The Houla massacre was one of the bloodiest incidents in the 14-month-old uprising, and the deadliest since the UN-brokered peace plan went into effect April 12, and which is now left in tatters. Unfortunately, however, the international community has been unable to reach a consensus on an alternate means of halting the violence.
Nobody knows how many civilians and soldiers have been killed since the uprising began. Estimates range from more than 9,000 to as many as 13,000, counting the victims of the latest atrocities.
In reaction to the horrific pictures and tales from survivors of the Houla massacre, the US, Britain, France, Germany, Australia, Spain, Italy and Canada expelled the senior Syrian diplomats in those countries Tuesday, and the Dutch declared the Syrian ambassador to be persona non grata in the country. In the US, the State Department told Syrian charge d’affaires, Zuheir Jabbour that he had 72 hours to leave the country. This further isolates Assad’s regime in the international community.
IS RUSSIA STARTING TO DISTANCE ITSELF FROM ASSAD?
But perhaps the most telling of the critical comments came from an unusual source, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. After meeting with British Foreign Minister William Hague, who urged the Russians to pressure Assad to step down, Lavrov said, “The [Syrian] government bears the main responsibility for what is going on. Any government in any country bears responsibility for the security of its citizens.”
Lavrov was not endorsing the Syrian opposition either. He added that, “both sides have obviously had a hand in the deaths of innocent people, including several dozen women and children. This area is controlled by the rebels, but it is also surrounded by the government troops.”
Lavrov suggested darkly that the Houla massacre could have been a provocation by a “third force,” al Qaeda or other terrorists supported by an un-named foreign power that was intent on destroying the UN peace plan and destabilizing the Syrian regime.
He also made an interesting distinction, claiming that Russia’s commitment was not to Assad’s regime but to the people of Syria. “For us, the main thing is to put an end to the violence among civilians and to provide for political dialogue under which the Syrians themselves decide on the sovereignty of their country,” he said.
Russia’s open criticism of Assad and its attempt to distance itself from his regime may be an indication that it is having second thoughts about its support for his regime since the uprising started.
The reason is clear. Even before the Houla massacre, the weight of world opinion had turned against Assad, and anyone supporting his oppression of the Syrian people.
MORE EMPTY CONDEMNATIONS FROM THE SECURITY COUNCIL
The UN Security Council reacted to the Houla atrocity by issuing a unanimous statement Sunday condemning the killings and holding the Syrian government responsible. The statement was unusual because Russia and China approved the wording, which was highly critical of the Syrian government. Until now, Russia and China had protected Assad from serious retaliation by the Security Council, and supported Assad’s claim that the rebels opposing his rule should be held responsible for instigating the violence.
The Council statement on Houla accused Syria of carrying out the killings “of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more … in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood.”
It condemned the “outrageous use of force” by the Syrian regime against civilians as a violation of international law and Syria’s commitment to a UN-endorsed peace plan which calls upon Syria to withdraw all of its troops and tanks from residential areas in Syrian towns. The plan, sponsored by UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, also provided for the insertion of a UN monitoring mission in Syria to halt the violence, which has proven to be incapable of protecting Syrian civilians from harm by their own government.
THE BLOODY EVIDENCE IN HOULA
The Security Council statement quotes UN observer reports that more than a dozen of the victims in Houla had been killed by “shooting at close range and [had suffered] severe physical abuse.” The observers also say they saw the bodies of 85 other victims at a mosque who had been killed by gunshots and artillery fire.
General Robert Mood, head of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, reported that 116 people were killed in Houla, most of them in the village of Taldo, including, according to one report, at least 62 members of the same extended family. UN observers who visited the town found “clear evidence” that the Syrian army was responsible, in the form of spent artillery shells fired by Syrian tanks inside Houla.
Mood said that “multiple” Syrian army tanks were inside Houla, in violation of the peace plan, and contradicting a statement made by the Syrian Foreign Ministry, which claimed that Syrian tanks were stationed outside Houla in “defensive” positions.
ANOTHER SETBACK FOR ANNAN’S PEACE PLAN
The massacre in Houla was another setback for the UN peace initiative, and its leaders admitted as much. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon issued a joint statement after receiving the report from the observers on the ground which left little doubt as to who was responsible.
“This appalling and brutal crime involving indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force is a flagrant violation of international law and of the commitments of the Syrian Government to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers and violence in all its forms,” the statement by the two UN officials said. “Those responsible for perpetrating this crime must be held to account.”
