Romney blames U.S., U.N. for Syria massacres


In the wake of the al-Houla massacre of civilians on Friday – and more mass graves of civilians discovered on Saturday in the Idlib village of Khan Sheikhoun – the Obama administration has announced today it will expel Syria’s most senior envoy in Washington, but Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other congressional critics say the action is not enough.

“The Assad regime’s massacre of civilians in Haoula—many of them young children—is horrific,” Romney said. “After nearly a year and a half of slaughter, it is far past time for the United States to begin to lead and put an end to the Assad regime.”

In a statement on Syria released today from Romney, he said, “President Obama’s lack of leadership has resulted in a policy of paralysis that has watched Assad slaughter 10,000 individuals. We should increase pressure on Russia to cease selling arms to the Syrian government and to end its obstruction at the United Nations. And we should work with partners to arm the opposition so they can defend themselves.”

Romney in part also blamed the Syrian government’s massacre in the village of al-Houla near Homs on the U.S. administration’s policies that have failed to halt government assaults of unarmed civilians over the past year as they stage a rebellion demanding a democratically-elected government to replace the Baathist regime of Bashir Assad.

Romney criticized former U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan’s Syria peace plan, which continues to be supported by the administration.

“The Annan peace plan — which President Obama still supports — has merely granted the Assad regime more time to execute its military onslaught,” continued Romney in his statement.

“The United States should work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves. The bloodshed in Haoula (sic) makes clear that our goal must be a new Syrian government, one that contributes to peace and stability in the Middle East and that truly represents the brave Syrian people.” he said.

Another theory purportedly being circulated in part by the Russian press is that the slaughter was initiated by Al Qaeda to destabilize the region.

A U.N. team said Saturday that more than 90 people were killed including at least 32 children in a village near the central Syrian city of Homs. Government forces have been blamed for the attack, which the Assad regime has denied.

The State Department said today that the charge d’affaires at the Syrian Embassy, Zuheir Jabbour, has been given 72 hours to leave the United States.

Syria has not had an ambassador in the United States since the previous envoy left last year to take another post.

Assad’s forces have been condemned repeatedly by international human rights groups and western governments for use of heavy weaponry against the lightly-armed rebels, inflicting heavy casualties, often on civilians – but with little result.

Over the past year of pro-democracy uprisings throughout the country, mass graves of civilians have discovered near Daraa, Latakia, Homsand Palestinian refugee camps near Latakia, where the name of victims – including that of two-year old Ola Jablowi, who was killed by a short-range gunshot – are written is graffiti-scrawl on a nearby wall as a memorial.

Last year after the government siege on Daraa, mass graves were dug by townspeople after the army left,

Human Rights Watch issued its official report in April documenting incidents of torture and executions over the past year by the Syrian regime – including the torture death of a 13 year-old detainee, Hamza al-Khateeb, who showed signs of medical and electric shock torture, as well as having his neck broken and his penis cut off.

According to the Human Rights Watch report. “(Syrian)Security forces have subjected thousands of people to arbitrary arrests and widespread torture in detention.”

While the report says the exact numbers are impossible to verify, information that Human Rights Watch collected suggests that security forces detained more than 20,000 people between March and September of last year. Many detainees were young men in their 20s or 30s; but children, women, and elderly people were also included. While the government appears to have released most after several days or weeks in detention, several hundred remained missing, the report states.

As documented by the report from accounts by released detainees, the methods of torture include prolonged beatings with sticks, twisted wires, and other devices; electric shocks; use of improvised metal and wooden “racks”; and, in at least one case, the rape of a male detainee with a baton.

The interrogators and guards also subjected detainees to various forms of humiliating treatment, such as making them kiss their shoes and declare that President Bashar al-Assad was their god. Several detainees said their captors repeatedly threatened them with imminent execution, and all described appalling detention conditions, with overcrowded cells in which at times detainees could only sleep in turns.

At least 105 detainees died in custody in 2011, according to local activists.

In cases of custodial death reviewed by Human Rights Watch, the bodies bore unmistakable marks of torture including bruises, cuts, and burns. The authorities provided the families with no information on the circumstances surrounding the deaths and, to Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, no investigation has been launched. In some cases, families of dead detainees had to sign statements that “armed gangs” had killed their relatives and promise not to hold public funerals as a condition to receiving the bodies.

Meanwhile, UN documentation shows the estimated number of internally displaced Syrians has more than doubled to 500,000 since an April 12 ceasefire, and the flow of refugees abroad has gathered pace again, U.N. officials said today.

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the White House was discussing a new plan with Russia to encourage Assad to step down, but which would allow much of his regime to remain in Syria.

A similar arrangement was negotiated in Yemen and led to the exit of long-time ruler President Ali Abdullah Saleh last year, the report said.

