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Massacre Prompts Move Toward Regime Change

U.S. seeks Russian support as civil war takes on sectarian dimensions

Marc Tracy
May 29, 2012
U.N. monitors view bodies in Houla.(AFP/Shaam News Network)
U.N. monitors view bodies in Houla.(AFP/Shaam News Network)

It is a sick, sad fact that drastic changes to a failed policy usually don’t come about until after an especially egregious example of that policy’s failure occurs. Financial regulatory reforms aren’t instituted until after frauds and crashes (and that’s if we’re lucky!); mass political will isn’t created for investing in alternative sources of energy until after everyone begins to notice the weirdly warm winters. And, too often, it takes a massacre for people to realize what may have long seemed inevitable: that outside powers are going to have to intervene more forcefully in a regime’s largely internal suppression of revolt. The good news is that it looks like Syria has finally had its massacre—its defining, horrific, point-of-no-return catastrophe that will prompt stronger Western support for the rebels. The bad news, of course, is that over the weekend the Syrian people sustained a massacre.

It’s become known as the Houla Massacre, for the village in central Syria that was shelled by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad starting Friday, after post-prayer protests. The United Nations pegged the civilian death toll at 116, and more than 30 children under the age of 10 were killed (and I’ve seen reports that put that figure closer to 50). Many of them were in a row and had bullet holes in their temples. In other words, men lined children up and shot them point blank, probably based on their ethnic/religious background. We’ve seen this movie a few times before (and if you’d like a refresher and have the stomach for it, click here).

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and special envoy Kofi Annan called it an “appalling and brutal crime involving indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force,” and “a flagrant violation of international law and of the commitments of the Syrian government to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers.” The White House deemed it “a vile testament to an illegitimate regime that responds to peaceful political protest with unspeakable and inhuman brutality.” Even Israeli officials like Prime Minister Netanyahu, who frequently stay in the background, condemned the Houla Massacre.

But while the cited “regime” or “government” is in a broad sense responsible, and has itself killed thousands of civilians during the 15-month uprising—and has even been directly blamed by the U.N. Security Council for what happened in Houla—there is some evidence that these murders were committed by locals … which may be even more troubling. (The regime denied complicity.) Houla is a Sunni town in an Alawite neighborhood—the Alawites being the Shiite sect to which the Assad family belongs, but who make up only about 15 to 20 percent of the Syrian population. As long as the events in Syria were, and were seen as, an uprising of an oppressed populace against a brutal dictator, it was relatively easy to plot out an endgame. But if the thing turns sectarian—with the minority Alawites and other Shiites racing to the regime’s side, and with Shiite Iran intervening further (it has confirmed it has sent troops to aid Assad); with the majority Sunnis seeking vengeance; and with Christians caught in the middle—then things get much dicier. Indeed, as regional expert Andrew J. Tabler noted to the New York Times, it is the Assad regime’s minority character that keeps its supporters in-line, and makes it difficult to decide who or what should replace it. Seasoned regional correspondent Patrick Cockburn reports that Damascus itself is paralyzed by the fear that the civil war will take on further religious dimensions. Notably, Hezbollah, which has lost much prestige in the Arab world for refusing to completely come down against Assad (which is a chief patron of the Lebanese Shiite group), did condemn the massacre—but did not assign blame.

A Syrian opposition figure would not pledge a change in Syria’s policy toward Israel, noting to Haaretz that the two countries are at war, but did say that a priority upon taking over would be to control the regime’s chemical weapons.

So what next? There is much talk of the “Yemen model”—oppressive leader of Arab country is ousted by threats from outside, but power is handed to a member of the ousted leader’s regime, who assumes a transitional role. And the most important thing to know about the Yemen model is that it is also known as “the Yemenskii Variant,” because that’s how crucial Russia is to it being adopted. Russia looks askance whenever the West topples dictators, and is additionally unhappy by the prospect of a situation like Libya, in which said dictator was killed, or Egypt, in which said dictator is being prosecuted and is literally caged in. Judging by this important piece, the Obama administration believes that it can get Russian buy-in to support Assad’s ouster if Russia is assured that it can still retain influence in a country with a Russian naval base and Russian energy ties, and with a regime that is Russia’s biggest Arab ally. Speaking as much to Russia’s Vladimir Putin as to the reporter, an administration official said, “Look, we recognize that Russia wants to have a continued influence in Syria. Our interest is in stabilizing the situation, not eliminating Russian influence.”

But it is easy to argue that Russia is not even amenable to that—although it (and China) signed onto the Security Council statement, its deputy U.N. ambassador suggested that the Houla Massacre was the grisly work of an unidentified “third force” that is seeking to undermine U.N. peacekeeping efforts. And because it’s an election year, the Yemenskii Variant—suddenly the nomenclature seems relevant—is becoming a White House liability. Sen. John McCain, the last Republican nominee and a foreign affairs expert, said yesterday that the administration’s plan to rely on Russia was not only delusional but evidence of “a feckless foreign policy which abandons American leadership.” (He proposed arming the opposition.) And the current likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, hit Obama for ostensibly still signing onto the grim joke that is the Arab League-U.N. peace plan, which theoretically depends on the savvy and moral force of Kofi Annan, who as U.N. secretary-general stood by while the Rwanda genocide happened.

The defense would be that the administration is clearly well past the Annan peace plan—that’s the whole point of going back to the Russians. But the rebuttal to that would be that anyone could have seen something like the Houla Massacre coming many, many months ago, and that going through the motions—wavering on whether to call for the end of the Assad regime; signing onto things like the Annan plan—gave the regime and it supporters more time to kill more civilians: not just the several dozen in Houla, but the 13,000 men, women, and children since the beginning of the uprising.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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