Syria’s spiral – by Jon Lee Anderson
Ever since the horrific May 25th massacre of a hundred and eight civilians (eighty-three of whom were women and children) in the Syrian village of Houla, Kofi Annan has repeatedly expressed his frustration over the spiralling violence. By the end of last week, he conceded that his six-week-old peace plan was likely doomed to failure. As a key element of that plan, United Nations observers have been in Syria documenting the violence ever since a April 12th “cease-fire” put forward by Annan was agreed to by the Assad government and the loosely affiliated armed rebel forces, made up mostly of army defectors.
We live in a curious era of weakened governments and globally A-listed individuals—Annan, Clinton, Gates, Mandela, Buffett, Bono, Clooney—nominated to tackle the world’s crises, or to at least present a semblance of action. As a special envoy to Syria for the United Nations as well as for the Arab League, Annan said, on May 30th, “We are at a tipping point.” A day or two later he was even more specific: “The spectre of all-out war in Syria, with an alarming sectarian dimension, grows by the day.”
As usual, Kofi Annan was being too diplomatic. In fact, Syria’s tipping point came and went last week.
There are often points in conflicts when the clock can either be reset or run out. The warring parties can step back from the brink, and engage in dialogue to reach a peaceful settlement; or, if not, bloodshed—the combustive element in all civil wars—acquires a power that is exponential. And there was a time when, instead of using violence to quell peaceful demonstrations, Assad’s regime may have still been able to save Syria from being engulfed by civil war. That moment passed months ago. Peaceful demonstrators sometimes still appear on Syria’s streets, but it has become an armed standoff, as more and more men seek arms to fight back.
The regime’s all-out military assault on the city of Homs, near Houla, which began in early February, demonstrated its commitment to crushing its domestic opposition in the time-honored fashion of authoritarian regimes everywhere: militarily. It did so after going through the motions of magnanimity by allowing in a team of Arab League observers, who quit in defeat after a month on the job. Then, emboldened by Western leaders’ repeated assurances that they would not or could not intervene militarily in Syria, by media coverage showing that it was confronted by an armed opposition, and by renewed Russian and Chinese vetoes to U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning its use of violence, the regime decided to go for broke. It has proceeded apace, and has been met with increasing violence by the rebels ever since.
The atmosphere has been rarified further by escalating numbers of terrorist bombings—a la Iraq, a la Afghanistan. These attacks have mostly targeted the regime’s security infrastructure, but also killed scores of Syrian civilians. The bombings seem likely to be the work of Al Qaeda affiliates, Islamist spoilers keen to gain purchase in the Syrian chaos by contributing to it. Just as the main rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, has consistently denied responsibility for the bombings, implausibly blaming the regime for bombing itself in order to create the appearance that it is the victim of a terrorist conspiracy, the minority Alawite (Shiite) regime, in turn, routinely accuses the rebels, overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, of conducting the massacres of the Sunni civilians butchered at the hands of unknown assailants, as in Houla.
Often in wars, those who are involved in killing find it hard to admit what they are doing. I am reminded of how, during the eighties, Latin American military dictators, from Chile to Guatemala, routinely denied that secret large-scale torture and executions were taking place in their anticommunist purges; their favorite line was to accuse “the disappeared” of being off in the mountains, fighting alongside the terrorists who sought to turn their precious republics into Soviet outposts. Of course, they were all lying. Tens of thousands of people—priests, nuns, unionists, students, peasants, and guerrillas, too—were being killed as they spoke.
In Syria, the Houla massacre took place under the noses of everyone. Despite the regime’s denials, it seemed obvious to most, including the U.N.’s observers—all of whom came from nations that were pre-approved by the Assad regime—that the killings were likely carried out by the Alawite paramilitary thugs known as the Shabiha, possibly acting in concert with regular army forces. On Sunday, in an appearance before Syria’s parliament, President Assad condemned Houla in the kind of terms we might expect from a president. He called its perpetrators “monsters” and rejected the notion that they might be Syrian army soldiers. He appeared to be sincere.
Is it possible, after all, that Assad really doesn’t know who is doing the killing? Or is it a performance? In his speech yesterday, Assad also said, “When a surgeon in an operating room cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him ‘Your hands are stained with blood’? Or do we thank him for saving the patient?”
Given the worldwide attention to the atrocity, the international diplomatic condemnation, and the expulsion of Syria’s ambassadors from a half dozen major European countries, Houla was possibly the last moment for Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Syria’s rebels to seize the moment and stop the killing. Instead, since Houla, and in between Annan’s various statements, there were many more shootings, artillery barrages here and there, ambushes, and targeted killings, including at least two smaller massacres, both involving the wholesale execution of workers in two different parts of Syria. On May 30th, it was thirteen workers from a petrochemical plant near the Iraqi border, shot to death and dumped. The next day, at Qusayr, a town near the Lebanese border, twelve fertilizer plant employees were taken off a bus by Shabiha gunmen as they were driven to their jobs. They were later found dead, having been cruelly murdered, either shot in their chest and faces or stabbed repeatedly in their stomachs—sometimes both. Their hands were bound in front of them. Their families and friends, no doubt, will want their revenge.