The plan, however, would hinge on the support of Russia, which has close ties with the Assad regime and has blocked past U.N. efforts to increase pressure on him to relinquish power.

Meanwhile, the U.S. was joined by a host of other governments in kicking out Syrian diplomats to protest the massacre in which entire families, including children, were shot execution-style in their homes.

Kofi Annan, the United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria, also arrived in Damascus today to meet with President Bashar al-Assad.

Annan called the Houla massacres a “tipping point” for crisis as he rushed to the meeting today.

Earlier Tuesday, numerous other western countries, including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain announced they were expelling Syrian diplomats.

Graphic video footage from al-Houla has been posted on by Syrian democracy activists, who are alleging that dozens were not killed just by the shellings, but also by gunshot, stabbing and tank fire by Syrian forces inside the village. The video documents wounds of civilians – many of them children, in a makeshift Houla Morgue, and those sensitive to graphic images should be warned before viewing.

The information on the massacre was also gathered with eye-witness reports and mobile phone video footage recorded by villagers – but also from the nature of the wounds showed intentional executions, said a female activist from Homs who asked not to be identified.

“It’s very hard for me to describe what I saw, the images were incredibly disturbing,” said a Houla resident who told an Associated Press reporter on Tuesday, saying that he hid in his home during the massacre. “Women, children without heads, their brains or stomachs spilling out was what I saw when I came out.”

He said the pro-regime gunmen, known as “shabiha” were targeting the most vulnerable in the farming villages that make up al-Houla, a poor area in Homs province. “They went after the women, children and elderly,” he said, asking that his name not be used out of fear of reprisals.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous also told press “there are strong suspicions that pro-Assad fighters were responsible for some of the killings.”

And while the Syrian government and official state news is blaming what it called “armed terrorists” from the pro-democracy movement, Ladsous added that he has seen no reason to believe that “third elements” – or outside forces – were involved, although he did not rule it out.

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the U.S. holds “the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives.”

Said Nuland, “We took this action in response to the massacre in the village of Houla – absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable massacre against innocent children, women, shot at point-blank range by regime thugs, the shabiha, aided and abetted by the Iranians, who were actually bragging about it over the weekend.”

However, despite the strong language, Nuland remained vague at the state department press conference today when asked why the administration did not just simply shut down the Syrian Embassy.

Said Nuland, “Well, obviously, this is a political measure. This is a statement of our extreme disapproval and horror at the massacre. We will obviously continue to look at other ways we can pressure the regime economically, politically, diplomatically, and continue to try to tighten the noose. And we will do that in New York and we will do that in capitals over the coming days.”

Nuland said what’s left at the embassy is what she called “technical staff”.

Excerpt from press conference transcripts today:

QUESTION: Why not simply close the Embassy, shut them down?

MS. NULAND: Again, those who are left are technical staff. It is – what was important is to send a message to the political level and those who represent the regime and the leadership directly, and that’s what we’ve done.

QUESTION: But wouldn’t that send a message – a further message? It begs the question: Why leave it open? Is there any purpose to leaving that open?

MS. NULAND: Again, this is a handful of technical staff who are left. So that was our decision.

UN observers have taken also been taking criticism after arriving at the massacre almost 24 hours after the bombing.

However, UN mission head Maj-General Robert Mood said on the Saturday, the killings were” indiscriminant and unforgivable.”

Mood said today UN observers have counted at least 90 bodies, including 32 children under age 10, after a Syrian government attack on a town. He also confirmed that the observers visited the town on Saturday and afterwards, Mood said they could confirm “the use of small arms, machine gun[s], artillery and tanks.”

But he did not say who was behind the killings.

“Whoever started, whoever responded and whoever took part in this deplorable act of violence should be held responsible,” Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, said in a statement.

“An appalling crime” is how UK Foreign Secretary William Hague described it.

Hague said he would seek a strong global response to the “appalling crime”.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon also called the massacre a “flagrant violation of international law”.

However, activist Abu Emad, speaking from Houla, told a CNN coorespondent the villagers’ appeals to the monitors failed to produce action on the part of UN Observers, who they say were warned there would be an attack.

The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) said more than 110 people died. The SNC’s Ausama Monajed told the BBC the regime was selecting vulnerable towns to “teach the entire country a lesson”.

“We told them at night, we called seven of them. We told them the massacre is being committed right now at Houla by the mercenaries of this regime and they just refused to come and stop the massacre.”

“It is beyond humanity what we have seen,” he said.

The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) said more than 110 people died. The SNC’s Ausama Monajed told the BBC the regime was selecting vulnerable towns to “teach the entire country a lesson”.

“It is beyond humanity what we have seen,” he said.