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?”