Photo by Joseph Eid/AFP/GettyImages.
UPDATE: It's ultimatum time in Syria.
Opposition forces on Thursday said they will abandon the already-shaky U.N.-brokered ceasefire at noon on Friday unless President al-Assad ends all government attacks.
"If the Syrian regime does not meet the deadline by Friday midday, the command of the Free Syrian Army announces that it will no longer be tied by any commitment to the Annan plan ... and our duty will be ... to defend civilians," the Free Syrian Army said in a recorded statement.
The ultimatum also calls for the Assad regime to meet the terms of the April 12 ceasefire, including withdrawal of troops, allowance of humanitarian aid, and negotiations to hand power over to the Syrian people.
While an end to the ceasefire brokered by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan is all but certain to lead to more wide-spread violence, the fragile peace plan has been far from a success to date. International observers on the ground have reported two civilian massacres in the past week alone.
Annan’s visit to Damascus this week failed to temper the latest outbreaks of violence, although, according to Al-Jazeera, state media reports 500 prisoners were released at Annan’s urging.
The recent escalation of violence against civilians has many international leaders fearing that the already violent conflict could soon spill over to something even larger. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned the nation is on the brink of a "catastrophic civil war," a sentiment that has been echoed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who continues to push Russian to help bring an end to the conflict, the BBC reports.
Wednesday, May 30: China and Russia aren't budging.
The two nations restated their opposition to intervention in Syria on Wednesday, despite Tuesday's diplomatic show of force by the United States and a dozen other nations that expelled Syrian diplomats in response to the massacre of more than 100 civilians in Houla late last week.
Reuters reports that both China and Russia responded to comments by newly-minted French President Francois Hollande indicating that a U.N. Security Council-backed military intervention should not be off the table. China and Russia have previously vetoed Security Council measures on Syria, but support U.N. envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan for the country. That plan's viability, however, remains very much in question given the rampant violence that has occurred since the cease-fire began.
Annan himself has indicated that the Houla massacre will be a tipping point for the way in which the international community handles the Syrian crisis. According to CBS news, the U.N. special envoy said that the international community wanted "action, not words" when it comes to Syria.
As if the Houla massacre last week wasn't enough, 13 more bodies were found in the eastern part of the country, U.N. observers in the country announced Wednesday. Some of the bodies appeared to have been shot at close range, with their hands tied behind their backs, according to Reuters.
Tuesday, May 29, 11:05 a.m.: Add the United States to the growing list of countries that will expel Syrian diplomats in a coordinated international response to last week's massacre in Houla that left more than a hundred dead.
Sources tell CNN and other media outlets that the State Department has given Syrian charge d'affaires Zouheir Jabbour, the nation's top diplomat in the United States, 72 hours to leave the country with his family.
The news follows similar announcements from a handful of other countries, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany. The international show of diplomatic force comes as the United Nations has said that it is "clear" that the Syrian government was involved in the massacre.
Tuesday, May 29: The United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Australia on Tuesday became the first countries to throw out Syrian diplomats in response to the massacre of at least 108 people in Houla last week. Italy and Spain have also announced the expulsion of Syrian diplomats in their countries, the Associated Press reports.
The massacre in Houla comes after months of unsuccessful diplomatic attempts to stop the unrest in Syria, including the failure of Kofi Annan's U.N. peace plan and cease fire, as Reuters notes.
Meanwhile, more information on the nature of the killings in Houla has become public. The U.N.'s human rights office said Tuesday that fewer than 20 of the more than 100 killed died from artillery. The rest were apparently shot at close range. The dead include 34 women and 49 children, according to the AP's count.
Monday, May 28: Kofi Annan, the U.N./Arab League special envoy to Syria, urged “every individual with a gun” to lay down their weapons as he arrived in Damascus Monday. He condemned the massacre of at least 108 people in Houla as “an appalling crime,” saying the government has to prove it is ready to work for peace. Annan was scheduled to meet Syria’s foreign minister and would hold talks with President Bashar al-Assad Tuesday, reports Al Jazeera.
The Assad regime, however, seems to care little, if at all, about international condemnation. Reuters reports that at least 41 people were killed in an assault on the nearby city of Hama, shortly after the U.N. Security Council condemned the massacre, according to activists.
In a sign of how much the horrific images coming out of Houla have shocked the world, even Russia, long one of Syria’s most reliable allies, said the government was at least partly to blame for the killings over the weekend, reports the Associated Press. “Both sides have obviously had a hand in the deaths of innocent people,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.
Sunday, May 27, at 8:10 p.m.: The United Nations Security Council blamed the Syrian government for firing heavy weapons on the area of Houla but avoided directly placing blame on President Bashar al-Assad's regime for the massacre of more than 100 men, women, and children, reports the Associated Press. The United Nations has increased the death toll of the massacre to 108 people, including 49 children, highlights the Los Angeles Times.
“The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings … in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood. The members of the Security Council also condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse,” read the statement.
Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, insisted to reporters that the U.N. didn’t blame his government for most of the deaths. Syria insists most of the deaths were caused by close-range gunfire and the United Nations failed to place blame for those actions. Meanwhile Russia insisted “it still remains unclear what happened and what triggered what,” as Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador told reporters, according to CNN.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, sent a letter to the Security Council that “appeared to give ammunition to both sides,” writes Reuters. While Ban mentioned that observers “confirmed … that artillery and tank shells were fired at a residential neighborhood,” he also noted that some bodies had shotgun wounds.
Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey notes that the council wanted to come out with a statement as quickly as possible and in the end it was “watered down a bit.” Britain and France were pushing for a stronger condemnation of Syria but had to dial back the outrage in order to get Russia onboard.
Sunday, May 27, at 4:57 p.m.: The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss the massacre in the Syrian area of Houla but the usual divisions quickly became evident as Russia expressed doubts that President Bashar al-Assad's regime was behind the killings. The death toll has increased to 116 people, the head of the U.N. observer mission in Syria, Gen. Robert Mood told the council, reports Reuters.
Moscow had earlier rejected proposals by Britain and France to issue a press statement condemning the massacre.
“Tragic events in #Syria that led to death of dozens of people deserve strong condemnation. However, we must examine causes of what happened,” wrote Gennady Gatilov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, on Twitter.
Although there seems to be universal agreement that the killings need to be condemned, “the devil is in the details,” as Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey says. “Exactly who to condemn, and how to condemn them, remains open to debate.”
Sunday, May 27, at 1:35 p.m.: As the death toll from Friday’s massacre in the central area of Houla increased to at least 109, according to Reuters, the Syrian government vehemently denied responsibility for the killings. Government officials blamed “terrorists,” saying their soldiers who were in the area also came under attack from “hundreds of heavily armed gunmen,” reports the Associated Press.
The United Nations had earlier confirmed 32 children under 10 were among the dead in one of the bloodiest single events since Syria’s uprising began. Western and Arab countries quickly condemned the violence. U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council while France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he would push for a meeting of the Friends of Syria group in Paris, and the head of the European parliament said the killings could amount to a war crime. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the massacre “appalling” and said Washington would increase pressure on “Assad and his cronies” to give up power, reports the BBC. Condemnation also came from the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Still, the key, as usual, is Russia, which has remained silent so far.
In total, more than 13,000 people have been killed in Syria, including 9,183 civilians, since the uprising to topple President Bashar al-Assad began in March of last year, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights tells AFP.
Meanwhile, the United States is trying to convince Russia to support a Yemen-style solution for Syria involving a political settlement that would get Assad out of power but leave some parts of his old government in place, reports the New York Times. Russia has been reluctant to abandon one of its few remaining allies in the Arab world, so Washington is insisting that Moscow would be able to retain its close ties to Syria even after Assad leaves power.
While some insist the Houla massacre could be a game-changer in the conflict, others aren’t so sure. Shashank Joshi, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, points out in a piece for the BBC that many will be skeptical that the massacre really took place. In addition, Western countries are even less eager to intervene now than they were a few months ago now that it’s become clear that al-Qaida and related groups are involved in Syria. “Above all, however, no-one wants to pick a fight with Russia,” writes Joshi.
Saturday, May 26, at 3:11 p.m.: United Nations observers traveled to Houla Saturday and confirmed initial reports that around 100 people were killed Friday. More than 92 people were killed, including 32 children younger than 10, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, said, according to CNN. Mood described the killings as a “brutal tragedy” but emphasized it isn’t clear who was responsible for the deaths, reports the Associated Press.
Saturday, May 26, at 12:26 p.m.: The central town of Houla, in Homs province, was the scene of horrific killings on Friday when at least 90 people were killed in a string of attacks by government forces and their allies, according to activists and Syrian human rights groups, reports Al Jazeera. The Associated Press says that Houla, made up of several villages, suffered what appeared to be indiscriminate shelling following an anti-regime protest Friday. After the bombing, “pro-government thugs” (shabiha) raided the villages, murdering men, women, and children.
It certainly marked the worst violence since the U.N. peace plan was implemented to try to stem the killings, and was one of the deadliest days in the 15-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Houla has been a hotbed of opposition activity since the uprising against the regime began. Syria’s main opposition bloc claims more than 100 people have been killed and has asked the U.N. Security Council to convene an emergency meeting. U.N. observers visited the area Saturday, but activists complained they failed to enter Houla, notes Al Jazeera.
Syrian state television broadcast graphic images that were posted by activists on YouTube, claiming the bodies were victims of “terrorist” groups, reports Reuters. On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged countries to resist the urge to arm anyone in the conflict, saying recent attacks may have been carried out by “established terrorist groups.” Yet on Saturday France’s foreign minister called the killing a massacre and said he wanted to convene a meeting in Paris of the Friends of Syria, the group of countries who want to get rid of Assad.