Pretext to intervene

Published : Jun 29, 2012 00:00 IST

President Bashar Al-Assad addresses the Syrian Parliament in Damascus on June 3.-REUTERS/SANA

President Bashar Al-Assad addresses the Syrian Parliament in Damascus on June 3.-REUTERS/SANA

The massacre in Houla is seen as another reason for the U.S. to act militarily against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

The horrible massacre in Houla, a cluster of villages situated in a rural area of central Syria on May 25, has elicited a barrage of demands from the West and some Arab countries that the government led by Bashar al-Assad be removed by force. Around 100 people, including women and children, were reported killed in Houla.

Initial reports in the international media concluded that all those killed were victims of shelling by a Syrian army unit stationed near by. These reports were clearly based on information provided by rebel sources. The BBC had, in fact, aired pictures of mutilated children, claiming that they were the latest atrocities committed by Assad's security services. The BBC had to retract its story after it was pointed out that the footage was of an incident in Iraq.

Russ Baker, the noted American media commentator and former contributing editor to Columbia Journalism Review, wrote that the media need to be more cautious while reporting from Syria. He said: If news organisations don't start adopting a higher standard for their reports, another Libyan style intervention, complete with massive bombing and untold civilian casualties, may be inevitable. If news coming out of Syria is to be believed, it would seem that the entire country is in flames. As a matter of fact, there are only a few pockets of resistance. At the same time, the armed groups have shown that they are capable of staging terror attacks in cities like Damascus and Aleppo. But despite the uncertainties, people carry on with their daily routines.

The Houla attack has made Syria once again the centre of international attention. The West is trying to replicate the strategy it used successfully in 1999 to break up Yugoslavia and last year in Libya. In Kosovo and Libya, Western-trained-and-financed proxies staged grave provocations against the state. When the governments responded, their actions were described as genocide and the United Nations Security Council was bamboozled into authorising intervention. The NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) war on Yugoslavia and later Libya are only illustrations. Syria is the ultimate prize. If Syria falls, the Hizbollah and Iran will be isolated and open to a frontal attack. The entire resource-rich region will once again be the playground of the West.

President Assad, in an emotional speech delivered on June 3, said recent events showed conclusively that the country was engaged in a real war with outside forces. He said the masks had fallen and the international role in the Syrian events is now obvious. While admitting that terrorism has undermined us all, he said it was a war waged from outside and dealing with a war is different from dealing with the grievances of Syrian citizens.

The Syrian President bemoaned that terrorism was the response he got for the political reforms he had initiated. He blamed armed groups for the horrific killings in Houla. What happened in Houla and elsewhere are brutal massacres which even monsters would not have carried out, he said in his speech. Assad emphasised that terrorism has to be fought for the country to heal. He added: A battle was forced on us, and the result is this bloodshed we are seeing.

Members of the U.N. observers' mission have reportedly said that some of the killings in Houla are the handiwork of pro-government militias. With the crisis in Syria fast assuming the contours of a civil war, there have been rising instances of mindless killings, linked to ethnicity and sect, by both sides in the conflict. Shia pilgrims from other countries have been targeted by the Syrian opposition. Recently, the Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah issued an ultimatum to the Syrian jehadi groups fighting the government to release Lebanese Shia pilgrims they have been holding hostage.

The bloody strife in Syria has already spilled over to Lebanon; in the town of Tripoli fighting broke out again on sectarian lines in early June and left many people dead. Travel between Syrian cities has become dangerous with militias, some owing allegiance to the government, setting up checkpoints near their strongholds. The U.N. and Arab League special envoy on Syria, Kofi Annan, told an Arab League meet in Doha that the country was slipping into a civil war with an alarming sectarian dimension.

A few days after the Houla incident, 13 bodies with their hands tied and bearing bullet wounds were found near the rebel stronghold of Deir Ezzor. Plenty of arms, including anti-tank weaponry, much of it bought with Saudi and Qatari funding, are now in the hands of the rebels. Many of the rebels have been trained in Turkey. The government there allows the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other armed opposition groups to operate freely from its territory. A recent article in The Washington Post reported that the Barack Obama administration in the United States was coordinating the supply of weapons paid for by the Gulf monarchies.

