What provoked the killings is unclear. Were they acts of revenge, perhaps for the attack on the army checkpoint? Or for some other grievance? Mass killings are by no means a new phenomenon in Syria, nor even in Houla. In November, 11 Sunni workers there were lined up and shot dead in retaliation for the shooting of nine Alawites who had been hauled off a bus and killed the day before.
But what set last month’s massacre apart was the number of women and children among the victims, and that, for the first time, U.N. monitors were present to observe the aftermath, under the terms of a U.N.-brokered peace plan.
Their confirmation of the 108 deaths — including 49 children and 34 women — along with gruesome videos posted on the Internet of piles of dead children sent waves of revulsion rippling around the world and stirred an immediate response.
A day after the monitors confirmed the deaths, the U.N. Security Council gathered for an emergency session, issuing a statement that directly blamed Syria’s government for the violence.
Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis is emerging, with thousands of refugees from Houla crowding into neighboring villages. The nearby town of Burj al-Qa’i has seen its population swell from 1,000 to more than 5,000 as frightened women and children have sought shelter in relatives’ homes, schools and even partly constructed buildings.
“People left everything behind as they ran for their lives,” said Marianne Gasser, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s office in Damascus. “There was not enough food, water and medicine for everyone, which put a great deal of pressure on the small village.”
Growing U.S. concern
Among officials in Washington, there was a palpable sense of a line being crossed, said a State Department official who sat in on meetings at which the Houla massacre was discussed. The United States, along with a dozen Western allies, expelled Syrian diplomats in protest.
“There was something in the air after Houla — you could feel it,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s hard to put a diplomatic veneer on something like this.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s public pronouncements on Syria took on a sharper tone as she signaled impatience with the U.N. peace plan, which has clearly failed to halt the violence, and with diplomatic efforts to push for tougher sanctions against Syria in the Security Council.
During a news conference in the Danish capital, Clinton appeared to edge closer to endorsing a military option for Syria.
“Every day that goes by makes the argument for it stronger,” she said.
Yet with Russia, a close ally of Syria, stressing that it will not countenance tougher action at the United Nations against the regime in Damascus, it remained unclear whether the killings in Houla marked a turning point in the conflict or simply a new low.
In his speech Sunday, Assad was uncompromising, blaming “terrorists” and a foreign conspiracy for the violence engulfing the country.
“Today we are defending a cause and a country,” he said. “We do not do this because we like blood. A battle has been forced on us, and the result is this bloodshed that we are seeing.”
Warrick reported from Washington. Correspondent Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.