The United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) has confirmed reports of a Syrian government-led massacre in the village of Houla, near the oft-besieged city of Homs. The attack was first reported by last night by several Syrian activists groups, including the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, with initial reports ranging in casualties.

Today, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan released a joint statement today on the incident:

The Secretary-General and the Joint Special Envoy condemn in the strongest possible terms the killing, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of El-Houleh, near Homs. Observers from the UN Supervision Mission in Syria have viewed the bodies of the dead and confirmed from an examination of ordnance that artillery and tank shells were fired at a residential neighbourhood.

This appalling and brutal crime involving indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force is a flagrant violation of international law and of the commitments of the Syrian Government to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centres and violence in all its forms. Those responsible for perpetrating this crime must be held to account.

As sad, and chilling, as this incident may be, four distinct points can be taken away from it, each of them having a potential game changing effect on the evolution of the Syrian conflict itself and the perceptions surrounding the UN’s efforts.

The first: UNSMIS is fulfilling the role that was meant for it in its mandate. Though many will be quick to note that the Mission was unable to prevent the attack on civilians, the observers’ role was not meant to be strictly preventative in nature. Rather, what is important is that for the first time since the conflict began over a year ago, a credible body has been able to report on the exact nature of the atrocities being committed within Syria’s borders. Major General Robert Mood, Head of Mission for UNSMIS, has gone on record saying that UNSMIS observers personally counted more than 32 children under the age of 10 and over 60 adults killed. Unbiased reporting of this sort has been lacking in the past, and sharply undermines the Syrian government that the entirety of their use of heavy weaponry is to combat terrorists.

The second point to note is that this is the first time that UN observers have personally borne witness to the aftermath of a government attack of this scale and been able to report it directly to the UN. Already, the international community’s gears are turning in response. Just yesterday, before news had broken of the massacre, US State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made clear that the next actions that the United States would be seeking in the Security Council would be under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, allowing for enforceable measures to be taken. Today, in the aftermath of the deaths in Houla, British Foreign Secretary William Hague has stated that the United Kingdom will call for an urgent session of the Council on Syria in the coming days. Likewise, the United Arab Emirates has called for an emergency meeting of the League of Arab States to discuss their response to Syria’s continuing violence towards its civilians.

Third, the confirmation of so many civilian deaths poses a problem for the Russian Federation. A cargo ship was reported to be bound for the Syrian port of Tartus from its berth in St. Petersberg, due to arrive this weekend carrying a new shipment of arms for Damascus. While no arms embargo is in place on Syria, such a shipment will be harshly scrutinized in the light of Houla. Also, Russia’s adamant claims that the chances for peace in Syria are solely being destroyed by the opposition’s alliance with terrorist groups show themselves to be much weaker when presented with evidence to the contrary as collected by a Mission that Moscow both  approved and has donated experts to. All of this will come into play as new negotiations likely open on next steps in the Security Council on Syria with Russia’s rhetorical hand significantly weakened.

Fourth, while the United Nations’ role in Syria may be vindicated, the role of the Joint Special Envoy may not be. The events in Houla are a clear violation of the Syrian government’s agreement to pull back heavy artillery from cities, towns, and villages as stipulated under the Annan Six-Point Plan. This latest violation may be the straw that breaks the back of attempts to forge a peaceful solution without the threat of sticks under Article 41 of the Charter, leaving Annan to reformulate his strategy.

In all, the death of so many in Houla is a tragic reminder of the lack of clear viable options for resolving the Syrian crisis. However, it may mark a turning point for coalescing international will into bringing more pressure to bear on the Assad regime and increasing doubt on its long-term viability.

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