Sunday, June 10, 2012

Syria After the Massacre

May 28, 2012 by PATRICK COCKBURN
Long War Looms


Parts of Syria are convulsed by civil war, while in other areas life
continues almost as normal. At the same moment as more than 30 children
had their throats cut and dozens of civilians were killed by shelling in
Houla in central Syria on Friday, people in Damascus were picnicking on
the slopes of Mount Qassioun, overlooking the capital.

Syria yesterday denied that its forces had carried out the massacre of at
least 116 people including dozens of children in Houla, claiming that the
slaughter was the work of rebels.

But it did not give a detailed account of what had happened that would
convincingly refute allegations by insurgents, largely supported by UN
monitors, that military units and militia men loyal to the government had
carried out the killings.

Sources in Damascus told me yesterday that they believed the attack had
been carried out by regime forces in revenge for the killing of a
government informant in the nearby Alawite village of Kabou a month

The claims and counterclaims came as shelling of neighborhoods in the
central Syrian city of Hama, the rebel-held town of Rastan north of Homs,
and areas of the Damascus suburbs were reported by the Local Coordination
Committees and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in

The government in Damascus yesterday appeared to be somewhat leaderless
and seemed slow to take on board the impact of an outrage in which people
across the world are blaming the Syrian authorities for the murder and
mutilation of children. “I get the impression that there is nobody in firm
control of Syrian policy and the Syrian armed forces,” said a diplomat

The Syrian government is claiming that the massacre happened after 100
heavily armed men attacked government checkpoints around Houla early on
Saturday morning and then butchered the inhabitants of Houla over a
nine-hour period. Blaming “terrorists” for the massacre, Foreign Ministry
spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters in Damascus that “women, children
and old men were shot dead. This is not the hallmark of the heroic Syrian

The opposition gave a more detailed account of what happened, saying that
Houla was first shelled on Thursday after street protests by villagers.
This has been confirmed by UN ceasefire monitors, who later found
large-caliber shell casing. Anti-government militants say that “shabibah”
militia men from the Alawite community loyal to President Bashar al-Assad
entered Houla and hacked or shot its people to death.

An opposition eyewitness, named by news agencies as Maysara al-Alhawi,
said he saw the bodies of six children and their parents in a looted house
in the town.

He told a news agency: “The children’s corpses were piled on top of each
other, either with their throats cut or shot at close range.

“I helped collect more than 100 bodies in the last two days, mostly women
and children. The last were six members of the al-Kurdi family. A father
and his five kids. The mother is missing,” he said.

Alawite villagers in the area of Houla were said to be frightened of
retaliation for the massacre and have been donating blood for the wounded,
the number of which is believed to be between 300-400.

Fighting can be intense, but it is also sporadic, even in highly contested
areas. Over the past week, insurgents, many of them defectors from the
army, have been fighting to capture Rastan, a strategically placed town on
the road running north from Homs. During the same period, militants in the
small city of Douma, an opposition stronghold on the outskirts of
Damascus, were involved in UN mediation over access to hospitals, the
release of detainees and the restoration of services. Soldiers manning
sand-bagged checkpoints surrounding Douma’s narrow streets, where shops
and markets were reopening, looked bored and relaxed.

Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy, returns to Damascus in the next
couple of days to attempt to give more substance to the so-called
ceasefire that began on 12 April. This now looks like a critical visit, as
the Houla slaughter makes Syria once again the centre of international
attention and a possible target for some form of foreign intervention.

The ceasefire was only sporadically implemented from the beginning. The
government has always had more interest in its successful implementation,
which would stabilize its authority, than the insurgents, who need to keep
the pot of rebellion boiling. The UN monitoring team says that during the
ceasefire “the level of offensive military operations by the government
significantly decreased” while there has been “an increase in militant
attacks and targeted killings”. But any credit the Syrian government might
be hoping for in showing restraint will disappear if the latest atrocities
are confirmed.

