STATE DEPARTMENT - The United States is expelling Syria's most senior envoy in Washington over what it says is the Syrian government's responsibility for last week's massacre in the village of Houla. U.N. observers confirm the deaths of more than 90 people in Houla, including several families who appear to have been executed in their homes.
State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says Syrian Charge d’Affaires Zuheir Jabbour has 72 hours to leave the United States. "We took this action in response to the massacre in the village of Houla - absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable massacre - against innocent children, women, shot at point-blank range by regime thugs, the Shabiha, aided and abetted by the Iranians, who were actually bragging about it over the weekend," she said.
Nuland offered no evidence linking Iran to this attack, but said Washington "finds it interesting" that the deputy head of Iran's Quds Force has since chosen to take credit for the advice they are giving to Syria.
The Obama administration says it took the decision to expel Syria's most senior representative in coordination with Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, which are also expelling Syrian diplomats.
Nuland said the violence is "the most unambiguous indictment to date" of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ongoing threat to peace and security as well as what she called his "flagrant violations" of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for an end to fighting and the release of political prisoners.
U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan told President Assad on Tuesday that a U.N. peace plan "cannot succeed without bold steps to stop the violence." A U.N. spokesman says Mr. Annan conveyed to President Assad the international community's concern about the bloodshed, including the Houla killings.
The State Department's Nuland said Washington continues to support Mr. Annan's mediation efforts, but believes the time for diplomacy with Mr. Assad has passed. "He is doing what he can to try to convince a man who would send thugs into a village to kill women and children to do the right thing here and to stop the violence. He is a man who believes in continuing to talk. That said, from our perspective the only thing that Assad is going to listen to is pressure," she said.
In the coming days, Nuland said, the United States will continue to look at ways to pressure the the Syrian government economically, politically and diplomatically at the United Nations and in foreign capitals.
Russia has vetoed previous U.N. efforts to sanction President Assad. A Russian foreign ministry statement on Tuesday called for an "objective and impartial" U.N. probe into the killings, saying "the tragedy in Houla underscored that all the sides in Syria must immediately renounce violence in order to avoid a repeat of such incidents."
Nuland said the United States welcomes Russia's call for such a probe because it is "undisputable" that the inquiry's findings would point back to President Assad. "So, you know, from that perspective, is this going to be a turning point in Russian thinking? We hope so," she said.
On Sunday, Russia and China backed Security Council condemnation of the Syrian government for using artillery in Houla. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says the situation there appears to be one in which Syrian forces and its opponents "had a hand in the deaths of innocent people."