US expels Syrian envoy after massacre

The United States on Tuesday announced it was expelling the top Syrian envoy to Washington as part of a rare coordinated response by countries around the world to Friday's massacre of more than 90 civilians in the central region of Houla.

Syrian Charge d’Affaires Zuheir Jabbour has 72 hours to leave the country. The action was taken in coordination with Australia, Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Germany, the State Department said in a statement.

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“We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “This massacre is the most unambiguous indictment to date of the Syrian government’s flagrant violations of its UN Security Council obligations under Resolutions 2042 and 2043 along with the regime’s ongoing threat to peace and security.”

The United States closed its embassy and pulled its staffers out of Syria in February amid increasing violence there. France and Great Britain have also shuttered their embassies in Damascus.

The Houla massacre has prompted Republican criticism of the Obama administration for not doing enough to stop Assad. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been the most vocal in Congress calling for military action in Syria, said on “Fox News Sunday” it was a “shameful episode in American history.”

And presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Sunday called for the United States to arm the Syrian rebels, saying in a statement that “President Obama can no longer ignore calls from congressional leaders in both parties to take more assertive steps.”

The Houla killings are the biggest blow yet to the peace plan from United Nations-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, who had put forth a proposal intended to stop the violence in Syria with a cease-fire last month.

Annan traveled to Damascus Monday to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. On Tuesday he warned Assad of the “grave concern of the international community about the violence in Syria, including in particular the recent events in Houla,” his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said in a statement, according to Reuters.

"He conveyed in frank terms his view to President Assad that the six-point plan cannot succeed without bold steps to stop the violence and release detainees, and stressed the importance of full implementation of the plan," Fawzi said.

Tuesday's coordinated response puts increased pressure on Syrian ally Russia to join efforts to force Assad to step down. Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution in October that threatened sanctions against Syria if it did not immediately halt its crackdown against civilians and instead championed Annan's approach, which increasingly seems doomed.

“We encourage all countries to condemn the actions of the Assad regime through similar action,” Nuland said.

Here is Nuland's complete statement:

In response to the May 25 massacre in the village of Houla, today the United States informed the Syrian Charge d’Affaires Zuheir Jabbour of his expulsion from the United States.  He has 72 hours to leave the country.  We took this action in coordination with partner countries including Australia, Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, and Germany.

United Nations observers confirmed the deaths of more than 90 people, including at least 30 children under the age of 10, after the vicious assault involving tanks and artillery – weapons that only the regime possesses. There are also reports that many families were summarily executed in their homes by regime forces.

We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives. This massacre is the most unambiguous indictment to date of the Syrian government’s flagrant violations of its UN Security Council obligations under Resolutions 2042 and 2043 along with the regime’s ongoing threat to peace and security. 

We encourage all countries to condemn the actions of the Assad regime through similar action.