West expels Syrian envoys over Houla massacre
WASHINGTON DC, United States of America (AFP) - Western powers ordered Tuesday, May 29, the expulsion of Syrian diplomats as they blamed the Houla massacre squarely on President Bashar al-Assad's regime and warned him that time was running out.
Russia, which has twice vetoed UN action against Syria, was pressed to change its approach to its key Middle Eastern ally with the United States calling for the atrocity to serve as a "turning point in Russian thinking."
The coordinated envoy expulsions followed mounting international outrage over the massacre on Friday in the central town of Houla, in which at least 108 people, including 49 children, were killed, according to UN figures.
Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United States acted in concert, stepping up the pressure on Assad's regime after the killings, many of them summary executions blamed on pro-government militia.
"We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, informing charge d'affaires Zuheir Jabbour that he had 72 hours to leave the country.
Jabbour has been the highest-ranking Syrian official in Washington since the departure of the ambassador, Imad Mustapha, last October.
Nuland said the massacre was "the most unambiguous indictment to date" of Syria's flagrant UN Security Council violations and urged all countries to "condemn the actions of the Assad regime through similar action."
Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Switzerland followed suit, while Belgium declared its Syria ambassador "persona non grata" but said he could not be expelled as he was also EU envoy and there was no unanimity in the 27-nation bloc.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the expulsion of the top Syrian diplomat in London, charge d'affaires Ghassan Dalla, and two other envoys would send out a "stark message."
The move was aimed at stacking pressure on senior figures in the regime, "to get the message across to them that they have to choose, that time will run out for Assad," Hague said.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said: "We are aiming to ensure that our unmistakable message does not fall on deaf ears in Damascus."
Russia, which is urging world powers to concentrate on ending the spiraling violence rather than pursue regime change, called for a UN-led probe into last week's massacre, which also wounded 300 villagers.
"At this stage, there should be an objective and impartial investigation conducted under the auspices of the UN monitoring mission in Syria," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Nuland welcomed Russia's call for a full probe as she said it would undoubtedly show that "these were regime-sponsored thugs who went into villages, went into homes and killed children at point blank-range and their parents.
"From that perspective, is this going to be a turning point in Russian thinking? We hope so," the US official added.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov conceded on Monday that the Syrian government bore the brunt of responsibility for the Houla tragedy but also placed some of the blame on the rebels.
In signs of growing Western frustration at Assad's 14-month crackdown, Belgium called for a foreign military presence in Syria and French President Francois Hollande said the use of armed force was possible under UN auspices.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius laid bare the dilemma facing Western powers as he forcefully condemned Assad in calling for his departure but accepted that a ground invasion could not be contemplated.
"Assad is the murderer of his people. He must leave power... the sooner the better," Fabius told Le Monde newspaper. "No state is willing to consider today a ground operation. The risks of regional extension would be formidable, especially in Lebanon."
Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet Hollande for a working dinner in Paris on Friday. - Andrew Gully, Agence France-Presse