called the massacre, in which most of the dead were women and children, a "game-changer" and warned that the status quo in Syria is unsustainable. Like other Western countries, though, Britain's reaction to the slaughter was to expel three Syrian diplomats and urge consideration of tougher sanctions.
Syria is already locked out of most international trade and diplomacy, and there have been recent indications that the sanctions are taking their toll. Syrian Oil Minister Sufian Allaw told reporters in Damascus last week that blocked trade has cost his nation $4 billion and created widespread shortages of basic foods and fuel.
Yet sanctions work too slowly to protect the civilian masses, as Houla has shown.
World leaders are now pondering what to do next in their efforts to contain the violence in Syria. The massacre has renewed calls for arming the rebels, establishing a no-fly zone to cut off support to Assad's regime and ratcheting up the pressure on Syrian military officers and businessmen to ponder whether they want to remain with a minority regime that many analysts predict will eventually fall under the pro-democracy sweep of the "Arab Spring."
The U.N. Security Council will meet in closed session Wednesday and hear a report from Jean-Marie Guehenno, deputy to U.N. special envoy on Syria Kofi Annan, on the former U.N. secretary-general's talks with Assad and other Syrian leaders in Damascus on Tuesday.
But the dialogue among the world powers on the Security Council tends to inevitably circle back to desperate appeals for both sides in the Syrian conflict to respect the six-point peace plan authored by Annan.
The plan, which included a cease-fire that was supposed to have taken effect more than a month ago, has deployed 300 unarmed U.N. observers to the most volatile Syrian regions. Assistant Secretary-General Tony Banbury told journalists at U.N. headquarters in New York on Tuesday that the observers "are being shot at on an almost daily basis" as they attempt to monitor areas where rebels and government forces have been fighting.
The U.N. peacekeeping chief, Herve Ladsous, voiced the dejection of much of the international community when he called efforts to enforce the Annan peace pact "thankless" but warned the combatants that "there is no Plan B."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney denounced the Houla killings as provoking "absolute disgust" in the civilized world. But he made it clear that the Obama administration remains opposed to military intervention in Syria for fear that the infusion of forces or heavy arms would cause the fighting to intensify.
Middle East experts worry about Western powers wringing their hands over the conundrum of ineffectual moves, like the peace plan, that all can agree on, or taking more forceful action that would divide the international community. But military intervention, including arming the rebels, could also incite sectarian violence if the disparate factions turn to fighting each other once Assad's regime is defeated.
"I do worry about that. But I’m not in the school that says 'do something, anything.' I think we need to be careful about what we do," said Charles Ries, a career U.S. diplomat now heading Rand Corp.'s Center for Middle East Public Policy. He pointed out how long it took the Clinton administration and NATO allies to intervene to stop the killing in Kosovo a dozen years ago.
The best solution for Syria, Ries said, would be to persuade Russia to offer asylum to Assad and his top lieutenants, along the lines of the diplomatic solution crafted six months ago to put an end to Yemen's year of turmoil. In that situation, besieged President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down in exchange for immunity in the deaths of anti-regime protesters.
"There are various downsides. It would undermine the credibility of the International Criminal Court," Ries said, if Assad was allowed to escape justice for unleashing his army and militia loyalists to put down the insurgency, a campaign that has taken at least 10,000 lives. "But it might get relief and save lives faster than any other alternative."
Peter Harlin of the International Crisis Group agreed. He told The Times' Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut that Moscow was key to getting Assad to agree to the Annan peace plan, and its credibility and influence are now tied to the success of the agreement.
“Moscow has acquired a central role through the Annan plan, wants to see it survive and may realize that the conflict is deteriorating to the point where [the plan’s] sustainability could be compromised,” Harling said, adding that Russia may soon conclude that "this is the time to push for a genuine political solution.”
Photo: Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, architect of a six-point peace plan for Syria that has been flagrantly ignored since it purportedly took effect more than a month ago, is on a Middle East tour to try to salvage the peace pact. On Tuesday, he met in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: Louai Beshara / AFP/Getty Images