Tuesday, May 29, 2012

When regimes kill their own children

What should or, more realistically, can the world do when the Syrian regime is widely considered to be responsible for the massacre of 108 men, women and children in Houla, most of them executed in cold blood? The regime, true to form, continues to deny any responsibility for what happened in Houla. Instead it lays the blame on what it calls "armed terrorists," without producing any evidence in support.

Politicians around the world have expressed outrage after the UN confirmed that 49 children, many under the age of 10, the youngest a two year-old girl, were among the dead, their bodies shown in pictures and video footage. The UN Security Council has already condemned these latest killings.

This is one of the most brutal incidents in recent months and the bloodiest since UN envoy Kofi Annan's six-point plan to end Syria's almost fifteen-month crisis officially came into effect in April. Residents of Houla say the army shelled the area before men dressed in military clothing, believed to be regime loyalist gangs from neighbouring Alawite villages, raided the area, using guns and knives to carry out summary executions. 

The regime blamed the killings on pro-regime militias known as shabiha. The role of the shabiha in 15 months of violence in Syria is now widely recognized. Al-Assad's government often deploys pro-regime thugs or armed militias to repress protests or carry out more military-style attacks on opposition areas. The shabiha frequently work closely with soldiers and security forces, but the regime never acknowledges their existence, allowing it to deny responsibility for their actions.

The killings have put paid to the ceasefire which both the regime and rebel fighters had already breached. It also calls into question the future of the UN mission in Syria. Protesters and opposition groups are becoming increasingly frustrated with the the UN's failure to end the violence against them.

The Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group of armed opponents to al-Assad, says it will resume attacks on regime targets if civilians are not protected. The Homs Revolutionary Council, a grouping of activist committees which covers Homs and the Houla area, announced that it will no longer hold political meetings with UN observers, restricting contact to humanitarian matters.

This massacre is unlikely to lead to any decisive action for al-Assad or the battered Syrians than another round of condemnation and a flurry of diplomatic activity.  Syria looks as though it is descending further and faster into civil war between the various ethnic and religious groups.

The population of Syria is 74% Sunni, 12% Alawi, 10% Christian, and 3% Druze. President Bashar al-Assad belongs to Alawite minority sect, which holds a disproportionately large number of positions in the security forces and in government. The people of Houla are predominantly Sunni Muslims.

According to various sources, up to 9,100–11,000 people have been killed, primarily protesters but also including 2,470–3,500 armed combatants. The Syrian government counters that 5,700–6,400 people, including 2,000–2,500 members of the security forces, more than 800 insurgents and more than 3,000 civilians, have been killed in fighting with what they characterize as "armed terrorist groups."

The United Nations reported that over 400 children have been killed. Syria's government has dismissed this, however, characterizing the claims from UN officials as being based on false news reports that originate from opposition groups. In addition, over 600 detainees and political prisoners have died under torture. UNICEF reported that another 400 children have been arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons. What sort of a regime does this to its own children?

During its decades of rule, the Assad family developed a strong political safety net by firmly integrating the military into the regime. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, when he seized power after rising through the ranks of the Syrian armed forces, established a network of loyal Alawites by installing them in key posts. In fact, the military, ruling elite, and ruthless secret police are so intertwined that it is now impossible to separate the Assad regime from the security establishment. This means that it is unlikely that they will desert him.

Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where a professionally trained military tended to play an independent role, the regime and its loyal forces have been able to deter all but the most resolute and fearless opposition activists. In this respect, the situation in Syria is largely comparable to Saddam Hussein’s strong Sunni minority rule in Iraq. 

The American secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has called for an end to president Bashar Assad's "rule by murder," but the US appears to have little appetite for involvement in another Middle Eastern conflict, as Washington has struggled to wind down the lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The regime in Syria is still strong. They have a critical mass supporting them, especially the Sunni merchants, who see the world not doing anything in response. Syria's economic powerhouse cities -- Aleppo and Damascus -- have largely remained under government control. In addition, al-Assad has powerful regional allies in his corner: Iran, Russia, and, to an extent, China. These countries have supported Syria thus far at the UN.

