Houla Massacre a Game Changer in Syria

Remaining Assad allies become uneasy.

Details are emerging from Houla township in Syria about the horrific massacre that killed at least 108 innocent civilians and the finger of responsibility is pointing directly at the Assad regime.

Among the dead: 49 children and 34 women. The worldwide expressions of outrage at the massacre may be the impetus for further UN sanctions, as well as increasing the likelihood that Western nations will begin supplying the Syrian rebels with more sophisticated and deadly armaments. This, along with the increased effectiveness of the Free Syrian Army, could lead to a full scale civil war that could easily spread to neighboring Lebanon and other countries, or devolve into a religious war, which would dramatically worsen the humanitarian crisis now afflicting much of the country.

Eyewitness accounts from several sources indicate that the killing spree was conducted by the feared Alawite militia fanatically loyal to President Bashar Assad, the shabbiha. Filtering in from Alawite villages near Houla, the shabbiha attacks were conducted door to door, and were apparently planned and systematically carried out. To maximize the terror, children as young as five years old were either shot or hacked to death in the presence of their parents.

On Sunday, the UN Security Council unanimously condemned the attack -- a potential turning point for the international community as both Russia and China voted along with the rest of the Council to condemn the Syrian government. The significance of this vote cannot be lost on Damascus. Russia and China have blocked every single previous attempt by the UN to condemn or sanction the Assad regime for its brutal crackdown. It is clear that the massacre has caused the two permanent members of the Security Council to begin a reassessment of their unflinching support for Assad in the face of more than 9,000 dead civilians since the revolt began.

And despite the extreme reluctance of Western nations -- including the United States -- to speak of military intervention, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told Fox News on Monday that more atrocities like Houla could trigger "intervention" by the military.

In a statement, French President Francois Hollande said, "The murderous folly of the Damascus regime represents a threat for regional security and its leaders will have to answer for their acts." But Russia, while voting with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn Assad's government for the massacre, believes that "both sides" are responsible for the massacre. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "Both sides have obviously had a hand in the deaths of innocent people, including several dozen women and children. This area is controlled by the rebels, but it is also surrounded by the government troops."

Accounts from several eyewitnesses belie that statement. The attack began after Friday afternoon prayers in Taldou, a village outside of Houla, when several thousand protestors were fired upon by Assad's troops. Activists on the ground say that 5 demonstrators were killed by the indiscriminate fire. In response to that attack, elements of the Free Syrian Army hit army checkpoints in Taldou. Assad's forces responded by firing tank shells and mortars directly into a Sunni Muslim area of the town. Activists say about 15 civilians died in the barrage.

But the bloodletting began in earnest with the arrival of several dozen shabbiha militia. The militia has made a name for itself by conducting violent sweeps through suspected rebel areas, arresting most of the male population while looting houses and torturing prisoners. They are also known to stand behind army units and kill any soldier who refuses to fire at unarmed civilians.

This time, they came for blood.

An 11-year-old boy describes the attack on his family:

"My mum yelled at them," said the boy. "She asked: 'What do you want from my husband and son?' A bald man with a beard shot her with a machine gun from the neck down. Then they killed my sister, Rasha, with the same gun. She was five years old. Then they shot my brother Nader in the head and in the back. I saw his soul leave his body in front of me.

After looting the house of "three televisions and a computer," the militiamen caught up with the young man's father, brother and uncle. They shot them as they were fleeing out of the door of the house. The boy escaped by smearing his brothers blood on his face and playing dead until the shabbiha left.

As for the identity of the murderers, the boy had no doubt; "Why are you asking me who they were? I know who they were. We all know it. They were the regime army and people who fight with them. That is true."

An elderly woman told Human Rights Watch that armed men burst through her door. As she hid in the attic, her family was gunned down:

“After three minutes, I heard all my family members screaming and yelling. The children, all aged between 10 and 14, were crying. I went down on the floor and tried to crawl so I could see what was happening."

“As I approached the door, I heard several gunshots. I was so terrified I couldn’t stand on my legs. I heard the soldiers leaving. I looked outside the room and saw all of my family members shot. They were shot in their bodies and their head.”

According to Reuters, some of the victims were hacked to death and stabbed.

Col. Qasim Saad Eddine, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, said what everyone has known to be true for weeks: Kofi Annan's peace plan is dead. "This is a clear evidence that Kofi Annan's plan is dead and a clear indication that Bashar Assad and his criminal gang do not understand anything but the language of force and violence," he said on Saturday.

But Annan, still denying reality, is set to meet with President Assad on Tuesday to try and revive his plan. Since the agreement calls for both sides to lay down their arms, and with the FSA refusing to do so, it doesn't appear likely that anything will come of Annan's efforts.

Annan said when he arrived on Monday, "I have come to Syria at a critical moment in this crisis. I am personally shocked and horrified by the tragic incident in Houla. This message of peace is ... for everyone, for every individual with a gun," he added.

It is doubtful that anyone on either side is listening anymore.

Nor is anyone paying attention to the nearly 300 UN monitors who are spread thinly across several provinces and cities, able to do little more than act as silent witnesses to the slaughter. With the apparent unleashing of the shabbiha, President Assad feels himself in a strong enough position that he can carry out his brutal crackdown without fear of retribution from anyone -- something that Asher Kaufman, associate professor of history and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, believes indicates that an "asymmetric civil war" is already underway. "As long as al-Assad continues to receive regional and international support, his regime will be able to stay in power and have the upper hand in this civil war," Kaufman writes. He adds, "Al-Assad's regime still enjoys a cohesive leadership and is in full control of its military. Its objectives are also clear -- surviving politically and personally and maintaining control over the country." He contrasts the Syrian government's unity with the disorganized and fractured opposition, which has been ineffective in uniting behind a clear agenda, or even agree on who is leading the revolt.

Meanwhile, the US is edging toward military intervention, albeit under carefully defined conditions. JCS Chairman Dempsey told Fox News, "You'll always find military leaders to be somewhat cautious about the use of force, because we're never entirely sure what comes out on the other side." "But that said, it may come to a point with Syria because of the atrocities."

And Assad now finds himself in a quandary. He may not be able to suppress the revolt without resorting to more Houlas. But if he does, he is likely to lose his international backing by China and Russia as well as risk intervention by Western militiaries.

Since the massacre on Friday, violence has erupted across the country. From Idlib, to Dera'a, to Hama, to Damascus, violent clashes broke out between the FSA and the Syrian army with the military also battling protestors. At least 30 more were killed when the Syrian army bombarded Sunni neighborhoods in Hama on Sunday. Another 36 died on Saturday. Whether this is an "asymmetric" civil war or not, Syrians are killing each other at an accelerated rate.

With the UN virtually powerless, Western nations reluctant to get involved, Gulf states continuing to supply the FSA, and President Assad apparently determined to take his country to hell to save his regime, the danger of a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions is starting to be realized. One senses that the situation is going to come to a head soon. If it does, it is likely to mean more blood, not less, that will be shed by the innocents before some semblance of peace is restored and the agony is ended.

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