A Long War Looms

Not that anybody in Syria expects a quick solution to the crisis in which
a mosaic of different interests and factions are battling to control the
country. “My picture of Syrian society is that 30 per cent of people are
militantly against the government, 30 per cent are for them, and 40 per
cent don’t like anybody very much,” said a Christian in Damascus. A
diplomat said people are much more polarized than six months ago into
pro-government, anti-government and “what I term the anti-anti government,
the people who dislike the regime, but equally fear the opposition”. The
government has been exploiting this by targeting its non-violent opponents
“so they can say it is a choice between us and guys with long beards.
People want change, but they are frightened it might be for the worse”.

Conversations with liberally minded critics of the regime in Damascus
reflect these differences. “If I made even the most peaceful protest I
would be immediately arrested,” said one woman in frustration. “The exiled
opposition leaders have not developed a serious plan to reassure the
minorities [Alawites, Christians, Druze, Kurds], though they are the main
supporters of the government,” added a businessman whose business is
collapsing, forcing him to live off his savings.

Could the present stalemate change as a result of the death of all those
people in Houla on Friday? Internationally, the atrocity, if confirmed in
detail, will increase pressure for foreign support for the insurgency and
tighter sanctions on Syria. Weapons from Saudi Arabia are now reportedly
reaching the rebels and their degree of co-ordination in the fighting at
Rastan is greater than a few months ago.

The Syrian government says its has been abiding by the ceasefire except
where it comes under attack. Speaking before the Houla killings, Jihad
Makdissi, the spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Affairs Ministry, said:
“Since we signed the ceasefire on 12 April, we have documented 3,500
violations of it by the opposition.” But the bombardment of civilian
areas, with the gory consequences at Houla showing on every television
screen in the world, will confirm Syria’s status as a pariah, from which
it had been starting to emerge.

Mr Makdissi said that an earlier monitoring mission by the Arab League had
been “binned” by Arab leaders because it showed that the opposition was
armed and on the offensive. There is no doubt that the opposition has
become militarized, but this is not surprising given the repression of
peaceful protest. “What Syria needs is gradual evolution, not armed
confrontation,” said Mr Makdissi. “You want Syria to reform, but you
impose sanctions, so there is no gas for people to cook on.”

The Syrian government has been growing stronger over the past seven weeks,
because the Kofi Annan plan reduced calls for international intervention.
The killings at Houla have put this in doubt and will put pressure on
Annan for a more substantive ceasefire plan than the present one, which
saw each side abide by it only when it was militarily convenient for them
to do so.

Will the latest killings have an impact on how Syrians see the struggle
for power? The indiscriminate and excessive nature of government violence
over the past 14 months has alienated swathes of Syrians not naturally
sympathetic to revolution. “It is not just that 10,000 people have died,
but the bestial way in which they died,” said one well-off and secular
woman in Damascus.

For all the criticism of the Annan peace mission and the 300 monitors from
the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, they appear to be the only way of
abating the violence. Even with an increased flow of weapons to the
opposition, the government still has a great superiority in armed force.
Indeed, this turns into political weakness because, as with the US in Iraq
and Afghanistan, or Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, excessive use of heavy
weaponry against civilians leads to a furious reaction at home and
political isolation abroad.

A better-armed opposition will be too strong to be suppressed by the
government, but the outcome is most likely to be prolonged civil war
rather than a clear victory by either side. Sanctions have already wrecked
the Syrian banking sector and are hurting the country, but they are not
leading to economic collapse. Syrians feel it is a collective punishment
on them all which causes little harm to the government. There is plenty of
food because Syrian agriculture, the largest sector of the economy, is
benefiting from two years of heavy rain after three years of severe
drought. There is no tourism and hotels are empty, but this was never as
important as in Lebanon or Egypt. The biggest blow has been the fall in
oil exports as foreign oil companies cease operating here.

Both the government and the armed opposition have become stronger in the
past six months and neither side sees much reason to compromise. It feels
like the beginning of a long war.

