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Despite early talk about the the Houla massacre being a turning point that would goad the international community to take stronger action against Syria, it seems unlikely that the United Nations Security Council will be able to overcome the deadlock that is blocking additional steps.
The May 25 incident in the town of Houla left 108 Syrians dead – by execution, likely by pro-government thugs, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said – in one of the most horrific events of the 14-month-old conflict. The West hoped that the scale of the massacre would at last sway Russia and China's to take further steps against the Syrian government, which they have consistently refused to do.
The United States, Britain, and France have been trying since the early months of the conflict to convince China and Russia, who have veto power on the council, to back further sanctions against the Syrian government. Russia's support for a May 27 Security Council statement condemning the massacre and criticizing the government for using heavy weapons raised their hopes.
But since then, there have been no signs of a softening of its opposition and yesterday Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Russia's belief that both sides are responsible for the massacre. He also called for a full investigation into the incident before apportioning blame. "There are no signs Russia and China are ready to support tougher steps at the UN, despite what happened in Houla," a council diplomat told Reuters.
Most UN officials have been cautious in their statements about who is responsible for the massacre until a full investigation can be carried out, giving Russia and China a cover for not making any stronger statements. However, peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said yesterday that the Syrian Army and "shabbiha" (the name for pro-government thugs) were "probably" behind the incident, Reuters reports.
Despite speculation that the US, Britain, and France were moving closer to support for military intervention, the White House unequivocally ruled that out for the time being yesterday: "We do not believe that militarization, further militarization of the situation in Syria at this point is the right course of action. We believe that it would lead to greater chaos, greater carnage," said spokesman Jay Carney, according to a separate Reuters report.
The only action taken so far, other than the Security Council condemnation, was the announcement yesterday that a slew of European countries, plus the US, Japan, Turkey, Canada, and Australia, were expelling some or all of the Syrian diplomats in their countries.
A statement from French President François Hollande that he would not "rule out" the possibility of military intervention prompted an angry response from Moscow, Bloomberg reports. “To raise the possibility of some kind of military intervention is more the result of political emotions than careful consideration,” said Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov.
An intervention cannot happen if Russia remains opposed, so Mr. Hollande's comment has little weight at this time.
Russian foreign policy experts told The Christian Science Monitor yesterday that Russia will stand by President Bashar al-Assad while it remains convenient, but that if its ally's grip on power weakens considerably, Russia will turn its focus to remaining in the good graces of the Security Council.
"It's clear now that the Assad regime is weakening," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "The pressure on him will grow, until he's either beaten or runs away. Russia is sticking to its positions, but at the same time it has to show that it is understanding of the situation and flexible enough. The truth is that the Security Council matters more for Russia than Syria does."