Syria suffered a storm of diplomatic protest on Tuesday when more than a dozen nations, including Britain and America, expelled the country's ambassadors or formally rebuked its envoys following the Houla massacre.
One by one, President Bashar al-Assad’s representatives in capitals across the world, ranging from Washington to Berlin and from London to Canberra, were ordered to pack up and leave.
The “coordinated move” to ostracise the regime was designed to “send a stark message” of revulsion over the Houla killings, said a Foreign Office spokesman.
At least 80 of those who died in that “abominable” incident were summarily executed in two separate massacres last Friday, according to the United Nations.
In an interview on Thursday night, Francois Hollande, the new French president, said the use of armed force could be possible following Houla, but that it had to be carried out under UN auspices.
“An armed intervention is not excluded on the condition that it is carried out with respect to international law, meaning after deliberation by the United Nations Security Council,” he said.
Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commission for Human Rights, said that fewer than 20 of the 108 victims were killed by tank or artillery fire. The rest were shot at close range, with 49 children and 34 women counted among the dead. “What is very clear is this was an absolutely abominable event that took place in Houla, and at least a substantial part of it was summary executions of civilians, women and children,” said Mr Colville. “At this point, it looks like entire families were shot in their houses.” Local people blamed the pro-regime al-Shabiha militia, he added.
America held the “Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives”, said a State Department spokesman, adding that Syria’s Charge d’Affaires, Zuheir Jabbour, would be given three days to leave Washington.
On Monday, Britain called in the most senior diplomat left at the Syrian Embassy in London to receive a formal protest. Yesterday, Ghassan Dalla, the Charge d’Affaires, was summoned back to the Foreign Office and given seven days to leave, along with two of his colleagues.
Mr Assad’s regime withdrew Syria’s ambassador from London in March. The impending departures mean that Syria’s embassy in Belgrave Square will be down to a skeleton staff of four diplomats.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said the expulsions were intended to “get the message across” to Mr Assad that the “international community is appalled by the violence that has continued, by the behaviour of the regime and by the murder of so many innocent people”.
Meanwhile, the French government denounced Mr Assad’s “murderous folly” and ordered the Syrian ambassador to leave Paris. Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Spain, Switzerland and Australia all told Syria’s envoys to leave their respective capitals. Canada announced the removal of all Syrian diplomats from Ottawa; Belgium, Holland and Greece delivered formal protests.
The primary goal, said Mr Hague, was to ensure that Mr Assad obeyed the six-point peace plan devised by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general.
“We will seek other ways to increase the pressure as well. We are discussing in the European Union a further tightening of sanctions on Syria,” added the Foreign Secretary.
Mr Annan met the Syrian leader in Damascus yesterday to urge the full implementation of his plan. Afterwards, Mr Annan spoke with unusual bluntness, saying: “We are at a tipping point. 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. As I reminded the President, the international community will soon be reviewing the situation. I appealed to him for bold steps now – not tomorrow, now – to create momentum for the implementation of the plan.”
The Annan plan calls for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of forces from major cities, the release of prisoners and a “Syrian-led political process” designed to resolve the country’s conflict. Crucially, it does not urge Mr Assad to step down and the obligation to stop fighting falls equally on his forces and the rebels.
However, the president argues that his security forces have done nothing but respond to the violence of his opponents. Accordingly, the state media reported that Mr Assad could not press ahead with implementing the peace plan unless the “terrorism” of the opposition came to an end.
Mr Annan’s words suggested that he might declare that his efforts have failed, in which case the international community would consider tightening sanctions on Syria, while some countries would choose to arm the regime’s enemies. “I appealed to the President as the government and stronger partner in
this conflict to be bold for the Syrian people,” said Mr Annan.