(Photo: REUTERS/Shaam News Network)
A weekend massacre that left over 100 people dead in Syria's Houla region has sparked international outrage and has left U.N. special envoy on Syria Kofi Annan worried about the future of the country.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, Annan labeled the massacre "an appalling crime" and stressed that the country was at a "tipping point."
"The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division, yet the killings continue and abuses are still with us today," Annan said. "I appealed to [President Assad] for bold steps now – not tomorrow, now."
The massacre last Friday in Houla left 108 people dead, including 34 women and 49 children. A majority of victims in the massacre were killed execution style by close-range gunfire and knives, witnesses on the ground told the U.N. human right's office.
Videos posted to YouTube show horrifying images of dozens of children who had purportedly been killed in the Houla attack, and in one video children are shown lying on the ground bloodied and motionless, some with their skulls split open.
It is believed that pro-regime militias, known as shabiha, are responsible for carrying out most of the killings, despite the Syrian government's claims that "armed terrorists" were behind the massacre.
U.N. Peacekeeping Chief Herve Ladsous said there are "strong suspicions" that pro-Assad gunmen were behind the attack, pointing to the deaths of other Houla residents who died as a result of artillery and tank fire that he argued "ever so clearly" point to the involvement of the Assad regime.
In March, Syria had accepted a six-point peace plan under Annan – who was named the U.N.-Arab League crisis envoy to Syria in February amid increased violence and militarization in the country – calling for inclusive political dialogue, withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centers, unimpeded access to humanitarian agencies, the release of prisoners, freedom of movement, and access to journalists to go in and out of the country freely.
The peace plan, however, has yet to be implemented and Annan left Syria on Wednesday without having secured any indications that the Syrian government would take any major steps to insure the implementation of the plan.
"If the plan is not implemented, I would worry for the future of Syria. I would worry about stability in the country," Annan said on Tuesday.
"If we do not [implement the plan], may God help us," the former U.N. secretary-general added.
The international community has been up in arms over the massacre and on Sunday the U.N. Security Council issued a statement condemning "in the strongest possible terms the killings."
On Wednesday, Turkey and Japan joined 11 other nations in protest against Friday's atrocities by expelling Syrian diplomats from their countries.
But as countries and diplomats around the world attempt to put pressure on Syria to halt the violence, Syrian allies China and Russia both continue to reiterate their support for a non-interventionist stance on the crisis.
"One cannot take decisions on military operations in Syria by being guided by only emotions," Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Anderi Denisov said on Wednesday, according to Itar-Tass.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said China "opposes military intervention" and "forced regime change," and is instead calling for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
"The fundamental route to resolving the Syrian issue is still for all sides to fully support Annan's mediation efforts and push all the relevant parties to carry out diplomatic dialogue," Weimin said.
Syria has been engulfed in violence for nearly 15 months after a peaceful opposition movement against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's Ba'athist regime began.
The Syrian government responded to protests by cracking down on protesters and neighborhoods suspected of supporting the opposition, but has maintained that "armed terrorists" and not Syrian government troops have been behind the bloodshed.
Thousands of civilian lives, including those of children, have been lost due to indiscriminate shelling, torture and abuse. The U.N. estimates that over 9,000 lives have been lost – a majority of which were civilians.