Hollow Responses to Houla Massacre

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A handout picture released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network on 1 June 2012 shows graffiti sprayed on the back of a United Nations vehicle reading in Arabic: "Down with Bashar" referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad on June 3 dismissed allegations that his government had a hand in the Houla massacre and accused foreign-backed forces of plotting to destroy Syria. (Photo: AFP PHOTO / HO / SHAAM NEWS NETWORK)

By: Karl Sharro

Published Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The responses to the tragic Houla massacre exposed the disorientation of all parties involved in the Syrian uprising, both within the country and outside. It is becoming clear by now how little control any of those actors can exercise over the course of events, highlighting the self-consuming and open-ended nature of the conflict in Syria. While there are several common interpretations in circulation, ranging from serious analysis to crackpot theories, it is time to confront the possibility that improvisation is the order of the day. Tragically, this signifies a protracted bloody struggle that will claim even more innocent lives.

The slow response of the United Nations’ observers to the Houla massacre clearly represented this state of impotence. The Kofi Annan ‘peace plan’ itself has become a symbol for the absence of political control, having been revealed as a dysfunctional initiative that had virtually no impact on the ground. The plan was a misconceived proposal that didn’t address the Syrian people’s aspiration for change, aiming instead for a superficial solution that would fall far short from resolving the political conflict.

The main problem with Annan’s plan, however, is not its inefficacy, but the fact that it represents a willingness to internationalize the Syrian conflict. Both the regime and the opposition accepted the terms of the agreement knowing that the plan would maintain the conditions of their irrevocable differences while leaving them with less control over the outcome.

While many commentators interpreted this acceptance as a cynical move, particularly on the part of the regime, in effect there is no denying that it was a major step towards relinquishing responsibility.

The immediate aftermath of the Houla massacre confirmed this tendency. The Syrian government refused to take responsibility for a massacre that was committed while its military units were shelling villages in the area. Government supporters attempted to deny responsibility for the massacre by arguing that it would stand to lose from the consequences. Some went on to accuse the Free Syrian Army (FSA) of staging the massacre to draw international support and discredit the government. The naivety of this logic ignores the extent to which events on the ground are increasingly becoming arbitrary in nature as events spiral out of control.

Furthermore, this logic ignores that the culpability of the Assad regime starts with the recruitment and arming of the Shabiha militia. The presence and scale of activities of the Shabiha across Syria is not a secret, nor is the fact that its members are recruited almost exclusively from the Alawi minority.

There is only one explanation for the presence of the Shabiha: it would not balk at carrying out operations that the regular Syrian army would be more resistant to and would lead to further dissention among its ranks.

By letting the Shabiha loose, the Syrian regime has created the conditions for atrocities, especially in mixed areas, and it was only a matter of time that sectarian massacres reminiscent of the Lebanese Civil War would happen.

The creation of this militia was one of the early decisions that enhanced the sectarian dynamics of the conflict. The regime relinquished any claim to representing state authority and ultimately acted in a way that would undermine its overall control. The army’s wide-scale involvement in shelling civilian areas is also incriminating however, it would be misleading to assume that there’s a clear division of labor between the role of the Shabiha and the regular army.

The response of the opposition leadership to the Houla massacre was also far from coherent. The Syrian National Council (SNC) fell back onto its demands for international intervention, despite the fact that such intervention seems to be unlikely for now and that these requests have alienated many Syrians that do not support attacks on their country. The SNC is unwittingly exacerbating its disconnection from the Syrian people and revealing its paucity of ideas for change.

In parallel, reports have started to emerge of splits within the FSA, partially in response to its clumsy tactics that are leading to further civilian casualties while not yielding any success.

The presence of the FSA as a separate entity from the SNC and other opposition groups is itself revealing of a fundamental flaw within the anti-regime forces. An autonomous armed group devoid of clear political leadership not only suffers from the inability to formulate clear strategy and tactics, it also increases the risk of undisciplined outbreaks of violence that are very damaging.

The improvised nature of how both the regime and the opposition are operating is mirrored by the regional and international players that are involved directly or indirectly. While it is possible to argue that the Russia’s position is driven by a desire to protect its geopolitical interests, at the expense of frustrating the Syrian people’s aspirations, it is hard to say the same of the US and other Western countries. In fact, if the West has a clear policy on Syria it’s certainly doing an excellent job of keeping it very well concealed.

The expulsion of Syrian envoys from several Western countries as a response to the Houla massacre clearly revealed how the US and its allies are more interested in moral posturing rather than in developing a coherent attitude to the Syrian crisis. So far, their involvement has been a series of minute incremental steps that seem to be designed exclusively for the management of public opinion rather than identifying likely outcomes and working towards them.

While foreign intervention in any shape will only exacerbate the situation in Syria and take the resolution away from the hands of the Syrian people themselves, it is important to understand the unprincipled and improvised nature of Western meddling. The ‘anti-imperialist’ discourse maintains that the West is looking for a pretext to intervene militarily in Syria but fails to explain why such intervention has not materialized even after a massacre of the magnitude and impact of that at Houla.

The reality is that those who convinced themselves that there is an ‘American plan’ for the Middle East have failed to understand the arbitrary, and often self-defeating, nature of US intervention in the region during the last decade. But it’s a confusion that mirrors what prevails in Western policy circles, where geopolitical interests are now routinely compromised for the sake of esoteric interests such as shoring up moral authority.

Of course, a morally inspired foreign policy would be a good thing, but what we are witnessing is a cynical attempt at claiming moral authority without being guided by it. (We only need to look at the hypocritical stance of leaders like Blair and Sarkozy towards Gaddafi to understand that.)

As it stands, the West’s stance towards Syria is uninspired and unfocused. Far from having a clear plan, let alone a grand conspiracy, Western nations are trudging along with no clear sense of purpose. The downside of this is that the same erratic and unpredictable patterns of Iraq and Libya could re-emerge unexpectedly.

While the US administration has so far resisted the idea of military intervention, French President Francois Hollande did not rule it out and many in the US military and Republicans have been more vocal in advocating for this option. The turnaround might be more abrupt than we expect.

After the Houla massacre, we started to hear a lot about tipping and turning points in Syria. That may or may not be true, but it revealed a consensus about how unpredictable the situation is, most likely as a recognition of how little control anyone involved can exercise.

The only constant in all of this is the desire of the Syrian people for change, and their unrelenting protests and demands despite the huge risks they face. They deserve to be masters of their own fate.

Karl Sharro is a Middle East political commentator and blogger at Karl reMarks and on Twitter @KarlreMarks.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.


a whitewash of NATO criminal support for GCC founded terrorists aka FSA.

Very good and comprehensive analysis of a murky situation!

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