The Scene in One Damascus Suburb

Soldiers guard earth barricades surrounding Douma on the outskirts of
Damascus, while tough-looking militants control the streets. It is a
stalemate which neither side, for the moment, is willing to break.

On seeing UN vehicles, passers-by shout anti-government slogans amid
chants of “God is Great”. A boy rips open his shirt to reveal white
bandages on his chest which he also tries to remove, to show what look
like burns underneath. “It may look safe in the daytime, but after 7pm
snipers in high buildings shoot people walking in the streets,” says a man
riding a red motor scooter. “They shot two children and three young men
last night.”

A crying woman, veiled and in the black robes worn by most women in this
conservative Muslim district, says her son was arrested six weeks earlier
and she had not seen him since.

For all their complaints of snipers, arbitrary arrests and disappearances,
the crowd of a hundred people in the centre of Douma do not appear
frightened that they will be attacked by government forces. About a third
of the shops are open. Mobile phones do not work but somebody has
collected the rubbish, unlike in the embattled city of Homs where it lies
in rotting heaps. Local militants are well-organized, with disciplined
young men in a sort of uniform of black shirt and trousers guarding the
door of a mosque that serves as their headquarters.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has always been strong in Douma,” explains a
Christian observer. An official from the mosque says: “This struggle goes
back a long way.” He offers to show us the outside of a house belonging to
a militant that was sealed in 1980 during the last Sunni Muslim rebellion
and had never been reopened.

Inside the mosque, a team from the UN Supervision Mission in
Syria(Unsmis), which has 300 monitors in the country, are seeking to
mediate between local militant leaders and the government. Discussion
revolves around immediate issues such as detainees, sniping, access to
hospitals and the restoration of services.

Although people in Douma vocally claim the UN is doing them no good, they
want more UN monitors, particularly if they can be stationed in Douma at
night. Martin Griffiths, the deputy head of Unsmis, acknowledges: “Where
they are present violence tends to reduce. If we had four brave [UN]
observers staying overnight in Douma it would make a difference.” He adds
that until there is a reduction of violence, there can be no real
political dialogue.

Douma, a suburb of at least 180,000 people, shows few signs of physical
damage aside from some buildings pock-marked with bullet holes. Local
people complain of killings, disappearances and destructive searches, but
not of buildings being destroyed. Nevertheless, perceptions of the
violence within Syria are very much determined by rumor and YouTube
postings by the opposition. Many people six miles away in central Damascus
are convinced that Douma, which they dare not visit, has been pounded into
ruins. “Maybe the government did not let you see all the city,” a
politically moderate businessman says disbelievingly, but there had been
no government officials with us on our visit to Douma.

The violence is much worse further north. Taxi and bus drivers will often
refuse to risk the road to Aleppo, which passes through rebel-held
territory around Homs and Hama. The UN confirms that this week there has
been heavy fighting at Rastan on the main road north of Homs. “There are
many defectors from the Syrian army fighting there,” a UN official says.

While the Syrian army is meant to withdraw heavy weapons from city centers
under the terms of the Kofi Annan ceasefire agreement on 12 April, it can
keep them to guard main roads.

Although some international diplomats outside Syria say Mr Annan’s
ceasefire has failed, many Syrians believe the violence could get much
worse. The Syrian army could launch more assaults backed by heavy armor
and artillery on insurgent held areas. Reflecting this, a popular saying
in Damascus is that “the Minister of Defence has not yet got out of his
pyjamas”. According to a statement by Unsmis, over the past six weeks,
since the Annan ceasefire, the “level of offensive military operations by
government forces decreased significantly” while there has been “an
increase in militant attacks and targeted killings”. A report published
this week by another UN team, which has not been allowed to enter Syria,
said both sides were carrying out human rights violations, but blamed the
majority of them on the government.

Greater Damascus is mostly quiet, with Douma its most violent area. The
capital’s five million population has been swollen by at least 400,000
refugees from Homs. Many are living in hotels and apartments previously
occupied by pilgrims from Iraq and Iran visiting Shia shrines. The banking
system has been paralysed by sanctions.

