The massacre in the western Syrian village of Taldou, near Houla, on May 25 has exposed, yet again, international divisions over the civil war in Syria. United Nations observers in Syria have confirmed that 108 civilians, including 49 women and 34 children, were killed and hundreds more wounded as heavy artillery, tanks, and “point-blank range” rifle fire were used against them; they add that most of the dead were executed. The U.N. Security Council received a closed video-conference briefing from Major-General Robert Mood, head of the 280-member Supervising Mission in Syria, and then issued a statement condemning the “outrageous use of force” involving government artillery and tank shelling against a residential neighbourhood. The world body’s special envoy, Kofi Annan, has arrived in Damascus to see if anything in the six-point plan he proposed in April, such as a ceasefire and a recall of government troops to barracks, can be implemented. Kuwait, the current president of the Arab League, has announced that it will host an emergency meeting of the grouping. President Bashar al-Assad’s government has denied responsibility for the deaths and attributes them to a terrorist attack — its term for opposition groupings. Survivors and eyewitnesses say that pro-government militias known as the Shabiha were also involved on the army side.
Unfortunately, the condemnations are unlikely to have much effect because the rest of the world cannot agree on what is happening or on what to do about it. The Security Council statement is not binding, it seems to have been toned down at Russian insistence, and it did not end the violence; another 24 people, again including children, were killed in Hama on May 27. The main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, says that if the international community does not protect Syrian civilians then it will have to take matters into its own hands. The Free Syrian Army, for its part, says the Annan plan is dead. The U.N. has no fallback proposals at present, and Russia is against any deal whereby Mr. Assad would step down, as Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh did in February. Russia, Mr. Assad’s strongest international backer, has however stated that the Annan plan is still the best available, and that, for its own part, it is ready to consider further work to coordinate international efforts on Syria.
Moscow has thereby sent the crucial message that it is prepared to back a political settlement which the Syrians devise themselves. That will be not only the best but the only tenable outcome, and the world must help — and pressure — the Syrian government and opposition groups to achieve it.