- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2012

BEIRUT | A weekend massacre of more than 100 people emerged as a potential turning point in the Syrian crisis Monday, galvanizing even staunch ally Russia to take an unusually hard line against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.

Analysts said Russia may be warning Mr. Assad that he needs to change course or lose Moscow’s support, which has been a key layer of protection for the Syrian government during the uprising, which began in March 2011.

Russia has grown increasingly critical of Damascus in recent months, but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s latest comments were unusually strong. Although he said opposition forces have terrorists among them, he put the blame for 15 months of carnage primarily on Mr. Assad’s government.

“The government bears the main responsibility for what is going on,” Mr. Lavrov said in Moscow on Monday after a meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague. “Any government in any country bears responsibility for the security of its citizens.”

Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Mr. Lavrov’s comments suggest Russia may be backing away from its long-standing support for Damascus.

Bashar Assad is driving himself and Russia into a corner,” Mr. Malashenko said.

It is not clear whether Mr. Assad’s forces were exclusively to blame for the slaughter of 108 people Friday in Houla, a collection of poor farming villages in Homs province. The United Nations said 49 children and 34 women were among the dead. Some had bullet holes through their heads.

The U.N. Security Council blamed Syrian forces for artillery and tank shelling of residential areas, but it did not clearly state who was responsible for the close-range shooting deaths and “severe physical abuse” of civilians.

Activists from the area said the army pounded the villages with artillery and clashed with local rebels. They said pro-government gunmen later stormed the area, doing the bulk of the killing by gunning down men in the streets and stabbing women and children in their homes.

The Syrian government rejected that account entirely, saying soldiers were attacked in their bases and fought back in self-defense without leaving their bases.

Hilal Khashan, a political-science professor at the American University of Beirut, said the Houla massacre appears to be ushering in a change in Russia’s position.

“There is a shift, and the momentum against the regime is gathering,” Khashan said.

The Syrian conflict is among the most explosive of the Arab Spring, in part because of Syria’s allegiances to powerful forces, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Shiite powerhouse Iran.

Activists say as many as 12,000 people have been killed since the uprising began. The U.N. put the toll as of March, a year into the uprising, at 9,000, but many hundreds more have died since.

U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Damascus on Monday for talks with Mr. Assad and other officials. He called on “every individual with a gun” in Syria to lay down arms, saying he was horrified by the Houla massacre.

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