But the degree of economic calamity has been exaggerated, economists say.
Nabil Sukkar, the managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for
Development and Investment and a former World Bank official, says: “The
economy is hurting but it is not collapsing.” He points out that the
biggest sector is agriculture and rains have been good, tourism is not as
important as in Egypt or Lebanon, and what has been worst affected is oil
exports. Even in Douma the vegetable market is open and in Damascus there
is a minor building boom as people illegally add several stories to
apartment buildings on the grounds that the government is too preoccupied
to enforce regulations.

Mass detentions have, however, created an atmosphere of fear in the
capital, according to one diplomat. “People are more frightened than they
were last November and December,” he says. “The government is stronger,
but so is the armed opposition.”

UN Condemns Syria

The United Nations Security Council Sunday night condemned the
government “in the strongest possible terms” for
heavy-weapon attacks on
the town of Houla, where 108 people, and up
to 34 children, were killed on

While the carefully worded statement stopped short of blaming anyone for
the “close-range attacks” that killed many of the victims, the Council
condemned “the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by
severe physical abuse”.

The statement said the “outrageous use of force” against civilians
violated international law and government commitments to cease violence,
including the use of heavy weapons. The Syrian government denies
responsibility for the massacre.

Diplomats say Britain and France had proposed issuing a press statement
condemning the killings, but Russia told Council members it could not
agree and wanted to be briefed first by Major-General Robert Mood, who is
heading the UN observer mission in Syria. Syria is once more facing
diplomatic isolation. Mr Annan is due back in Damascus today for talks
aimed at rescuing his foundering peace plan, which was agreed seven weeks

To survive, President Bashar al-Assad needs to avoid the international
isolation which befell Libya. He also needs to prevent Syrians, and the
world, from believing the fall of his regime is inevitable and they should
avoid betting on a loser.

“How will Russia respond to this?” asked one foreign diplomat in Damascus
yesterday. “That is the crucial question.” Russia remains Syria’s most
important friend. It was Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security
Council in February that relieved Syria from the danger of foreign
intervention similar to that which overthrew Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in

But Russia is paying a price for backing Syria, and this price will have
been raised by the Houla killings. It may not want to be allied to a
regime in a permanent state of crisis.

President Assad can look for longer-term support to Iran and, to a lesser
extent, Iraq, both Shia powers. They see Syria as being targeted by the
Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The Iranians have been giving some economic aid to reduce the impact of
sanctions. Hezbollah in Lebanon will also be loath to see its long-term
ally in Syria go down. But the Iranians, whose foreign policy is normally
cautious and devious, will not want to depend on the survival of President
Assad. They will look for an accommodation with any successor government,
though Iran still faces a serious strategic defeat. It will be losing its
one important ally in the Arab world. It will lose much of its ability to
play a role as a regional power.

The Scene in Damascus

In Damascus there are small but menacing signs of abnormality. Soldiers
prevent all but military and security personnel entering certain streets.
Heavy goods vehicles are being stopped on the outskirts of the capital
because of fear of suicide bombs.

The massacre of the children of Houla and their parents has deepened the
sense of crisis here, though many Syrians are becoming inured to violence.
Unlike the rest of the world, which focuses on Syria only intermittently
when there is some particularly gruesome outrage, people here may be
losing their sense of shock after seeing 13,000 die in the last 15 months,
according to the latest estimates.

But the most frightening indication that something is wrong is the
emptiness, the absence of people and vehicles in previously crowded
streets. Many stay at home fixated by a crisis they largely see unfolding
on television and online. In the hotel where I am staying in Damascus, I
am the only guest.

The government itself often feels curiously absent, perhaps because its
attention is elsewhere. Decision-making in Syria was always slow because
so many decisions had to be taken at the top but now it is worse.

“I sense that lower-ranking officials do not want to take decisions
themselves because they might be countermanded by harder-line officials
above them,” said a diplomat. At the same time, massacres like Houla, if
carried out by Alawite militia men, suggest a leadership not quite in
control of its own forces.