The bulk of the 300 U.N. observers under the Kofi Annan plan have already been deployed inside Syria. Immediately after the first U.N. peacekeepers landed in Syria, there was a spurt in violent incidents, including two suicide bombings in Damascus on May 10, which claimed 55 lives. The next day a suicide attack against a government building was thwarted in Aleppo, Syria's second biggest city.

Al Qaeda hand

An Al Qaeda affiliated front, Al Nusra (Victory), claimed responsibility for the bombings and said that Sunni Muslims needed protection from Alawites, who will be made to pay a price. Al Nasra had also claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing in Damascus in March, which killed 27 persons. In Afghanistan and Yemen, Al Qaeda is an enemy of the West. In Libya and Syria, Al Qaeda is aligned with groups supported by Washington. The Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the most influential opposition group inside Syria. It has reassured the West that it will not push for an Islamic state and has distanced itself from the jehadists. But the party, which is financed heavily by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, is not opposed to a NATO intervention to topple the Syrian government.

The main opposition groups insist that the government has a hand in orchestrating even suicide bombings. It was obvious that opposition fighters were responsible for most of the terror attacks against government installations and the targeted killings of senior officials in the last 14 months. The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have been killed in the past one year. Syrian officials say a significant number of the casualties belong to their security forces.

The last thing the Syrian government would have wanted at this juncture was carnage on the scale that occurred in Houla. That massacre, the Syrian government feels, was done to derail the Annan Peace Plan, which called for a ceasefire by both government forces and rebels. The Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in late May that since the signing of the ceasefire agreement, there had been 3,500 violations by the opposition. After the Houla incident, the FSA and other opposition groups were quick to pronounce the Annan Peace Plan dead and demand that the U.N. withdraw its team of observers forthwith. The U.S. and most of the European Union nations were not happy with the Annan Plan. Even before the U.N. peacekeepers were on the ground in Syria, the West imposed more draconian sanctions on Syria, where the common man was already facing the brunt of sanctions already in place. After the Annan Peace Plan was announced, Washington and its allies pledged millions of dollars for the FSA to buy arms, pay salaries and finance defections from the Syrian army.

An initial official report of the judicial committee set up by the Syrian government to probe the Houla massacre concluded that all the victims belonged to peaceful families that had opposed the armed groups. The initial findings confirmed that the victims were killed by sharp tools and firing from close range. Brigadier General Qassem Jamal Suleiman, who conducted the probe, said the investigation committee depended on testimonies of eyewitnesses. He said the area where the massacre occurred was under the control of two armed groups and that the security forces had not entered the area either before or after the massacre. Gen. Suleiman added that killing children does not serve the law enforcement members or the state, but serves the armed terrorist groups which incite sedition.

Following the Houla incident, several Western countries and Turkey were quick to expel the remaining Syrian diplomats and call for air strikes against Syria. The White House spokesman said the military option against Syria was very much on the table. The newly elected President of France, Francois Hollande, said on national television that he could not rule out military intervention in Syria.

The 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council met in Geneva at the end of May and voted overwhelmingly to condemn the outrageous use of force against the civilian population in Houla. The resolution blamed pro-regime elements and government troops for the massacre. Only Russia, China and Cuba voted against the resolution sponsored by the U.S. and the Arab League. Uganda and Ecuador abstained. India once again joined the West in supporting a resolution against Syria.

Russian diplomats in Geneva dismissed the resolution as unbalanced and blamed the militant groups fighting the Syrian government for the violence. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the Houla massacre was a well-planned attempt to thwart a political solution and lead the situation in Syria to a new cycle of gory violence.

Vladimir Putin, on his first official visit abroad after assuming office as President, told the German and French leadership that Russia remained opposed to any outside interference to bring about regime change in Syria. He emphasised that a political solution to solve the crisis was possible. It requires a certain professionalism and patience, he told the media in Germany. He said Russia wanted to ensure that civil war did not break out in Syria. Germany, unlike France, has adopted a more cautious approach. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said there was no question of a military option in Syria. Germany, he said, wanted to avoid a wildfire in the region.

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