(CNSNews.com) – Kofi Annan, the U.N.’s special envoy to Syria, has described Friday’s massacre of more than 100 people as a “tipping point,” but another U.N. Security Council discussion of the crisis on Wednesday looks unlikely to produce any strong action while Russia continues to oppose a unified stance against Damascus.
The Assad regime and Syrian rebels are blaming each other for the deaths in the town of Houla.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous charged that the Assad regime was “undoubtedly” responsible for at least the murders attributed to heavy weaponry. Most of the victims, including dozens of children, were shot at close range, however, and responsibility for their deaths remains in dispute.
Attention has focused on armed regime supporters known as the “shabiha” while the regime itself blames “armed terrorist groups” – its label for anti-Assad fighters.
Russia, along with China, has twice vetoed resolutions in the Security Council condemning the Assad regime over the violence that has now raged for more than a year and cost more than 10,000 lives, according to U.N. estimates.
Russia and China did go along with a non-binding council statement on Sunday condemning the massacre “in the strongest possible terms.”
The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) was dismissive of the council statement, which it said came even as dozens more civilians were being killed in ongoing government bombardment in Hama.
“The release of a non-binding resolution [sic] by the U.N. Security Council while the regime was slaughtering children is indeed a meaningless waste of effort and is a failure of the council to fulfill its most basic duty of protecting civilians,” it said in a statement Monday.
“We hold the international community and all countries that are supportive of the regime responsible for the grave consequences of the failure to act,” the SNC added.
The U.S. is looking to Wednesday’s briefing to the Security Council by Annan’s deputy, Jean-Marie Guehenno, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already put a damper on hopes that the Houla killings may have prompted a significant shift by Moscow.
“Some countries are trying to use the May 25 events as a pretext to take up military measures and put pressure on the U.N. Security Council,” the official RIA Novosti press agency quoted him as saying in Moscow.
Lavrov said the massacre could benefit those who wanted to hinder the Annan “peace plan.”
Appointed in February as a joint U.N. and Arab League mediator, the former U.N. secretary-general cobbled together a six-point proposal whose main points were a ceasefire and “an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people.”
The U.N. also approved the deployment of several hundred unarmed observers, but the U.S. and European governments are among many parties skeptical that the plan can work, pointing especially to non-compliance by the regime.
Annan held talks with Assad on Tuesday, and told reporters afterwards that he had shared with the Syrian president “my assessment that the six-point plan is not being implemented as it must be.”
“We are at a tipping point,” he said. “The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division. Yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today.”
“If the plan is not implemented, I would worry for the future of Syria,” Annan added.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland did not mince words over the Houla killings, calling them an “absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable massacre against innocent children, women, shot at point-blank range by regime thugs, the shabiha.”
She also accused Iran of helping the regime, noting that the deputy head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force had said publicly at the weekend “that they were proud of the role that they had played in training and assisting the Syrian forces, and look what this has wrought.”
Nuland said the U.S. was consulting with “allies and partners on what more we can do to pressure the regime” and expected a full range of consultations at the U.N. in New York on Wednesday.
She said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made it clear that “we reserve the right to go back to the U.N. for a chapter seven resolution, to tighten sanctions less in a bilateral way and more in a comprehensive way.”
Security Council resolutions invoking chapter seven of the U.N. Charter to restore or maintain “international peace and security” can include the use of sanctions or armed force, and are binding on all members. Russia and China have up to now blocked even far weaker resolutions.
“Shabiha” is a term originally applied to criminal gangsters but now used by Syrians as a label for pro-regime militiamen, many of whom are members of Assad’s minority Allawite Shi’ite sect.
Nuland said the Syrian force “very much models the Iranian Basiji model, where they hire young guys to indiscriminately wreak vengeance and do this kind of hand-to-hand violence.”
Iran’s Basij, which falls under IRGC command, is notorious for its role in the violent crackdown that followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009.
“The Basiji and the shabiha are the same type of thing, and clearly reflects the tactics and the techniques that the Iranians used for their own suppression of civil rights,” Nuland said.
Meanwhile Syria’s official SANA news agency claimed Tuesday that “armed terrorist groups have perpetrated more than 5,000 violations since the adoption of Annan’s plan with a number of Arab and western countries, including the U.S. are supporting gunmen with weapons and money.”