Diplomatic pressure mounts on Syria after Houla massacre
Diplomatic pressure on Syria has mounted this week, as countries around the world have announced the expulsion of Syrian diplomats in protest at the massacre close to the Syrian town of Houla last weekend, in the province of Homs.
More than one hundred people were killed in the attack, including 20 women and almost 50 children, according to reports in Western newspapers. A UN report said that many of the dead were shot at close range, with less than 20 of the total casualties killed by shelling from the Syrian army. Some reports indicate entire families were summarily executed in their homes.
Militiamen loyal to the Syrian government, known as shabiha, have been widely blamed, with some eyewitnesses claiming that they arrived in army vehicles and were dressed in a mixture of civilian clothes and military uniforms.
The Syrian government blamed “terrorists” for the attack, and denied any involvement by the Syrian armed forces.
Following the massacre, a total of 13 countries announced on Tuesday that they were expelling Syrian diplomats. Amongst those 13 are the UK, France, the US, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Switzerland and Japan.
Both Russia and China, who have so far steadfastly supported Syria at the UN, have come out against the attack and voted in favor of a highly critical Security Council declaration condemning Assad’s government on Sunday. Russia later criticized the expulsion of diplomats as “counterproductive,” and said the rebels were partly to blame for the massacre. Later in the week, a Russian foreign ministry official stated that outside intervention in Syria was still a bad idea as it would worsen the violence, and that Russia would use its veto to prevent this from happening.
Within Syria itself, a spokesman for the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) gave the Syrian government a 48-hour deadline to stop its attacks and abide by the UN ceasefire, though another FSA spokesman based in Turkey denied this. The deadline passed on Friday morning, London time.
Friday also saw the convening of an emergency meeting of the UN Human Rights Council at the request of Qatar and Turkey. It issued a statement calling for an independent investigation into the massacre and condemned the Syria government. The resolution was passed over the objections of Russia, China, and Cuba.
News is also emerging that Syria is having difficulty meeting its grain import needs. UN figures indicate that Syria imports half of its grain. Bread is a dietary staple of many Syrians, who consume half a kilo of grain per day according to figures cited by Reuters. Although food imports are not embargoed, some traders say that banks, ship owners and traders are nonetheless wary of sanctions, making it difficult for Syria to obtain financing for shipments and forcing it to rely on smaller shipments arranged by middlemen.