DAMASCUS — UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned on Thursday that Syria risks a “catastrophic civil war” following a massacre that sparked global outrage, as the US slammed Russia for resisting UN action against Damascus.
Armed Syrian rebels upped the ante meanwhile by threatening new action against the Syrian regime unless it falls in line by midday (0900 GMT) Friday with a six-point peace plan brokered by UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Anna.
Ban, addressing a forum in Istanbul, made it clear he too expected Damascus to implement Annan’s blueprint, which includes a ceasefire that should have taken effect on April 12 but has been violated daily.
“I demand that the government of Syria act on its commitment to the Annan peace plan,” he told a UN-led Alliance of Civilisations initiative.
“The massacres of the sort seen last weekend could plunge Syria into a catastrophic civil war, a civil war from which the country would never recover.”
He was referring to a mass slaughter near the central town of Houla on Friday and Saturday in which 108 people died, including 49 children and 34 women.
Some were killed by artillery and tank fire but most were summarily executed, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The assault prompted Western countries, including the United States, Britain, France and Australia to expel the senior Syrian diplomats in their countries.
In Denmark, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Russia’s policy of resisting UN Security Council action against Damascus could contribute to a civil war.
The Russians “are telling me they don’t want to see a civil war. I have been telling them their policy is going help to contribute to a civil war,” she told a mainly student audience in Copenhagen.
Clinton warned that unless checked, the deadly violence in Syria could lead to civil war or even develop into a proxy war because of Iran’s support for the Assad’s regime.
A team led by Annan visited Syria on Tuesday and called for “concrete gestures” from President Bashar al-Assad on halting the violence.
But with Annan receiving no firm commitments from Assad, the rebel Free Syrian Army’s command inside the country gave the president an ultimatum on Thursday.
A statement said that if the regime “does not meet the deadline by Friday midday, the command … will no longer be tied by any commitment to the Annan plan … and our duty will be … to defend civilians.”
Speaking in reaction to the “barbarous massacre of women and children at Houla,” the FSA said “there is no more justification for us to unilaterally respect the truce because (Assad) has buried Annan’s plan.”
It added that it would announce in the coming days “a series of decisive and courageous decisions for the next phase” of their struggle against Assad.
On Wednesday, the UN observer mission chief in Syria, Major General Robert Mood, disclosed a new atrocity.
He said 13 bodies of people killed execution-style had been found in the eastern town of Assukar, describing it as an “appalling and inexcusable act.”
The United States, France, Britain and Germany all emerged from a Security Council meeting on Wednesday urging stronger measures by the body.
UN Ambassador Susan Rice said if the Syrian government did not adhere to the Annan plan, then the Security Council had to “assume its responsibilities” and step up pressure on Damascus.
In the absence of either scenario, and if the violence continued to worsen, “then members of this council and members of the international community are left with the option only of having to consider whether they’re prepared to take actions outside of the Annan plan and the authority of this council.”
Her remarks appeared to signal that Washington and its allies would consider whether to act alone if Russia and China continue to block tough action against Syria.
Russia and China, which have both blocked previous attempts at the Security Council to condemn the Assad government, joined other council members on Sunday in approving a statement condemning the Houla massacre.
But Russia is saying that rebuke went far enough.
“It is essential to give the plan of Kofi Annan time to work,” because intervention could “only exacerbate the situation for both Syria and the region as a whole,” Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said.
And President Vladimir Putin said Moscow’s position would not be affected by pressure.
“Russia’s position is well-known. It is balanced and consistent,” Interfax quoted spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying on Thursday. “So it is hardly appropriate to talk about this position changing under someone’s pressure.”
On the ground, Syrian forces resumed shelling in Houla, which had begun on Wednesday, with a young boy killed by a sniper, the Observatory said.
And battles raged as troops and rebels clashed across the country, with the Observatory saying at least three other people were killed.