With reports of a new mass killing emerging from Syria, the United Nations Human Rights Council today blamed “pro-regime elements” and government troops for “crimes against humanity” in the Houla massacre of more than 100 civilians.
The 47-nation body approved by 41 votes to 3 a resolution calling for an “international, transparent, independent and prompt investigation” into the killing. Russia, China and Cuba voted against.
Twelve factory workers were killed Thursday by pro-government shabbiha militia, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
With the prospect of sectarian civil war growing by the day, opposition activists are expressing hope that a strike to protest the Houla massacre by Damascus-based merchants, a bastion of support for the regime, indicates a fracturing of its support base.
“The West must now recognize that the regime has reached a point of no return, that resolutions are worthless and that the only future for Syria is without the Assad political dynasty,” says veteran dissident Haitham Maleh.
The Syrian opposition is calling for a no-fly zone similar to those imposed on Iraq and Libya, he writes in the New York Times.
“The no-fly zone would keep the government from bombing civilians indiscriminately,” says Maleh, a human rights lawyer, a former judge and a leader of the Syrian opposition. “It would also help the opposition build a democratic political platform, because its leaders would be able to travel and speak with civilians without fear of being killed by government forces.”
The latest atrocities increase the likelihood of sectarian civil war and place greater pressure on the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.
“What we see now in Syria is systemic failure — it’s brutal, it’s now an insurgency — but in the end it’s just systemic failure,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If the Christian population and those that support it want a long-term future in the region, they’re going to have to accept that hitching their wagon to this brutal killing machine doesn’t have a long-term future.”
Opponents of international intervention cite the risk of intensifying sectarian violence and empowering radical Islamist factions, but those dynamics are already under way, an exiled dissident warns.
“Increased death and suffering with an end-game in sight is something most Syrians would accept at this stage, because by now the only choice we have is to get to the other side no matter how high the cost will be,” writes Ammar Abdulhamid of Syria Revolution Digest and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“It’s the combination of death and abandonment that fuels extremism and kills hope.”
Merchants closed their shops in Old Damascus this week in an apparent protest over the Houla massacre.
“These strikes represent a major blow to the now-defunct regime, which had been counting on the masses to maintain their silence,” said a statement by the Local Coordination Committees.”But the train of history is on its way. And this train must stop at the station in central Damascus -– a station that may represent the beginning of the end.”
“With the regime basically relinquishing control over some rural areas, it’s easier to send in the shabbiha than it is to send in the regular army,” said Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. “They are a better tool for retribution – and you are going to see them operating in the country a lot more.”
Given rein to attack a civilian population and an opposition Free Syrian Army that is itself a loosely-linked confection of localised militarised groups, many observers see the likelihood of more and greater shabbiha atrocities such as the one in Houla.
“You are creating a monster here,” said Randa Slim, a researcher at the New America Foundation, a US-based think-tank. “We have a Frankenstein in the making.”
The latest massacre is part of a trend in which the regime has deliberately targeted vulnerable towns to “teach the entire country a lesson,” said Ausama Monajed (above), a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council.
“It is beyond humanity what we have seen,” he told the BBC.
Opposition to international intervention in Syria is partly motivated by concern that the opposition is dominated by Islamist fundamentalists, with some observers highlighting the Muslim Brotherhood’s dominant role in the SNC.
“But a confidential survey of opposition activists living in Syria reveals that Islamists are only a minority. Domestic opponents of Assad, the survey indicates, look to Turkey as a model for Syrian governance—and even widely admire the United States,” the Wall Street Journal reports:
Only about one-third expressed a favorable opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood. Almost half voiced a negative view, and the remainder were neutral. On this question, no significant differences emerged across regions.
While many respondents supported religious values in public life, only a small fraction strongly favored Shariah law, clerical influence in government, or heavy emphasis on Islamic education. A large majority (73%) said it was “important for the new Syrian government to protect the rights of Christians.” Only 20% said that religious leaders have a great influence on their political views.
Just 5% had even a mildly positive view of Saudi Arabia as a political model. In contrast, 82% gave Turkey a favorable rating as both a political and economic model (including over 40% extremely favorable). The U.S. earned 69% favorable ratings as a political model, with France, Germany and Britain close behind. Tunisia rated only 37% and Egypt 22%.
Iran was rated lowest of any country included in the survey, including Russia and China: Not even 2% of respondents had positive views of Iran as a political model. Fully 90% expressed an unfavorable view of Hezbollah, including 78% with the most negative possible attitude.
“The survey demonstrates that the core of the Syrian opposition inside the country is not made up of the Muslim Brotherhood or other fundamentalist forces, and certainly not of al Qaeda or other jihadi organizations,” writes David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a consultant to Pechter Polls.
“To be sure, a revolution started by secularists could pave the way for Islamists to win elections, as has occurred in Egypt,” he notes. “But the Syrian opposition is solidly favorable to the U.S. and overwhelmingly negative toward both Hezbollah and Iran.”
The Obama administration this week announced new sanctions on the Syria International Islamic Bank as a senior White House official said the U.S. plans to economically disable the Baathist regime in Damascus.
“We are strangling the regime economically,” said White House deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough.
“Our objective is straightforward: Starve the regime of the resources it requires to pay the army, and deprive Assad’s cronies of the money they need to buy the shabiha’s brutal conspiracy.”
Addressing the Brookings Institution forum in Doha, Qatar, he highlighted the recent “stunning” admission from Iran that its forces were engaged in supporting Assad, noting that Tehran had tried to backtrack and “cover up” the news.
“The Assad clique will end up, ultimately, in the dustbin of history and the people of Syria will have the chance to determine their own destiny,” he predicted
“When that happens, it will also be the most profound strategic setback that Syria’s closest ally, Iran, has faced in decades. That is surely why Iran has provided material support and advice to the regime in brutalizing the Syrian people.”
Yet despite the growing number of atrocities, human rights groups are reluctant to demand international intervention.
“No human rights organization wants to criticize the administration for failing to do something we haven’t yet asked them to do,” said Tom Malinowski, the head of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. “We see more complexity and risk in Syria because of the sectarian dimension and the weakness of the opposition.”
Nevertheless, “complexity can’t be an argument for paralysis,” he said.
Getting serious on Syria: Can we close the Assad era without opening a can of worms?
Monday, June 18, 2012 | 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
As the Syrian uprising approaches its sixteenth month, any remaining hope that Assad will end the bloodshed has evaporated. Neither international condemnation nor the dispatching of United Nations monitors has reduced violence in the country. Moreover, Russia and Iran continue to arm the regime.
While U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared that the “Assad regime’s brutality against its own people must and will end,” neither she nor the White House has outlined a strategy to meet that goal. While the Obama administration invoked a “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine to justify military action in Libya, it has pointedly refused to do so in Syria.
Do any options short of military force remain to end bloodshed in Syria? Is the Syrian opposition ready to govern, or would Assad’s fall unleash a sectarian and ethnic civil war? What would regime change in Syria mean for Iran, Lebanon, Israel and the U.S.? Join a panel of seasoned Syria experts as they debate these issues and more.
12:45 PM Registration 1:00 PM Panelists: Ammar Abdulhamid, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies; Brian Fishman, New America Foundation; Lee Smith, The Weekly Standard; Andrew Tabler, Washington Institute for Near East Policy.