The ongoing conflict in Syria has reached a crucial turning point, after world leaders joined the condemnation of President Bashar al-Assad following Saturday’s massacre in Houla. Amateur YouTube footage shows the mass burial of 110 villagers allegedly murdered by government forces, including a reported 32 children.

The head of the UN’s mission in Syria, Major General Robert Mood has placed the full figure of fatalities at 116, with more than 300 also injured.

British Foreign Minister William Hague said he was “sickened” by images from Houla as he departed for Moscow, promising to place pressure on Russia to intervene. “It’s not in the interests of Russia, just as it’s not in the interests of anybody in the world for Syria to descend in to an even bloodier situation and in to full-scale civil war and that is now the danger,” said Hague.

He reaffirmed his support for Kofi Annan’s Six-Point Peace Plan, a move copied by the Obama administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement condemning the Houla massacre:

“Those who perpetrated this atrocity must be identified and held to account. And the United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Asad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end.”

President Obama has increasingly come under fire from Republicans over his policy decisions in Syria, with former presidential candidate John McCain and current White House hopeful Mitt Romney sending scathing broadsides through the media. On Sunday, McCain told Fox News Sunday that the United States’ Syria policy “abandons American leadership”, going as far as to label it “a shameful period in America’s history”.

Romney echoed McCain’s sentiments in a statement released on Sunday calling for the US to “organise and arm rebel opposition groups to defend themselves”. This represents a back-flip of sorts for Romney, as earlier this year The Wall Street Journal reported that he had broken with McCain, one of his strongest supporters, by refusing to advocate direct military involvement.

Closer to Syria, Turkey has also condemned the massacre in Houla, although Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman, writing from Turkey, is sceptical that Houla will serve as a tipping point:

“The factors that have prevented effective international intervention to date are still in place. They include big-power rivalries, a divided opposition and a powerful Syrian army. Certainly talking to people last week in Turkey — which is the base for most of the Syrian opposition — I got the sense that people were increasingly resigned to a long and bloody conflict.”

Turkey and neighbouring Lebanon are further embroiled in the ongoing case of the 13 Lebanese Shia Muslims kidnapped in Aleppo, whose whereabouts along the borders are unknown. Tensions between the countries are also guaranteed to escalate following reports that on Sunday night Syrian border guards in the town of Kafarqouq killed one Lebanese national and kidnapped another, supposedly for attempting to smuggle out tobacco.

Inside Houla, Channel 4 journalist Alex Thomson has filed a blog chronicling the deep divisions between areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army and those held by government forces:

“We met one man, an engineer called Ahmed Masood, who showed us his house, which he said had been attacked by terrorists.

When questioned closely, he admitted he was not there when it happened. His house is also right next to a military base and in an area where there are no civilians.

When you put this together it seems curious that a large number of rebel forces were able to come into this area and attack somebody’s house.”

The Syrian government in Damascus has brazenly ascribed responsibility to “terrorists”, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdesi stating that the government is “not at all” responsible.

An emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council yielded a surprising result, with Russia signing the statement condemning the attacks “in the strongest possible terms”. This comes merely days after The Moscow Times reported, via Al Arabiya, that a Russian cargo ship loaded with weapons was due to arrive in Syria over the weekend. The Sydney Morning Herald has published the Security Council’s statement in full, and it is unclear whether the Russian ship has docked.

These developments pushing Syria back into the news suggest that leaders may yet be moved to act decisively beyond UN observer missions. The Independent yesterday published a dramatic front page, damning the international community for “averting its gaze” as Assad’s troops run unchecked during a time of supposed ceasefire:

The New York Times somewhat more hopefully speculated that Obama will attempt to propose a model for transition that would ease out al-Assad, with the reinforcement of Russian support. Regardless, the UN Security Council will have a tough time reining in an unapologetic Syrian government that continuously and blatantly pleads innocence.

Peter Fray

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