U.N. to investigate Syrian massacre
By Joe Sterling, CNN: The world redoubled its resolve to forge peace across violent Syria on Friday, as the U.N. Human Rights Council authorized an independent probe into last week’s notorious massacre in the Syrian city of Houla.
The council called on the U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which has issued ongoing reports about violence in the country, to conduct a robust probe into the killings, council spokesman Rupert Colville said.
Meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, 41 countries voted for the resolution while Russia, China and Cuba voted against it. Russia and China have blocked tough U.N. Security Council against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime.
The U.N. Human Rights Council deplored the killings and received preliminary reports of government involvement, including “a series of government artillery and tank shelling of a residential neighborhood” and killings by pro-government militia. It condemned the “outrageous use of force” against civilians and called for the Syrian government to immediately halt the violence.
Russia’s foreign ministry spokesman A.K. Lukashevich released a statement saying those behind “this barbaric crime (deserve) an extremely severe punishment.” But he said the identity of the perpetrators hasn’t been determined yet — noting Russia is awaiting the findings of the U.N. investigation, while also pointing to the Syrian government’s probe that found “this crime was a well-planned act on behalf of militants with the aim of torpedoing efforts to achieve a political settlement.”
Lukashevich said some international efforts, including the threat of foreign intervention, is exacerbating the situation by pushing Syria closer to an all-out civil war and allowing “strong religious elements (to) come to the forefront.”
“They still give preference to their own agenda, where the change of the ruling regime in Damascus remains the main point,” the spokesman said of unnamed “international and regional players.”
“The tragedy in Houla has shown what may result from financial aid to militants, smuggling in modern armament systems for them, recruiting foreign mercenaries and flirting with extremists of all kinds.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin was less pointed in remarks he made a short time later in France, even as he emphatically urged the international community to be cautious and conscientious in Syria.
“What happened in Libya and Iraq? Have they become safer and better (after international intervention)? Where are they moving?” said Putin. “That’s why we’re proposing, at least in Syria, to act carefully.”
Standing beside him, recently elected French President Francois Hollande left no doubt about what he thinks should happen to Syria’s president, whose regime he said “has behaved in an unacceptable and intolerable way. … There will only be an exit possible with the departure of Bashar al-Assad.”Friday’s U.N. resolution makes no determination as to what should happen next to al-Assad, or even who’s to blame for the massacre in Houla. Rather, it is asking the commission to “urgently conduct a comprehensive independent and unfettered special inquiry consistent with international standards.
“If possible,” the resolution said, the commission would “publicly identify those who appear responsible and to preserve the evidence of crimes for possible future criminal prosecutions or future justice process.”
The resolution called on Syria to “cooperate fully” with the investigation and to “accord it full and unfettered access.”
Ecuador and Uganda abstained and the Philippine representatives were absent.
Military options for Syria considered if crisis worsens
Before the vote, U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Navi Pillay, urged the international community to throw its weight behind special envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan and called for unimpeded access for an investigation into the massacre in the city of Houla last week of 108 people, including 49 children.
“Otherwise, the situation in Syria might descend into a full-fledged conflict and the future of the country, as well as the region as a whole, could be in grave danger,” said Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights.
Syria told Pillay’s office that “terrorist armed groups” were responsible for Houla. It said the military”was acting only in self-defense, and that it sought to protect the civilian population.”
“The government of Syria said that it established an inter-ministerial committee to investigate these events. Nevertheless, there is a need for prompt, independent and impartial international investigations into all serious human rights violations in Syria,” she said.
She said the massacre “may amount to crimes against humanity and other international crimes, and may be indicative of a pattern of widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populations that have been perpetrated with impunity.”
“Once again, I urge the Security Council to consider referring the case of Syria to the International Criminal Court,” Pillay said.
Reports of more carnage filtered out of Syria on Friday, with at least 37 people slain across the country, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.
Other reports of terror emerged this week. In the Homs province village of Bouyda, 12 factory workers were killed Thursday by pro-government gangs known as Shabiha, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. They were lined up against a wall and shot, the group said.
U.N. observers said the bodies of 13 slain people were discovered about 30 miles east of Deir Ezzor, in the eastern part of the country, on Tuesday night.
The violence drove defiant Syrians to the streets on Friday in what was billed as “a merchants’ strike to stop massacring children.” A revolt by Syria’s merchant class — which has been an integral part of President Bashar al-Assad’s support structure — could elevate the uprising.Houla and the continuing carnage in Syria has spurred international outrage.
