Bloodshed in Syria
This is one of the most brutal incidents in recent months and the bloodiest since UN envoy Kofi Annan's six-point plan to end Syria's fourteen-month crisis officially came into effect in April. Residents of Houla say the army shelled the area before men dressed in military clothing, believed to be regime loyalist gangs from neighbouring Alawite (the sect to which the Assad family belongs) villages, raided the area, using guns and knives to carry out summary executions.
The killings have put paid to the ceasefire which both the regime and rebel fighters had, anyway, already breached. It also calls into question the future of the UN mission in Syria. Protesters and opposition groups are becoming increasingly frustrated with the the UN's failure to end the violence against them. The Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group of armed opponents to Mr Assad, says it will resume attacks on regime targets if civilians are not protected. The Homs Revolutionary Council, a grouping of activist committees which covers Homs and the Houla area, announced that it will no longer hold political meetings with UN observers, restricting contact to humanitarian matters.
But the massacre, which the regime has blamed on "al-Qaeda linked terrorist groups", is unlikely to lead to any decisive action for Mr Assad or the battered Syrians than another round of condemnation and a flurry of diplomatic activity. The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, arrived in Damascus on Monday and the British foreign secretary, William Hague, is visiting Russia, Mr Assad's remaining ally. But the stalemate continues. Russia shows little sign of ending its support for Mr Assad, Western states are loth to intervene militarily, and Mr Assad shows no interest in implementing any kind of political transition that could lead to his ouster. Instead, yesterday Western officials restated the need for the Annan plan to be fully implemented, including the removal of heavy weaponry from residential areas. At the same time, countries hoping to get rid of Mr Assad may increase covert support to the opposition, perhaps even helping the Gulf to send arms to rebel fighters. Syria looks as though it is descending further and faster into civil war.