The mood is edgy. One person, in the space of a few minutes, shifted from
claiming he had total confidence in the happy future of the Syrian people
to expressing grim forbodings about the possibility of civil war.

“Why do you foreigners harp on about differences between our minorities?”
an anti-government human rights activist asked me in exasperation
yesterday. “The French said we would fight each other when they left
Syria, but nothing happened. We Syrians stick together whatever
governments say about our divisions.”

A quarter of an hour later, the same man, a Christian from the city of
Hama in central Syria, not far from where the Houla massacre took place,
was gloomily wondering about the prospect of sectarian conflict. He
explained that Houla is “on a tongue of land where the people are Sunni,
but the villages around it are Alawite and Christian. I know it well
because my wife comes from a village near there.” He said he was very
worried that if it turned out that the Sunni villagers, including 34
children, had been murdered by militia men from neighboring Alawite
villages then “I do not know what will happen”.

Damascus is deeply affected by the crisis, though this is not always
visible. The banks have been cut off from the rest of the world. “All the
banks in Lebanon are terrified of doing business with Syria,” said one
wealthy businesswoman. “My bank manager in Beirut did not want to take a
deposit I made even though the cheque was drawn on a British bank.” Many
in Damascus know first-hand about the physical destruction wrought by the
fighting in the centre of the country. There are some 400,000 Syrians
displaced by the turmoil, mostly from Homs, who have taken refuge in the
capital. Often they move into apartments previously occupied by Iraqi
refugees who have returned home, some claiming that for them, Baghdad is
now safer than Damascus.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia
Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

11-year-old played dead to survive Syria massacre

By BASSEM MROUE and ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY | Associated Press – May 30, 2012

BEIRUT  — When the gunmen began to slaughter his family, 11-year-old
Ali el-Sayed says he fell to the floor of his home, soaking his clothes
with his brother's blood to fool the killers into thinking he was already

The Syrian boy tried to stop himself from trembling, even as the gunmen,
with long beards and shaved heads, killed his parents and all four of his
siblings, one by one.

The youngest to die was Ali's brother, 6-year-old Nader. His small body
bore two bullet holes — one in his head, another in his back.

"I put my brother's blood all over me and acted like I was dead," Ali told
The Associated Press over Skype on Wednesday, his raspy voice steady and
matter-of-fact, five days after the killing spree that left him both an
orphan and an only child.

Ali is one of the few survivors of a weekend massacre in Houla, a
collection of poor farming villages and olive groves in Syria's central
Homs province. More than 100 people were killed, many of them women and
children who were shot or stabbed in their houses.

The killings brought immediate, worldwide condemnation of President Bashar
Assad, who has unleashed a violent crackdown on an uprising that began in
March 2011. Activists say as many as 13,000 people have been killed since
the revolt began.

U.N. investigators and witnesses blame at least some of the Houla killings
on shadowy gunmen known as shabiha who operate on behalf of Assad's

Recruited from the ranks of Assad's Alawite religious community, the
militiamen enable the government to distance itself from direct
responsibility for the execution-style killings, torture and revenge
attacks that have become hallmarks of the shabiha.

In many ways, the shabiha are more terrifying than the army and security
forces, whose tactics include shelling residential neighborhoods and
firing on protesters. The swaggering gunmen are deployed specifically to
brutalize and intimidate Assad's opponents.

Activists who helped collect the dead in the aftermath of the Houla
massacre described dismembered bodies in the streets, and row upon row of
corpses shrouded in blankets.

"When we arrived on the scene we started seeing the scale of the
massacre," said Ahmad al-Qassem, a 35-year-old activist. "I saw a kid with
his brains spilling out, another child who was no more than 1 year old who
was stabbed in the head. The smell of death was overpowering."

The regime denies any responsibility for the Houla killings, blaming them
on terrorists. And even if the shabiha are responsible for the killings,
there is no clear evidence that the regime directly ordered the massacre
in a country spiraling toward civil war.