According to Houla residents, most of the killing was carried out by armed vigilantes known as the shabiha, from five villages populated by members of Assad’s Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. This Shiite connection is a key factor in Assad’s alliance with Iran, and his willing to extend Iran’s influence in the region.
TURNING A REBELLION INTO AN ETHNIC WAR
Since the rebellion began, Assad has been deliberately trying to turn it into an ethnic conflict, between the Alawites, who make up only about 10% of Syria’s population, and the Sunnis who make up 75%. It also explains the sympathetic support which the Syrian rebels have received from other Sunni powers in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates.
The locals say that the violence began Friday afternoon after at least two Syrian army officers were killed in clashes with armed rebels. In retaliation, government forces used tanks to shell the village, and then unleashed the shabiha, who stormed homes in Sunni villages and randomly massacred men, women and children.
“Some of them were killed by gunshots at close range, some of them were killed with bayonets, and some of them had their heads smashed,” said one Houla resident.
GOING HOUSE TO HOUSE, EXECUTING FAMILIES
A subsequent report by the UN high commissioner for human rights amended the first account by the UN observers. It says that only about 20 individuals were killed by the Syrian tank bombardment of Houla, and that most of the casualties, including 49 children and 34 women “were summarily executed in two separate incidents. At this point it looks like entire families were shot in their houses.”
Eyewitness accounts by survivors of the massacre describe the pro-Assad vigilantes as going from house to house chanting, “Shabiha for you, Assad,” as they executed the Sunni residents.
Human Rights Watch, which interviewed some of the survivors, released the testimony of an elderly woman who said she was the sole survivor of her family after at least two men wearing military clothing stormed her family home early Friday evening. She hid herself behind a door after hearing gunshots and seeing the men enter the house, and she described hearing screams from the rest of the family, including her grandchildren, daughter, cousin and sister-in-law. After hearing the gunmen leave, she peered outside the room in which she was hiding to see “all of my family members shot.”
Another account by a surviving resident of Houla named Kassem says that Syrian forces opened fire on the protesters when they spilled out of a mosque after Friday prayers, prompting armed members of the opposition to fire back. During the gunfight, two Syrian officers and “several” soldiers were killed, forcing Syrian forces to withdraw. However, at 8 pm, as night was falling, they began to bombard the village using tanks and artillery, with shells falling at the rate of one a minute until well past midnight, Kassem said.
ASSAD’S SIDE OF THE STORY
A spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry denied government responsibility for the atrocity. The Assad government claims that the civilian killings in Houla, like all the rest of the killings of civilians in Syria since the revolt began 14 months ago, was the work of “armed terrorists” in the pay of foreigners. According to a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, the civilians were attacked by “hundreds of gunmen” armed with “heavy weapons, like mortars, machine guns and antitank missiles, which are newly used in the confrontation with state forces.” He also claimed that the gunmen killed two Syrian army officers and a soldier.
Reportedly, Assad himself told Annan much the same thing when he visited Syria personally on Monday.
However, the eyewitness testimony of the UN monitors as well as at least one British TV journalist who visited Houla on Sunday contradicts the Syrian government version of events.
The reporter, who was accompanying Syrian government troops, said that the armed rebels in the area were putting up strong resistance, and that their gunfire had pinned down the Syrian troops for several hours.
SYRIAN REBELS GETTING MORE AID
The report of heavy fighting in Houla was the latest indication that significant amounts of military aid are beginning to reach rebel military units, which consist primarily of former Syrian soldiers who have defected to the opposition. Reportedly, the aid is coming from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates and other Sunni states in the region who have grown weary of Assad’s bloody tactics and who also feel threatened by the growing influence of Iran in the region. While the US is not believed to be directly involved in supplying military aid to the rebels, it is supplying “non-lethal” aid to the rebels and is believed to be coordinating the efforts by the Sunni states to arm them.
In the longer term, both the US and its Sunni Arab allies believe that removing Assad from power in Syria would be a major blow to Iran’s ability to project its power and influence in the region. It would also make it much more difficult for Iran to continue direct support for its ally, Hezbollah, in Lebanon.
THE PEACE PLAN THAT FAILED
In a letter to the Security Council, Secretary-General Ban admitted that violence in Syria is on the rise again, after a having gone down after the peace plan went into effect April 12. “Violence against civilian population and clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups in various parts of Syria have escalated,” he wrote.
