The massacre at Houla and ongoing Syrian bloodshed
Dismayed and devastated by the Houla massacre, other atrocities and unrelenting violence, the world is desperately seeking a way to a political process to prevent Syria from sliding inevitably towards a disastrous civil war, writes Omar Khasru
THE grave situation in Syria is progressively getting worse. The escalating conflict, bloodshed and ruthless subjugation of its own protesting citizens have been ratchet up by a few notches to a rapidly deteriorating tyrannical and tormenting level with the recent indiscriminating and wholesale Houla massacre.
Taldou village near the town of Houla in Syria’s Homs province overnight between May 25 and 26 was the scene of one of the country’s worst massacres in the 14-month long uprising. The United Nations observers have confirmed that at least 108 people were killed, including 49 children and 34 women. Some were killed by shellfire, but the majority were either stabbed or shot at point-blank range.
There is the usual conflicting claim and denial regarding the culpability in the carnage and atrocities. Eyewitnesses, anti-government activists and human rights groups including UN high commissioner for human rights point the finger squarely at the Syrian army and a sectarian civilian militia that supports the despotic Bashar al-Assad regime.
The government, however, denies any complicity. It claims that the soldiers were attacked and armed terrorists, euphemism for the anti-government agitators and ragtag band of army defectors and insurgents, went on a rampage and shot and knifed the civilians.
President Assad rejected his government’s role in the Houla massacre. ‘What happened in Houla and elsewhere are brutal massacres which even monsters would not have carried out,’ he said in the parliament. ‘If we don’t feel the pain, the pain that squeezes our hearts, for the cruel scenes — especially the children — then we are not human beings,’ he said in the televised address.
People hoping that President Assad’s speech might open a path to compromise to end the ongoing discord and bloodshed and lead to a peaceful resolution would be sorely disappointed. He reiterated his regime’s long-standing argument that it is not facing an internal political crisis but an outside plot to destroy the country, because of his defiance of and acrimony with Israel.
Mr Assad again blamed ‘terrorists’, supported by foreign powers, for fomenting discord and creating unrest and tension inside the country. He conceded that the only way to resolve the crisis was through political dialogue but refused to negotiate with those who, he said, did not represent the will of the Syrian people.
UN investigators have said that most of the dead were summarily executed, and eyewitnesses said Assad’s troops and pro-government militias had carried out the killings. The picture being pieced together by activists, survivors, international journalists and human rights organisations is of an attack that began with the army shelling and ended with militiamen killing people from house to house late into the night.
Activists and eyewitnesses say the Syrian army in a sustained bombardment that lasted for two hours shelled the town with tank fire and mortars to soften the targets. This matches the UN account of tank and mortar shells in civilian areas. The UN Security Council in a statement said that ‘such outrageous use of force against civilian population constitutes a violation of applicable international law.’
The army shelling apparently was the precursor of and paved the way for an intensive ground attack by the pro-government militia, the shabiha, in the dead of night. The reports suggest that men from the militia group entered people’s houses in army fatigue and either stabbed them or shot them in close proximity on May 25 night and May 26 early morning.
Rupert Colville, spokesman for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has said that the victims were ‘summarily executed in two separate incidents’ while fewer then 20 were killed by shellfire. This wanton and indiscriminate killing by the militia might have been planned to give the government forces the deniability and also the pretext to blame the so-called ‘armed terrorist gangs’.
Special UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, former UN secretary general, expressed his sheer frustration that Mr Assad was not living up to his pledge and not turning his words into actions. He said the Syrian president ‘must make bold and visible steps immediately to radically change his military posture and honour his commitment to withdraw heavy weapons and cease all violence.’
The Syrian official version, as already stated, is quite the contrary. According to a foreign ministry spokesman, hundreds of gunmen armed with machine guns, mortars and anti-tank missiles attacked soldiers, killing three. He added that the army did not send tanks into the village and security forces remained in defensive posture. Any civilian deaths, he said, were the result of ‘armed terrorist gangs’ going house to house and killing men, women and children at random.