As witness accounts begin to leak out, it remains to be seen what,
exactly, prompted the massacre. Although the Syrian uprising has been
among the deadliest of the Arab Spring, the killings in Houla stand out
for their sheer brutality and ruthlessness.

According to the U.N., which is investigating the attack, most of the
victims were shot at close range, as were Ali's parents and siblings. The
attackers appeared to be targeting the most vulnerable people, such as
children and the elderly, to terrorize the population.

This type of massacre — even more than the shelling and mortar attacks
that have become daily occurrences in the uprising — is a sign of a new
level of violence. By most accounts, the gunmen descended on Houla from an
arc of nearby villages, making the deaths all the more horrifying because
the victims could have known their attackers.

According to activists in the area, the massacre came after the army
pounded the villages with artillery and clashed with local rebels
following anti-regime protests. Several demonstrators were killed, and the
rebels were forced to withdraw. The pro-regime gunmen later stormed in,
doing the bulk of the killing.

Syrian activist Maysara Hilaoui said he was at home when the massacre in
Houla began. He said there were two waves of violence, one starting at 5
p.m. Friday and a second at 4 a.m. Saturday.

"The shabiha took advantage of the withdrawal of rebel fighters," he said.
"They started entering homes and killing the young as well as the old."

Ali, the 11-year-old, said his mother began weeping the moment about 11
gunmen entered the family home in the middle of the night. The men led
Ali's father and oldest brother outside.

"My mother started screaming 'Why did you take them? Why did you take
them?'" Ali said.

Soon afterward, he said, the gunmen killed Ali's entire family.

As Ali huddled with his youngest siblings, a man in civilian clothes took
Ali's mother to the bedroom and shot her five times in the head and neck.

"Then he left the bedroom. He used his flashlight to see in front of him,"
Ali said. "When he saw my sister Rasha, he shot her in the head while she
was in the hallway."

Ali had been hiding near his brothers Nader, 6, and Aden, 8. The gunmen
shot both of them, killing them instantly. He then fired at Ali but

"I was terrified," Ali said, speaking from Houla, where relatives have
taken him in. "My whole body was trembling."

Ali is among the few survivors of the massacre, although it was impossible
to independently corroborate his story. The AP contacted him through
anti-regime activists in Houla who arranged for an interview with the
child over Skype.

The violence had haunting sectarian overtones, according to witness
accounts. The victims lived in the Houla area's Sunni Muslim villages, but
the shabiha forces came from a nearby area populated by Alawites, an
offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Most shabiha belong to the Alawite sect — like the Assad family and the
ruling elite. This ensures the loyalty of the gunmen to the regime,
because they fear they would be persecuted if the Sunni majority gains the
upper hand.

Sunnis make up most of Syria's 22 million people, as well as the backbone
of the opposition. The opposition insists the movement is entirely

It was not possible to reach residents of the Alawite villages on
Wednesday. Communications with much of the area have been cut off, and
many residents have fled.

Al-Qassem, the activist who helped gather corpses in Houla, said the
uprising has unleashed deep tensions between Sunnis and Alawites.

"Of course the regime worked hard to create an atmosphere of fear among
Alawites," said al-Qassem, who is from the Houla area, although not one of
the villages that came under attack over the weekend. "There is a
deep-seated hatred. The regime has given Alawites the illusion that the
end of the regime will spell the end of their villages and lives."

He said the army has been pouring weapons into the Alawite areas.

"Every house in each of those Alawite villages has automatic rifles. The
army has armed these villages, each home according to the number of people
who live there," he said, "whereas in Houla, which has a population of
120,000, you can only find 500 0r 600 armed people. There is an

Days after the attack, many victims remain missing.

Ali can describe the attack on his family. But al-Qassem said the full
story of the massacre may never emerge.

"There are no eyewitnesses of the massacre," he said. "The eyewitnesses
are all dead."

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report.