Annan, speaking to reporters in Lebanon, said he realized that many had grown impatient with the situation in Syria and are frustrated by the continuing levels of violence. Asked if the much-criticized mission is “a diplomatic cover for more killings,” he defended the importance of his six-point plan.
“We deplore the killings, we condemn the massacre in Houla and the subsequent killings that happened. And this is I think one more reason that one should make greater effort to find a solution. To suggest that an attempt to find a peaceful solution is a reason for further killings — I find it difficult to defend because the implication is that if this proposal was not on the table, if we were not discussing ways of getting people to the table to discuss political solutions, there would be no killing. I disagree with that,” he said.
Asked what has to happen before the peace plan is dead and other options should be pursued, Annan said that’s a decision for the U.N. Security Council, which passed a resolution backing the peace initiative.
“The council and the countries involved will have to keep working together to find a solution. If it is not this proposal on the table, there could be something else. I am not one of those who believes that there is only one way of solving — there could be other ways,” he said.
Also Friday, Russia’s president struck back at the claims by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Moscow is “propping up the regime” of Bashar al-Assad — first from Germany and later in France.
“We have good and long relations with Syria, but we do not support either of the sides,” Putin said, speaking to reporters after a meeting in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Russian president said he agreed with Merkel that everything must be done to avoid a civil war in Syria. “Today we see developing elements of civil war and it’s very dangerous,” he said.
Putin said it’s wrong to conclude the Annan plan has failed and emphasized the importance of a political solution.
“We will maintain contact with President Assad and the leadership of Syria and with regional countries, Arab countries … in order to find a political solution,” he said.
On Friday, Clinton said in Oslo, Noway, that if Russia is ready to work with other world powers “to come together to plan a political transition, we will certainly be ready to cooperate.”
But she hammered home her claim that Russia is helping Syria.
There’s been a “very consistent arms trade” over the last year of violence from Russia to Syria.
“We also believe that the continuing supply of arms from Russia has strengthened the Assad regime. What those arms are being used for, we cannot speak with any accuracy, but the fact that Russia has continued to sustain this trade in the face of efforts by the international community to impose sanctions and to prevent further arms flowing to the Assad regime, and in particular the Syrian military has raised serious concerns on our part,” she said.
This reflects the Obama administration’s efforts to get Russia to use its pull with the regime.
Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama’s special assistant and principal deputy press secretary, said Russia “has a significant investment in Syria and it’s in their own self-interest” to help end the violence.
“The violence needs to end and a political transition needs to begin,” Earnest said.
“The only way the situation will be resolved in Syria is for Assad to leave power.”
A Russian-flagged ship docked this week in the Syrian port of Tartus and some human rights groups have charged that it was carrying weapons to be used in the conflict in Syria. The U.S. State Department said Thursday that it was looking into the matter but could not confirm that the ship was carrying arms.
“We don’t supply weapons that can be used in civil conflicts,” Putin said.
Annan said he and Lebanese authorities discussed cross-border arms smuggling. There are reports that the Free Syrian Army rebels are getting some weaponry from Lebanon.
“Lebanese authorities have made it quite clear to me the efforts they are making to prevent their territory being used for trans-shipment of arms. We should also dissuade those who would want to smuggle arms into the territory (so that they would) stop,” he said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who met on Friday in Istanbul with members of Syrian opposition groups, Turkish officials, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, stressed the importance of unifying what has been a fractious opposition movement.
“The secretary-general and I share a deep concern that Syria is on the brink of a vicious civil war. We agreed that President Assad must fulfill his commitment to implementing the Annan plan if this scenario is to be averted,” he said.
So far, the United States and other countries favor diplomacy to deal with the crisis. Some politicians in the United States and some Arab nations have urged military action.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Washington should not move forward with military action without the authorization of the United Nations.
“No, I cannot envision that,” Panetta said Thursday when asked if the U.S. would bypass the U.N. to take action in Syria to remove al-Assad. But he left the door open by saying, “I think it’s always important for the U.S. to protect every option for taking action in the future.”
The crisis in Syria began when a tough government crackdown launched against protesters last year spiraled out of control and spawned a national anti-government uprising. It is estimated that between 9,000 and more than 14,000 Syrians have died in the nearly 15-month-long crisis.