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The massacre is being described as a "turning point" in the Syrian conflict, now in its 14th month, because of the international condemnation it prompted, particularly from Russia, which has been broadly supportive of President Assad until now.
But there has been no change in the international approach. Mr. Annan has merely reiterated the need for both the government and rebels to abide by his six-point peace plan, which has been mostly ignored by the government and rebels since it was unveiled in April.
Details from Annan's visit to Damascus have not been made public. The New York Times reports that he arrived in Syria with "a new mandate from the Security Council – including Russia, which had usually blocked action against its ally in Damascus – to carry out his plan."
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, said that witnesses reported that pro-government "thugs" (called shabiha) were behind the attacks, not government forces, although the shabiha sometimes work with government forces. Government forces did fire on Houla, Mr. Colville said, but he did not pin the blame for the massacre on them, according to AP.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the government said its shelling of Houla was retaliation for a rebel attack on an Alawite village that was organized from the area. Rebels admitted to a fight with government forces on Friday.
The New York Times describes the peace plan as "more precarious than ever." UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon admitted last week that the UN has no "plan B" if Annan's plan fails – an outcome many say has already happened.
From the beginning, the peace plan has been given slim chances of success. But it was seen as an acceptable means to try to bridge the differences over Syria between the West and the Arab nations on one side and Russia, China and Iran on the other.
Some analysts have called it an international stalling measure, because the Western appetite for military intervention in the conflict is low, even in the absence of Russian opposition.
The Wall Street Journal was starker in its description of the peace plan's prospects, describing the diplomatic effort as being "in tatters" and reporting that Western leaders had "few options to pressure the Assad regime," despite international condemnations.
Reuters said it was "an atrocity that shook world opinion out of growing indifference" but noted that with a US, French, and British appetite for intervention low, it's unclear what the result of the renewed fervor for addressing the crisis will be.
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