"The Syrian people are bleeding": leaders condemn massacre

International leaders condemn the massacre in al-Qubair - but does the rhetoric mean anything?

It is beyond doubt that a massacre took place in the Syrian village of al-Qubair. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 55 people had died, while the opposition, the Syrian National Council, said there had been 78 deaths. Many of them came from just one extended family.

The village was surrounded by Syrian forces. Villagers were then slaughtered, apparently by the shabiha (civilian militia), with what witnesses described as violence that “no-one can bear”. UN observers trying to access the area yesterday came under fire from Syrian forces. Incredibly graphic images of charred corpses and bloodshed have been distributed on the internet.

The level of violence – and the short time gap between this and the Houla massacre – has prompted international leaders to condemn the massacre in their strongest language yet. It’s worth quoting at length from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s statement yesterday. He said that President Assad and his government “have lost all legitimacy” and “has lost its fundamental humanity". He described the scene:

The bodies of innocent civilians lying where they were, shot. Some were allegedly burned or slashed with knives.

. . .

The danger of a full-scale war is imminent and real. Reports of yet another massacre in Qubair underscore the horrifying reality on the ground. How many more times have we to condemn them, and how many ways must we say that we are outraged? The Syrian people are bleeding.

Soon after this address, Kofi Annan admitted that his peace plan for the country – at present, the only plan the international community has got – was floundering.

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, reiterated this sentiment:

The Annan plan won't last indefinitely. Syria is clearly on the edge … of deeper violence, of deep, sectarian violence, village against village, pro-government militias against opposition areas, and of looking more like Bosnia in the 1990s than Libya last year.

The Annan plan has clearly failed so far, but it is not dead, all hope is not lost.

Strong language from all sides, yes – but what does this mean in practice? Certainly, continued atrocities will make it more and more difficult for the international community to do nothing.

Perhaps the most telling point in Hague’s comments is his emphasis that Syria is not the same as Libya. The implication is that what was appropriate in Libya – military intervention in the form of a no-fly zone – is not appropriate for Syria. As the increasingly bitter and bloody conflict divides along sectarian lines, it is difficult to see how military intervention from the west – either in the form of boots on the ground, or by arming the rebels – would result in anything other than civil war.

For now, despite the hardening of rhetoric from international leaders, negotiated settlement will continue to be the aim. Yet nothing much has changed here: Russia, Syria’s closest ally, remains the sticking point. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has said that America is prepared to work with Russia on a plan similar to that implemented in Yemen, where the leader was ousted but elements of his regime remained intact. There is no clear sign that this will succeed where other overtures to Russian support for the plan have failed. Meanwhile, Annan has suggested that countries failing to support his peace plan should face sanctions – a stick, rather than carrot, approach.

As diplomats scramble to find a solution to an intractable situation, there is remains no clear answer to the questions posed in Ban’s speech: “how many more times have we to condemn them, and how many ways must we say that we are outraged?”
 

International leaders have condemend the massacre in al-Qubair. This picture shows Syrian rebels near Homs, May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.