108 people, 34 of them children — an increase from original estimates — were killed in the Syrian village of Houla, the United Nations Security Council was informed at an emergency meeting on Sunday. Britain, France, Germany and the US had composed a statement condemning the massacre and the Syrian military for shelling civilian neighborhoods with tank shells. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and his envoy, Kofi Annan — who is scheduled to be in Damascus for talks on Monday — have also issued a joint statement. Notably, the UN has “directly accus[ed] the government of perpetrating major violence,” says the New York Times.
Amateur videos showed row on row of children, some clearly toddlers, with what appeared to be bloody bullet wounds to their temples. Opposition activists said that the Syria government attacked Houla on Friday after demonstrations following prayers and continued the shelling until Saturday. Anti-government demonstrations have broken out throughout Syria and threaten to break down along sectarian lines: Houla is a Sunni Muslim town, while the three towns around it are Alawite, a minority sect that President Bashar al-Assad, his family and security forces belong to.
The massacre has “soured” Syrians even more about the presence of the UN monitors, who were in nearby Homs when the killings in Houla occurred.
Russia Blocks UN Statement; How To Remove Assad?
But Russia, Syria’s long-time ally and supplier of arms, has blocked the UN Security Council statement and has demanded a private meeting with General Robert Mood, the head of the UN observer mission, about assigning blame for the horrific massacre.
Russia’s support remains key for the US to proceed with efforts to transfer power from Assad under a plan similar to that by which long-time Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh was finally removed from power after over thirty years in February. Despite Russia’s intransigence about criticizing Syria and condemning Assad’s regime, the example of Yemen has been so “widely discussed” in Moscow that “the option has become known by its Russian term, ‘the Yemenskii Variant,’ even in the United States.” The New York Times highlights the complexities of such a transfer of power:
The biggest problem with the Yemen model, several experts said, is that Yemen and Syria are starkly different countries. In Yemen, Mr. Saleh kept his grip on power for three decades by reconciling competing interests through a complex system of patronage. When his authority collapsed, there was a vice president, Mr. Hadi, who was able to assert enough control over Yemen’s splintered security forces to make him a credible transitional leader.
In Syria, by contrast, Mr. Assad oversees a security state in which his minority Alawite sect fears that if his family is ousted, it will face annihilation at the hands of the Sunni majority. That has kept the government remarkably cohesive, cut down on military defections and left Mr. Assad in a less vulnerable position than Mr. Saleh. Even if he leaves, American officials conceded, there is no obvious candidate to replace him.
President Barack Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin, now reelected to his old post, will meet on May 7.
Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey said that, while there was a “universal response” to condemn the killings in Houla, the “devil is in the details” about who to lay responsibility on. The Syrian government has denied involvement for the brutal killings, offering its standard line that “terrorists” were responsible. Jihad Makdissi, the spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, said that “We unequivocally deny the responsibility of government forces for the massacre,” at a news conference in Damascus. “Not one Syrian tank went in” to Houla, Makdissi said in Al Jazeera.
How many more children will die this week in Syria?
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