"We are at a tipping point," UN envoy Kofi Annan said at a news conference in Damascus after his meeting with President al-Assad to salvage a failing ceasefire. His visit coincided with revelations about the massacre. 

Annan added: "The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division. Yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today. As I reminded the President, the international community will soon be reviewing the situation. I appealed to him for bold steps now -- not tomorrow, now -- to create momentum for the implementation of the plan."

This is all prologue to what I already asked in my opening question: What can the world do in response to the Syrian regime that seems to be responsible for the massacre of the men, women and children in Houla, as well as many other deaths since the uprising started? The options, it appears, are limited.

As UN envoy Kofi Annan began talks in Syria, activists released a picture of
     residents swarming a UN vehicle Saturday in Houla, the site of the massacre.

For the moment the world must still continue to support the UN-backed peace plan of Annan, even though the future of this plan is in doubt because of the continued violence after it was supposed to start. While there have been violations of this plan by both the regime and the opposition, the regime deserves most of the blame. It is, however, still the only game in sight.

A Libyan-style invasion is out of the question not only because of the strength of the Assad regime but also because of the reluctance of the US and many other countries to immerse themselves in yet another conflict. The public will for this is clearly lacking and, more important perhaps, the coffers of many nations are empty.

The coffers of the Syrian government too are almost empty. The war is costing the regime about a billion dollars a month, with only six billion left in the kitty. These reserves are being quickly depleted, but Iran is sending considerable financial support through Lebanese banks to prop up the Syrian regime.

Western governments have long called for al-Assad's ouster. But nearly 15 months after the uprising began, opponents have been unable to formulate a plan to dislodge the family that has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. There is no easy way to make them go away any time soon.

The effort by countries including the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Bulgaria, Australia, Spain, Italy and Canada to expel the senior Syrian diplomatic officials appeared timed to underscore the extreme isolation of the Syrian government and to pressure al-Assad into honoring the terms of the UN-sponsored peace plan negotiated by Kofi Annan. This action, however, is symbolic and will accomplish little.

Similarly, sanctions have not proven very successful. As in other countries, the poor are often affected more than the elite who are the targets of these sanctions.

The Russians may be able to exert some influence, but even they will not find it easy to get al-Assad and his followers to leave in a deal similar to the one brokered in Yemen.  The members of the regime all have blood on their hands and they will sink or swim together. They realize very well that they and their families will be killed if they do not demonstrate solidarity. If that requires terrorism, so be it. They have little to lose by perpetuating the violence against their own people.

The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner has repeatedly accused al-Assad's regime of carrying out crimes against humanity, but this does not deter them in the least. They will do whatever is necessary in order to stay in power. The alternative, to leave the scene, is a fate that is too terrible to even contemplate. 

What can people of good faith, whether Christian, Muslim, or whatever, do in the face of the crisis in Syria? The answer is clear, even though it may seem meaningless to those with a secular world view: pray for a peaceful resolution to this crisis. But that is not all that can and must be done, diplomacy is also needed.

War is not the answer, as I have argued many already times in this blog. But how do we stop the Syrian regime from killing its own people, especially the children? Diplomacy should be given a further chance. Maybe Russia will be able to devise a way to allow al-Assad and his followers to leave the scene gracefully and with their lives. The Russians and the Iranians, because of their support of Syria, are probably the only ones who may be able to resolve this crisis diplomatically.

The crimes of the Syrian regime are truly enormous, but sometimes human courts are unable to provide true justice. Their are many other examples that I could provide of where justice has been left to be decided in a divine court. The world's immediate concern should be to end this bloodshed and prevent further massacres from happening. The blood of the children who were massacred in Houla is crying out to the world: please do something to end this conflict and stop this needless loss of life.

As I stated last time, my intention with this blog is not to provide all the answers -- I can't do that -- and I won't even try. Rather, I want to initiate further discussion of the issues that I raise. Please feel free to add your comments.

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