Why the world won’t topple Syria's tyrant

Stopping the butcher of Damascus is complicated. Some call for armed intervention, others say it will make things worse

The butcher of damascus

Amateur Video/AP

Last Friday evening, following hours of artillery and tank shelling that levelled buildings and tore bodies apart, men armed with knives, axes and guns entered Houla, a cluster of villages north of the Syrian city of Homs, a stronghold of opposition to the Syrian government, and began pulling civilians out of their houses.

A 10-year-old boy told Human Rights Watch, an NGO, what happened next:

“I was at home with my mother, my cousins, and my aunt. Suddenly I heard gunshots. My mother grabbed me and took me to a barn to hide. I heard men screaming and shouting. I heard people crying, especially women.

“Then across the street I saw my friend Shafiq, 13 years old, standing alone. An armed man in military uniform grabbed him and put him at the corner of a house. He took his own weapon and shot him in the head. His mother and big sister—I think she was 14 years old—went outside and started shouting and crying. The man shot at both of them more than once.”

The Syrian army had already shelled the town. The men who came next wore uniforms but were probably members of local pro-government militia bands known as shabeeha. Houla’s villages are inhabited by Sunni Muslims and surrounded by towns belonging to Alawites and Shias, who are more likely to support President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

By the time the massacre was over, 108 people—including many women and children—were dead. The shelling had killed some. But most died face to face with their murderers. Young children had their throats slit or were hacked to death.

As death tolls go in this conflict, which began 14 months ago as a protest movement and has morphed into a civil war, what happened in Houla was not all that unusual. The United Nations estimates at least 10,000 people have died so far. One hundred and eight dead is a bad day, but not an extraordinary one. But its lurid brutality has stirred an international response. Several nations, including Canada, Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Germany, this week expelled Syrian diplomats in protest.

The UN, which had observers stationed 20 kilometres from Houla, condemned the Syrian government for an “outrageous use of force” that violated international law. Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria who, in February, brokered a ceasefire and peace plan—which has been ignored ever since—said he would ask Assad to take “bold steps” for peace when he met him this week.

Russia, a Syrian ally, signed the UN declaration but suggested the regime might not have been responsible for the murderous rampage that took place after the shelling. The Russian foreign minister said “both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people.” China condemned the “cruel killings” without mentioning who was responsible. Syria blamed “terrorists.”

This pattern of abuse and murder, followed by outside condemnation, has been repeated several times since the conflict began, without any lessening of the war’s intensity or its attendant slaughter. “There have been so many massacres in Syria in the last year. Somehow this has coalesced the horror of it,” says Michael Young, opinion page editor of Beirut’s Daily Star. “It’s nothing new. This has been going on for months and months and months. We’ve had many Houlas in the last year.”

And yet in any war there are moments of such extreme barbarism that they shift the way the conflict is understood by the rest of the world. It happens when the abuses are documented and especially when they are televised, when they are easily understood, and when they involve unmitigated depravity. Syria may have reached such a point after men with knives cut the throats of children.

“Houla represents a watershed in the sense that world opinion has truly turned against the Syrian authorities,” says Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. “It is unique in the sense of the overwhelming number of civilians killed in a matter of hours, and the large number of children, and the brutality by which the women and children were hacked, massacred. I think the international community can’t ignore it.”

The more difficult challenge is what to do about it. Sanctions have hurt Syria’s economy but appear not to have weakened the regime or impeded its ability to harm its opponents. When Libyans rose up against Moammar Gadhafi last year, the dictator was quickly abandoned by former allies around the world. But Russia continues to sell Syria weapons, and Iran backs Assad’s forces with money and advisers. Assad also maintains tighter control of his country than did Gadhafi. Unlike in Libya, there have been no mass defections of Syrian diplomats. Most of the army remains loyal. High-profile generals have not deserted. Gerges estimates at least 30 per cent of Syrians support the regime. Part of this support is driven by Syria’s deepening sectarian divisions—fissures also absent during the Libyan war. And while Syrian opposition fighters control some neighbourhoods and enclaves, they haven’t captured the tracts of territory necessary to build a base. More than a year into its uprising, Syria’s opposition remains far from victory.