The massacre, attributed to the government troops and government supporters by most observers, has triggered widespread international denunciation. It has led to several countries expelling Syrian diplomats in protest with a reinforced call for tougher sanctions and effective stern actions against Assad and his murderous and marauding regime.
A robust roadblock to concerted international action against the brutal Syrian regime is vigorous opposition of Russia. At a news conference in Moscow with his British counterpart William Hague on May 31, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said it was clear the army had used tank shells but not quite clear as to who shot the innocent civilians at point blank range.
Alexei Pushkov, chair of international affairs committee of the Russian parliament, was more explicit: ‘We have very strong doubts that those people who were shot at point-blank range and were stabbed, that this was the action of forces loyal to President Assad,’ he told BBC. ‘…the stabbing and point-blank firing was definitely from the other side,’ he added.
During the recent whirlwind trip to France and Germany by the recently re-elected Russian president, Vladimir Putin, faced considerable pressure from the newly-elected French president, Francois Hollande, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to alter the strong Russian opposition to any significant action against the Syrian President. The Russian president seemed to have withstood the intense pressure without significantly shifting his country’s stance or budging from the staunchly pro-Assad policy.
European Union officials are expected to press Putin to take a stronger line on its ally Syria during a summit that is underway in the Russian city of St Petersburg. EU nations would like Russia to put pressure on Syria to withdraw heavy weapons from cities and comply with Kofi Annan’s peace plan.
Russia and China are resisting US and EU calls to condemn President Assad and seek his ouster. Russia insists it is not protecting President Assad but insists that his removal cannot be a precondition for a political dialogue. This may well be a matter of semantics but Russia surely is putting up huge obstruction to the collective attempt to overthrow Assad or force him to fully comply with the Kofi Annan peace plan.
Analysts say pressure is mounting on Russia to accept a deal in which President Assad stands aside to allow a transition of power. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said on June 3, ‘Assad’s departure does not have to be a precondition but it should be an outcome, so the people of Syria have a chance to express themselves.’
The St Petersburg summit is unlikely to produce a major breakthrough but may hopefully pave the way for an eventual peaceful resolution of the bloody Syrian internal strife and free the country from the clutches of a tyrant. The alternative, possible long drawn out civil war with outside involvement and broad regional implications would be a major disaster and a grave catastrophe.
Dismayed and devastated by the Houla massacre, other atrocities and unrelenting violence, the world is desperately seeking a way to a political process to prevent Syria from sliding inevitably towards a disastrous civil war. At least for the time being, there is no peaceful alternative to Kofi Annan’s peace plan, which has made little headway despite overwhelming international support. Even the Assad regime has supported it at least in theory.
Annan’s public focus has been to prod Assad’s government, the stronger of the combatants, to take significant steps such as withdrawing troops and heavy weapons back to barracks. This should have been implemented weeks ago as the first step in mollifying the situation on the ground. That has not happened, despite written assurances from the Syrian foreign minister to Annan in April.
The paranoid Assad regime is concerned that the resulting vacuum would be filled by the rebel fighters, and that it would lose control of sizeable parts of the country. It feels that it cannot afford to implement part of the peace plan that requires withdrawing the military, because that would be detrimental to its own fate.
Mr Annan's talks with President Assad during the recent meeting at Damascus failed to produce any sign of the ‘bold steps’ that he wants the Syrian leader to take to demonstrate that he is serious about implementing the peace plan. Annan is trying against all odds to convince the regime that the opponent would respect a truce and that countries backing rebel fighters would halt the flow of arms to them.
After Syria, Annan visited the neighbouring countries where his talks focused on efforts to stop arms smuggling across the borders. Achieving the reality of being able to persuade the regime to pull back the troops, tanks and artillery, seems like an unattainable hope, given the worsening of the virulent situation on the ground.
For the time being, despite mounting international pressure in the wake of the Houla massacre, Russia continues to argue against the UN Security Council resolution to impose tougher actions and mandatory sanctions on Syria. Russia and China remain dual impediments to try something different and forceful to compel the Syrian regime to cooperate that would lead to an acceptable solution.
In the meantime, Syria burns as the international community has reached an impasse and a serious case of collective inertia and inaction.
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