On the massacre in Houla, Syria

Strong piece by Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker:

Sooner or later, every armed conflict in which victory is determined by control of the civilian population—as opposed to, say, physical territory—has its My Lai, its Srebrenica, its Sabra and Shatila. And Syria’s civil war (because that, in the end, is what it is) now has a hallmark bloodbath—its before-and-after moment. Saturday, in the small town of Houla, some hundred and eight civilians, including at least thirty-two children, were killed at the hands, apparently, of the Syrian army and the shabiha thugs who often do its dirty work. It’s not that there haven’t been previous atrocities in this fifteen-month-old conflict; there have been scores of them, each adding its quota of blood and agony and vengeance. Houla’s hundred-odd dead may offer a mere shiver of horror to deadened and bewildered onlookers, and statistically may represent only a fraction of the mounting casualties—Syria’s number of dead is calculated by the U.N. to be over ten thousand, but there may well be a thousand or so more, depending on who is doing the counting.

It’s been a month since the arrival in Syria of two hundred and seventy or so U.N. observers, the result of a partial agreement between President Assad and Kofi Annan. The observers have not stopped the killing, and have not reduced it, either, despite some initial wishful claims to the contrary. (Where have U.N. observers, or peacekeepers, for that matter, ever stopped anything?) The killings in Houla took place a mere fifteen miles from the U.N. observers posted in Homs. Unlike in an old Western, the cavalry never arrived. In this gruesome reality show that we all now inhabit, the U.N. men arrived afterwards, in time to film the bodies left behind by their killers, with the merit of at least having confirmed that an atrocity took place. In Houla, the videos show that some of the civilian victims—with pieces of their bodies missing—were probably nonspecific, by which I mean that, as in all wars, they were simply killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the men who pressed the “fire” buttons on the artillery piece, or on the tank that fired the shells that ripped them apart, meant them no specific harm, per se, as individuals. Others, though, seem to show the telltale traces of up-close murders—the result of guns pressed against people’s heads and fired, and of knives drawn deeply across throats.

These latter victims, who include some of Houla’s dead children, are the most troubling of the deaths that are occurring in Syria today. They raise the question of whether there is any kind of peace plan, at this point, that is viable, at least in the minds of the actors in the conflict. That is why Houla is such a watershed event (and why the regime is claiming it is a set-up, to make it look bad).

Ban Ki-moon has said that there is no U.N. “Plan B” in Syria. Plan A, to sum it up roughly, relies upon goodwill and a change of heart on the part of the Assad regime and the rebels fighting it. The thing is: What does one do when men become capable of cutting the throat of a small child?

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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