Pessimism in UN as Syria crisis worsens

Fears voiced as opposition Free Syrian Army says it will stop adhering to
truce by Friday if Assad forces ignore it.
Last Modified: 31 May 2012 Al Jazeera

UN Security Council members have voiced fears about the direction of
violence-wracked Syria as the rebel Free Syrian Army gave the government
of President Bashar al-Assad a 48-hour deadline to observe international
envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan.

The FSA's Colonel Qassim Saadeddine said in a video published online on
Wednesday that the government must "implement an immediate ceasefire,
withdraw its troops, tanks and artillery from Syrian cities and villages".

Council members were briefed by Jean Marie Guehenno, Annan's deputy, on
Wednesday as 13 bodies were discovered in the east of the country with
their hands tied behind their backs and signs that some had been shot in
the head from close range.

Colonel Qassim Saadeddine said if there was no response by Friday
lunchtime, the FSA would consider itself "no longer bound by the.. peace

"It [the government] should also allow immediate humanitarian aid to all
affected areas and free all detainees... The regime should also enter into
a real and serious negotiation through the United Nations to hand over
power to the Syrian people," he went on.

The FSA deadline came as the 15-nation Security Council was briefed about
the worsening crisis and the peace efforts by Annan.

"There had been very few positive elements in Syria," Russian ambassador
Vitaly Churkin said following the closed-door briefing.

Churkin called the political situation in Syria "sad" because the process
to bring both sides in the conflict into negotiations had so far failed to
get off the ground. He complained that "nobody is implementing" Annan's
six-point peace plan, including last month's ineffective truce.

US hints at bypassing UN

US ambassador Susan Rice said the unabated violence and failure to
implement Annan's plan could lead to the "worst scenario" in Syria, and
that the pessimistic scenario is the "most probable."

"The decision rests on the Damascus side," she said. "The council would
have to act swiftly and responsibly in order to avoid such a scenario and
support the Kofi Annan plan."

Rice said there were three ways the Syrian conflict could end.

The first would be if Assad's government decided to comply with its
obligations under Annan's six-point peace plan - stopping its military
assaults on Syrian towns, withdrawing heavy weapons, returning troops to
barracks and talking with the opposition on a "political transition."

The second option would involve the council taking action to pressure
Damascus to fully comply with the Annan plan, she said.

"In the absence of either of those two scenarios there seems to be only
one other alternative, and that is indeed the worst case," Rice said,
adding that it was unfortunately looking like "the most probable."

"That is that the violence escalates, the conflict spreads and
intensifies," she said. "It involves countries in the region, it takes on
increasingly sectarian forms, and we have a major crisis not only in Syria
but in the region."

In such a case, Rice said, the Annan plan would be dead and the Syrian
violence would become "a proxy conflict with arms flowing in from all

"And members of this council and members of the international community
are left with the option only of having to consider whether they're
prepared to take actions outside of the Annan plan and the authority of
this council," she said.

She did not specify what kind of "actions" she meant.

More mass killings

Also on Wednesday, Major-General Robert Mood, the head of the UN observers
in Syria, said 13 bodies had been discovered in the east of the country,
with their hands tied behind their backs and signs that some had been shot
in the head from close range.

The bodies were discovered late on Tuesday in the area of Assukar, 50km
east of Deir al-Zor. It comes after the weekend massacre of more than 108
people in Houla.

Survivors blamed pro-government armed men for at least some of the carnage
in Houla. The Syrian government denied its troops were behind the killings
and blamed "armed terrorists" and said it would conclude its own
investigation into the deaths by Wednesday, but it was not clear if the
findings would be made public.

The UN's top human rights body plans to hold a special session on Friday
to address the massacre.

Wednesday's UN observer report underlined how a peace plan drafted by
Annan has failed to stem bloodshed or bring Syria's government and
opposition to the negotiating table.

Guehenno, Annan's deputy, told the Security Council that Syria's
protesters "have lost fear and are unlikely to stop their movement",
according to a diplomat with knowledge of the closed session.

Guehenno said direct engagement between government and opposition was
"impossible at the moment" and expressed "serious doubts over the
commitment of Syrian authorities to the Annan plan", the diplomat said.

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