US expels Syrian envoy over Houla massacre
The United States ordered Tuesday the expulsion of Syria's top envoy over the Houla massacre, an atrocity it said should serve as a "turning point" in the thinking of key Syrian ally Russia.
"We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, informing charge d'affaires Zuheir Jabbour that he had 72 hours to leave the United States.
Nuland said the expulsion was carried out in coordination with Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, which have also moved to expel Syrian ambassadors or top envoys.
In her written statement, Nuland said the massacre was "the most unambiguous indictment to date" of Syria's flagrant UN Security Council violations and urged all countries to take "similar action" to condemn the regime.
She said UN observers confirmed that more than 90 people, including at least 30 children under the age of 10, had died on Friday in the village of Houla after a "vicious assault involving tanks and artillery."
She added these are "weapons that only the (Assad) regime possesses."
According to the latest UN figures, 108 people died in the massacre, including 49 children.
In her daily briefing, Nuland said the United States welcomes the fact that the Russians back "a full investigation" because it will show "regime-sponsored thugs" killed children and their parents at point-blank range.
"From that perspective, is this going to be a turning point in Russian thinking? We hope so," she added.
With Russian and Chinese support, the UN Security Council on Sunday strongly condemned Damascus for using artillery in the May 25 massacre. Russia, like China, had previously opposed two UN Security Council resolutions on Syria.
Nuland appeared to link the massacre to Iran when she said that over the weekend "the deputy head of the Quds Force said publicly that they were proud of the role that they had played in training and assisting the Syrian forces."
She added: "And look what this has wrought."
She said the "shabiha thugs" behave much like Iran's Basiji militia.
Nuland said the US did not expel the "handful" of diplomats who remain at the Syrian embassy "primarily because they are simple civil service members," unlike the charge (d'affaires) who personally represents Assad and his regime."
Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustapha, already returned home last year.
The envoy's expulsion is "a political measure. This is a statement of our extreme disapproval and horror at the massacre," Nuland said.
"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."