Dozens of children butchered in Syria massacre
UN observers have confirmed horrifying reports from the town of Houla, which came under attack from Syrian government forces on Friday. This is the conflict’s worst confirmed atrocity so far.
When the first reports of a massacre emerged on the internet on Friday evening, many in the West thought they had to be exaggerations, if not outright lies.
But UN investigators have now visited the Syrian town of Houla. They confirm: the town, of just 38,000 inhabitants, has become the victim of the worst war crime so far in Syria’s long civil war.
Videos and photographs circulating online have sickened even hardened war reporters and government officials. They show the bodies of young children, covered in blood, piled in a heap on a hard concrete floor. Some were killed by artillery fire, which struck the town after inhabitants held anti-regime demonstrations on Friday.
Others, even more disturbingly, had been killed at closer quarters. Opposition activists say the killings were the work of an unofficial government militia, called ‘ghosts’, or shabiha. In order to ‘send a message’ to the rebels, they are reported to have gone from house to house, finding women and children, then stabbing, shooting or beating them to death.
The international community has reacted with horror. The US has repeated calls for Syria’s President Assad to step down, ending his ‘rule by murder.’ France, Germany, Britain and the Arab League are also calling for a robust international response. UK foreign secretary William Hague has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.
So far, the UN has restricted itself to sending in observers. This is part of the so-called ‘Annan Plan’, devised by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The plan called for a ceasefire (which officially began in April) and for the opening of negotiations between the Assad regime and the rebel Free Syrian Army (the FSA).
Both sides accepted the plan in theory, but in practice, violence has continued more or less uninterrupted. Now, following this massacre, even the pretence of a ceasefire is likely to be abandoned. An FSA statement released to Al Jazeera summed up the mood: ‘We announce that unless the UN Security Council takes urgent steps for the protection of civilians, Annan's plan is going to go to hell.’
Time for action?
The head of the UN observers in Syria, General Robert Mood, continued to call for both sides to lay down their weapons. He and many others believe that peaceful negotiations must take place, to resolve the Syrian conflict without further bloodshed.
But the weight of opinion, both in Syria and around the world, is likely to swing the other way. The UN ‘ceasefire’, activists say, just gives Assad more time to slaughter his people. The Houla massacre proves that the time for words is over, and the time for action has begun.
- Does the international community have a) the right and b) the responsibility to intervene in the Syrian conflict?
- A protester in Syria over the weekend held a sign saying ‘Annan is singlehandedly responsible for the Houla massacre.’ How much truth, if any, is there in that statement?
- Write a letter you could send to the parents of one of the Houla victims. What would you want to say?
- As a class, try to think of three cases where the international community did, or did not, intervene in a foreign conflict. What lessons can be learned today?
Some People Say...
“No conflict in the world can be solved through force.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What happened in Houla is horrible – but is there anything I can do about it?
- It is not at all clear what anyone can do about this. More international pressure on President Assad might help, but so far he has responded to criticism with defiance and violent repression. The chances of military intervention remain very very low. Anyway, toppling Assad might not mean an end to Syria’s bloodshed.
- Why’s that?
- Assad has successfully exploited Syria’s religious and ethnic diversity to cling onto power. He has painted the rebels as al Qaeda terrorists, and Syrian minorities like Christians, Druze and Alawites fear they will be oppressed if the rebels take over. That makes them support the regime, which in turn increases bad feeling among the rebels. It is a self fulfilling prophecy that could lead to great violence.
- Civil war
- Syria has been suffering from unrest for 14 months, ever since government soldiers opened fire on peaceful protesters who had been inspired to call for political reform by the successful ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
- Houla is a town near the city of Homs, a centre of opposition to Assad. Resistance in rebel areas of Homs was crushed earlier this year by sustained shelling of civilian areas, which claimed hundreds of lives.
- UN Security Council
- So far, the UN’s highest body has refused to come to any agreement on action in Syria. Resolutions that would have sternly condemned Assad (and which might, eventually, have led the way to military action) were vetoed by Russia and China. Both countries have permanent seats on the Security Council.
- Free Syrian Army
- The Free Syrian Army represents the armed opposition to Assad. It is mainly made up of defectors from the official Syrian Army. FSA soldiers are lightly armed, and unable to meet Assad’s forces in open battle.