Syria: The Houla Massacre

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By Stephen Gowans
May 30, 2012

Mass burial of the 108 civilians killed in Houla.

Syrian government forces may or may not have been responsible for the killing of 108 civilians at Houla. Witness accounts point to militias that may have been acting independently of the Syrian government. One account describes the killings as avenging a rebel sectarian attack on an Alawite village. All the same, no witness account has been independently verified. The events are, in the words of a UN monitor, “murky”.

The US government, nevertheless, has reached far beyond the evidence to blame the Syrian government for the atrocity, a brazenly hypocritical public relations assault on Syria. In light of the serial massacre of hundreds of Pakistani and Afghan civilians, including children, by US drone strikes, the US government has no credibility as a self-appointed champion of the innocent.

Examining the conflict with reference to US foreign policy goals, and the objectives of other parties, it is likely that the Assad government’s opponents are depending on armed conflict and the exploitation of the public relations opportunities the conflict provides to meet their goal of regime change.

Damascus, on the other hand, has more to gain from working out a modus vivende with its internal opposition than trying to win a shooting war with armed rebels that have the backing of the formidable diplomatic and material resources of the United States and wealthy Gulf petro-monarchies.

Goals

In the Syria conflict, the goal of:

• Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf Cooperation Council Sunni petro-monarchies is to replace Syria’s Alawite-dominated state with a Sunni leadership;

• The United States and its Western allies is to force the Russia-allying, Iran-supported, Hezbollah-backing economic and Arab nationalist Syrian Ba’athist regime to relinquish control of the Syrian state. Ultimately, Washington would like to see a satellite regime in Damascus that ousts Russia from its naval base on the Mediterranean, breaks ties with Iran, cuts support to Hezbollah, accepts Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, and opens its economy to US corporations and investors. Whether Washington can realize all these ambitions is unclear, but they do appear to be ambitions the US state embraces;

• The Sunni Islamists and al-Qaeda is to overthrow the Assad government, which they think of variously as “atheist” and “heretical”;

• The exile opposition and Free Syrian Army is to replace Assad as local rulers, courting US backing by professing commitment to Wall Street and State Department interests;

• The Syrian Ba’athist government is to survive in the face of determined opposition and with few allies.

In light of these goals, it is very unlikely that the opposition forces arrayed against the Syrian government are sincerely committed to the Annan peace plan. Since the plan seeks to find an accommodation between the Syrian government and its internal opposition without calling for the government’s dissolution, it fails to satisfy the opposition goal of regime change.

The plan does, however, promise a pathway to the Syrian government’s goal of political survival, and therefore it is Damascus, of all parties described above, that is likely to have the greatest commitment to making the plan work.

On the other hand, being committed to Assad’s overthrow, and not accommodation with him, the opposition is more likely to favor rhetorical commitment to the plan while continuing to pursue its regime change goal through armed struggle, relying on material, diplomatic, and moral support from the US and its allies.

This thrusts Damascus onto the horns of a dilemma. If it fails to respond to opposition attacks it puts its survival at risk. If it does respond, it is accused of violating the peace plan.

Houla

Atrocities being accustomed events in war, it was highly likely that one would eventually arise that Washington and Europe could take advantage of. Pinning blame for an atrocity on the Syrian government would allow Washington to escalate pressure on the Ba’athists, embarrass their supporters into withdrawing or weakening support, and strengthen public backing of stepped up intervention in Syria.

The events surrounding the Houla massacre are, in the words of UN monitors, “murky”, and the identity of those who carried out the killings of 108 civilians, many at close-range, remains unclear. Witness testimony, none of which has been independently verified, points to “pro-government militias” as the culprits, which may mean loosely organized sectarian gunmen acting independently of Damascus. One witness told The Wall Street Journal that “the attacks…might have been to avenge a rebel assault on a nearby Alawite village a day earlier.” [1]

While Syrian forces had been engaged in combat with armed rebels in the area, UN monitors found that fewer than 20 people were killed by government artillery fire. [2] And “rebel fighters,” according to The Wall Street Journal, “admitted putting up a stronger fight with government forces…than had been claimed initially. That fighting appeared to be what the government blamed for its artillery barrage.” [3]

Despite the event’s “murkiness” and evidence that it was possibly related to Alawite gunmen avenging an earlier sectarian attack, Washington blamed the massacre directly on Damascus, squeezing in a denunciation of Iran at the same time. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the Houla events an “absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable massacre against innocent children, women, shot at point-blank range by regime thugs,“ adding that the perpetrators were “aided and abetted by the Iranians, who were actually bragging about it over the weekend.” [4]

What the Iranians had actually done was point out that they have provided military aid to Syria, what the US and Gulf monarchies provide to the rebels trying to overthrow the Assad government.

Neither Nuland, nor her fellow compatriot practitioners of Goebbels’s art, have worked themselves up into high dudgeon over the 175 children and 828 civilians killed by US drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004 [5] — absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable killings of innocent children, women, killed from the safe distance of a Nevada warehouse by US regime thugs brandishing computer joy-sticks. And in the case of these killings there was no murkiness about who the killers actually were.

US atrocities don’t mitigate the Houla massacre, nor excuse the Syrian government if it was involved. The killings were indeed indefensible, vile, and despicable. But there are two points here.

Unlike the case of the far greater number of civilians blasted away by the United States, it is unclear whether Damascus was involved in the Houla killings. It may have been. But the evidence is hardly compelling and points just as strongly to perpetrators acting independently of the government.

The US track record is littered with indefensible, vile, despicable killings of innocent children and women by US forces—on a far greater scale than happened at Houla. Were there strong evidence that Damascus pulled the trigger, Washington’s denunciation of the Assad government would be manifestly hypocritical. But in the absence of such evidence, Washington’s apportioning of blame for the atrocity to the Syrian government is not only hypocritical but blatantly political—another volley in a war to put Washington more firmly in the driver’s seat in Syria.

1. Nour Malas and Jay Solomon, “Syria crisis deepens divisions”, The Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2012.

2. Nour Malas and Joe Lauria, “Western nations expel Syrian diplomats”, The Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2012.

3. Malas and Solomon

4. Malas and Lauria

5. “Obama terror drones: CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals”, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/ February 4, 2012 cited in Seumas Milne, “America’s murderous drone campaign is fuelling terror”, The Guardian (UK), May 29, 2012.

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