He acknowledged that there had been little progress toward implementation of Annan’s six-point peace plan, whose primary aims were to halt the violence and start the process of political reform.
“There is a continuing crisis on the ground, characterized by regular violence, deteriorating humanitarian conditions, human rights violations and continuing political confrontation.” Ban wrote. Syrian troops and tanks are still deployed in residential areas in violation of the plan, and thousands of political detainees are still imprisoned in Syrian jails.
Moreover, “significant parts of some cities appear to be under the de facto control of opposition elements,” indicating that the government’s crackdown has still not succeeded in crushing the revolt. As a result, Ban’s letter concluded, “there is an overall atmosphere of tension, mistrust and fear.”
NOBODY BELIEVES ASSAD ANY MORE
Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a statement saying that he was “revolted by the incessant massacres conducted by Assad’s forces against… civilians… which continued in Houla. Iran and Hezbollah are an inseparable part of the Syrian atrocities, and the world needs to act against them too,” Netanyahu said.
A few weeks ago, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Assad’s regime was doomed and that its ouster would be a “major blow” to Iran and its terrorist allies.
Germany’s UN ambassador, Peter Wittig, said there appeared to be no question that the Syrian government was responsible for the Houla atrocities. There is “a clear footprint of the government in this massacre,” he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the US would work “with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end.”
WHY ASSAD STILL LINGERS
However, there is still no appetite in the international community for a military intervention on behalf of the opposition similar to the one which ultimately resulted in the overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Gadhaffi. For one thing, Russia and China, while growing more uncomfortable with Assad’s tactics, are still unwilling to stand aside and watch the US and its allies forcibly remove him from power.
For another, there is Iran, which is actively propping up Assad, paying cash in advance for his most recent shipments of Russian arms, and providing him with help and assistance through Iran’s terrorist proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Taking out Syria’s well armed military will be more difficult for the US and its NATO allies than neutralizing Gadhaffi’s poorly trained armed forces, and it is still unclear who would take over Syria once Assad is forced to step down.
There have been disturbing signs that the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood has taken a lead role in the main Syrian opposition group. There is also the very real possibility that the revolt against Assad could degenerate into a vicious ethnic and religious war, marked by the kind of blood feuds and massacres we saw last week in Houla.
THE DAY AFTER ASSAD FALLS
There is also the question of what will happen to Syria’s most advanced weapons, including ballistic missiles and chemical weapons, if and when the Assad regime falls. Members of the opposition are already making plans to take control of those weapons, to make sure that they do not fall into the hands of gun smugglers and put on the illicit international arms market, which happened to much of Gadhaffi’s arsenal just after he was driven from power.
Finally, there is the prospect of the revolt in Syria degenerating into an all out civil war in Syria. So far, according to opposition leaders, Assad has managed to maintain the allegiance of the best armed and trained units in his army, numbering a total of around 70,000 soldiers, mostly because these units are under the control of fellow Alawite officers. But defections in the ranks, especially among Sunni soldiers, have been growing.
A CIVIL WAR IN THE MAKING
According to an opposition leader, fully half of the 6,000 Syrian soldiers who have been reported killed since the revolt began 14 months ago were shot by fellow officers who believed that they were about to defect. This opposition leader claims that as many as 90,000 Syrian soldiers have already defected from the ranks. About 60,000 of them are simply putting down their guns and uniforms and quietly returning to their villages, while the other third, about 30,000, have joined the fight against Assad as members of the Free Syrian Army.
As the process continues, the army continues to come under greater pressure. The loyalty of its remaining Sunni officers and soldiers is increasingly coming under suspicion, while Alawites loyal to Assad in the armed forces are feeling increasingly that their fate depends on Assad’s ability to survive in power.
Even with continued support from Iran and Russia, Assad finds himself increasingly isolated and shunned in the international community. The losses he has taken over the past 14 months are steadily taking its toll, and someday soon, are likely to reach a tipping point.
What is likely to happen at that point is anyone’s guess, but the ripple effects from Assad’s ultimate fall are bound to impact all of Syria’s neighbors, including Turkey, Jordan Israel, Iran and Lebanon.
While Western leaders may ridicule the futility of Annan’s peace mission to Syria, and its lack of progress in stopping the violence, the fault does not lie with Annan, but rather with the Western countries, starting with the US, which have abandoned the Syrians to their terrible fate.