Expressions of outrage over the massacre at Houla in Syria echoed around the world over the weekend. From Hillary Clinton in Washington, to William Hague in London, and the UN security council in New York and of course from Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian opponents, the words were powerful and condemnatory – commensurate with the slaughter of innocents, including 32 children.
But words are the easy part. And words can be qualified and mislead.
Russia, Assad’s most loyal ally, signed up to the UN statement (which notably failed to ascribe blame), while its deputy ambassador quickly added that the circumstances of the carnage were “murky”. Sergei Lavrov, its foreign minister, was also trying hard to sound even-handed when he met Hague in Moscow. Syria itself, defiant as ever, denied responsibility for the “terrorist massacre” and complained of a “tsunami” of abuse, as if it were the principal victim.
Agreeing a coherent and effective international response to the bloodiest crisis of the Arab spring is looking more rather than less difficult, despite levels of cruelty and depravity that will surely rank Houla alongside infamous killing grounds in conflicts elsewhere.
Responses so far suggest more of what has been tried and found wanting over the last 14 months: on top of a non-binding UN statement, there is talk of yet more EU sanctions; another meeting of the large and unwieldy Friends of Syria group; a frosty few minutes at the Foreign Office for the Syrian chargé d’affaires in London.
Two encounters might, just, make a difference: Kofi Annan is meeting Assad on Tuesday to discuss what remains of the peace plan that bears his name. Six weeks on, the ceasefire remains a fantasy. Assad has yet to withdraw his forces from towns, let alone launch a dialogue with the opposition. Armed actions by the rebels of the Free Syrian Army and suicide bombings that have been blamed (though far from definitively) on al-Qaida or other jihadi groups have made that even harder.
Hague, meeting Lavrov, was seeking to persuade the Russians, in effect, to stop backing Syria. But there was no sign that Lavrov will waive his veto and sign up to what the British call the “accountability track” – setting in motion moves to refer Syria to the international criminal court for war crimes. And anyway, would it make any difference? It didn’t affect the Libyan regime at all last year.
Still, with evidence that the Syrian army deployed tanks and artillery against Houla – and that a Russian freighter docked in Tartous on Saturday, bringing in further supplies of weapons – there might be some discomfort that could be leveraged into greater pressure on Damascus.
Annan and Hague are both exploring whether the “Syrian-led political dialogue” element of the UN/Arab League plan could be merged into a more explicit scheme for transition, borrowing the negotiated Arab-backed model that led to Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down – albeit while leaving much of his regime intact.
US officials talked up this option over the weekend but it is hard to see why its chances should be any better now than before.
Hanging over the whole bleak story is this unchanging truth: last year’s Arab-backed Nato intervention in Libya will not be replayed in Syria. Every idea that has been suggested to help the opposition and weaken the Damascus regime – for example humanitarian corridors, no-kill zones, safe areas or no-fly zones – would all require offensive military operations. Those are just not on the cards. Assad knows that.
It is a cruel irony of the Syrian crisis that the world knows a lot about what is happening. In the age of YouTube and Twitter no one can claim ignorance as they did when Assad Sr sent the tanks into Hama in 1982. But knowledge turns out to make no difference.
Syria in 2012 is looking more and more like Bosnia 20 years ago: efforts by the international community to mitigate the conflict either have little effect or actually make it worse. If 300 UN observers have proved ineffective, would 10 times that number be any better? Will Houla prove to be a defining moment? The bitter truth is that there may be many more such atrocities before anything much changes.