For Hassan Hachimi, a member of the General Secretariat of the Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups based outside the country, this is proof that more robust international intervention is needed. “These demonstrations started peacefully, from day one,” says Hachimi, speaking from Bulgaria, where the SNC was holding meetings. “We avoided any direct conflict with the regime.”

The SNC has asked the UN Security Council to authorize the use of force in Syria. Hachimi says such military intervention does not need to be on the scale of Libya, or Iraq. He says a buffer zone close to a border could be established where opposition fighters and defecting Syrian soldiers could shelter under the protection of foreign air power.

Gerges believes armed assistance may be necessary to unseat Assad. “The only thing left, the only option, is military intervention,” he says. “The Western powers, including the United States and Canada, have been waging an economic war, a psychological war. The whole idea behind this war by other means was to bring the Assad regime down. But it has not produced the desired results.”

Gerges came to believe in intervention gradually, and reluctantly. He grew up in Lebanon during its civil war and sees the same sectarian tensions inflaming Syria. He fears intervention would escalate these tensions and plunge the country deeper into civil war, one that would likely spill over into Lebanon and Iraq—countries that are similarly divided, and where Iran has powerful proxies. “But if the massacres continue, I don’t see a way out. At the end of the day, one has to ask: can we afford to allow massacres of this kind to take place in Syria? This is a licence to kill for the Assad regime.”

Much of the world is already involved in Syria. The country has become a proxy battleground for those seeking influence in the region. Iran and Russia are the regime’s primary supporters. Several Sunni Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, support the rebels with money and arms. The U.S. also supplies the Syrian opposition with “non-lethal” aid, like communications equipment. Turkey shelters Syrian refugees and provides a safe haven for the Free Syrian Army.

But escalating military assistance—even establishing a protected zone inside Syria—would carry significantly higher risks. Syria’s military is more sophisticated than was Libya’s, and its geography is less suited to low-risk air attacks. “It’s a country that has real air defences,” says Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So this is a conflict where the interveners are going to take casualties.”

That prospect is only one reason why NATO jets are unlikely to fly over Syria. Fighting Assad might mean confronting his allies in Tehran, or Tehran’s proxies in Iraq and Lebanon. Intervention would be expensive at a time when much of Europe is broke. War is politically risky at the best of times, and U.S. President Barack Obama is facing an election in the fall—whether he could be “shamed into action” by human rights organizations, the way he was in Libya, is unclear, says Ottaway.

Obama and other Western leaders are especially unlikely to contemplate armed intervention without a UN Security Council resolution authorizing it, and Russia will almost certainly stop any attempt to obtain one. Russia is not willing to “surrender Syria to potential Western designs on the country,” says James Denselow, with King’s College London. “Especially after what happened in Libya, when they found themselves not with a limited no-fly zone, but regime change.”

Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch says there are options besides military intervention that might curtail abuses in Syria. He’d like to see the regime referred to the International Criminal Court, a move he says may deter forces from committing future massacres. He thinks Russia should be engaged and pressed to end its support for Damascus, possibly opening the way for a Security Council-enforced arms embargo. “There’s clearly a responsibility to protect for the international community,” says Houry. “Because what we’re seeing in Syria are crimes against humanity and in some cases war crimes.”

But it’s possible Assad will not be deterred or persuaded by anything short of force. “I don’t think this regime is likely to move without major international intervention,” says Ottaway. “I don’t think condemnation is going to make any difference. This is a regime that torches bridges.”

Still, outside countries might be able to influence how the conflict unfolds without taking part—by attempting to direct the flow of weapons to rebels inside the country, and by providing for refugees. “The idea that we don’t want to get involved because we don’t want to heighten the chances of civil war is a ludicrous argument, because civil war is upon us,” says Young. “The proxy war is there. Civil, sectarian conflict is already there. At this point, to simply sit back and say we don’t want to make this worse is behaving like an ostrich. It’s going to get worse. It’s not going to get better.”

Scathing condemnations and diplomatic expulsions aside, Syria’s rebels, and its civilian targets of Assad’s thugs, are mostly on their own. Houla will not be the last atrocity they suffer.