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Parts of Syria are convulsed by civil war, while in other areas life continues almost as normal. At the same moment as more than 30 children had their throats cut and dozens of civilians were killed by shelling in Houla in central Syria on Friday, people in Damascus were picnicking on the slopes of Mount Qassioun, overlooking the capital.
Syria yesterday denied that its forces had carried out the massacre of at least 116 people including dozens of children in Houla, claiming that the slaughter was the work of rebels.
But it did not give a detailed account of what had happened that would convincingly refute allegations by insurgents, largely supported by UN monitors, that military units and militia men loyal to the government had carried out the killings.
Sources in Damascus told me yesterday that they believed the attack had been carried out by regime forces in revenge for the killing of a government informant in the nearby Alawite village of Kabou a month earlier.
The claims and counterclaims came as shelling of neighborhoods in the central Syrian city of Hama, the rebel-held town of Rastan north of Homs, and areas of the Damascus suburbs were reported by the Local Coordination Committees and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain.
The government in Damascus yesterday appeared to be somewhat leaderless and seemed slow to take on board the impact of an outrage in which people across the world are blaming the Syrian authorities for the murder and mutilation of children. “I get the impression that there is nobody in firm control of Syrian policy and the Syrian armed forces,” said a diplomat yesterday.
The Syrian government is claiming that the massacre happened after 100 heavily armed men attacked government checkpoints around Houla early on Saturday morning and then butchered the inhabitants of Houla over a nine-hour period. Blaming “terrorists” for the massacre, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters in Damascus that “women, children and old men were shot dead. This is not the hallmark of the heroic Syrian army.”
The opposition gave a more detailed account of what happened, saying that Houla was first shelled on Thursday after street protests by villagers. This has been confirmed by UN ceasefire monitors, who later found large-caliber shell casing. Anti-government militants say that “shabibah” militia men from the Alawite community loyal to President Bashar al-Assad entered Houla and hacked or shot its people to death.
An opposition eyewitness, named by news agencies as Maysara al-Alhawi, said he saw the bodies of six children and their parents in a looted house in the town.
He told a news agency: “The children’s corpses were piled on top of each other, either with their throats cut or shot at close range.
“I helped collect more than 100 bodies in the last two days, mostly women and children. The last were six members of the al-Kurdi family. A father and his five kids. The mother is missing,” he said.
Alawite villagers in the area of Houla were said to be frightened of retaliation for the massacre and have been donating blood for the wounded, the number of which is believed to be between 300-400.
Fighting can be intense, but it is also sporadic, even in highly contested areas. Over the past week, insurgents, many of them defectors from the army, have been fighting to capture Rastan, a strategically placed town on the road running north from Homs. During the same period, militants in the small city of Douma, an opposition stronghold on the outskirts of Damascus, were involved in UN mediation over access to hospitals, the release of detainees and the restoration of services. Soldiers manning sand-bagged checkpoints surrounding Douma’s narrow streets, where shops and markets were reopening, looked bored and relaxed.
Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy, returns to Damascus in the next couple of days to attempt to give more substance to the so-called ceasefire that began on 12 April. This now looks like a critical visit, as the Houla slaughter makes Syria once again the centre of international attention and a possible target for some form of foreign intervention.
The ceasefire was only sporadically implemented from the beginning. The government has always had more interest in its successful implementation, which would stabilize its authority, than the insurgents, who need to keep the pot of rebellion boiling. The UN monitoring team says that during the ceasefire “the level of offensive military operations by the government significantly decreased” while there has been “an increase in militant attacks and targeted killings”. But any credit the Syrian government might be hoping for in showing restraint will disappear if the latest atrocities are confirmed.
A Long War Looms
Not that anybody in Syria expects a quick solution to the crisis in which a mosaic of different interests and factions are battling to control the country. “My picture of Syrian society is that 30 per cent of people are militantly against the government, 30 per cent are for them, and 40 per cent don’t like anybody very much,” said a Christian in Damascus. A diplomat said people are much more polarized than six months ago into pro-government, anti-government and “what I term the anti-anti government, the people who dislike the regime, but equally fear the opposition”. The government has been exploiting this by targeting its non-violent opponents “so they can say it is a choice between us and guys with long beards. People want change, but they are frightened it might be for the worse”.
Conversations with liberally minded critics of the regime in Damascus reflect these differences. “If I made even the most peaceful protest I would be immediately arrested,” said one woman in frustration. “The exiled opposition leaders have not developed a serious plan to reassure the minorities [Alawites, Christians, Druze, Kurds], though they are the main supporters of the government,” added a businessman whose business is collapsing, forcing him to live off his savings.
Could the present stalemate change as a result of the death of all those people in Houla on Friday? Internationally, the atrocity, if confirmed in detail, will increase pressure for foreign support for the insurgency and tighter sanctions on Syria. Weapons from Saudi Arabia are now reportedly reaching the rebels and their degree of co-ordination in the fighting at Rastan is greater than a few months ago.
The Syrian government says its has been abiding by the ceasefire except where it comes under attack. Speaking before the Houla killings, Jihad Makdissi, the spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Affairs Ministry, said: “Since we signed the ceasefire on 12 April, we have documented 3,500 violations of it by the opposition.” But the bombardment of civilian areas, with the gory consequences at Houla showing on every television screen in the world, will confirm Syria’s status as a pariah, from which it had been starting to emerge.
Mr Makdissi said that an earlier monitoring mission by the Arab League had been “binned” by Arab leaders because it showed that the opposition was armed and on the offensive. There is no doubt that the opposition has become militarized, but this is not surprising given the repression of peaceful protest. “What Syria needs is gradual evolution, not armed confrontation,” said Mr Makdissi. “You want Syria to reform, but you impose sanctions, so there is no gas for people to cook on.”
The Syrian government has been growing stronger over the past seven weeks, because the Kofi Annan plan reduced calls for international intervention. The killings at Houla have put this in doubt and will put pressure on Annan for a more substantive ceasefire plan than the present one, which saw each side abide by it only when it was militarily convenient for them to do so.
Will the latest killings have an impact on how Syrians see the struggle for power? The indiscriminate and excessive nature of government violence over the past 14 months has alienated swathes of Syrians not naturally sympathetic to revolution. “It is not just that 10,000 people have died, but the bestial way in which they died,” said one well-off and secular woman in Damascus.
For all the criticism of the Annan peace mission and the 300 monitors from the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, they appear to be the only way of abating the violence. Even with an increased flow of weapons to the opposition, the government still has a great superiority in armed force. Indeed, this turns into political weakness because, as with the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, excessive use of heavy weaponry against civilians leads to a furious reaction at home and political isolation abroad.
A better-armed opposition will be too strong to be suppressed by the government, but the outcome is most likely to be prolonged civil war rather than a clear victory by either side. Sanctions have already wrecked the Syrian banking sector and are hurting the country, but they are not leading to economic collapse. Syrians feel it is a collective punishment on them all which causes little harm to the government. There is plenty of food because Syrian agriculture, the largest sector of the economy, is benefiting from two years of heavy rain after three years of severe drought. There is no tourism and hotels are empty, but this was never as important as in Lebanon or Egypt. The biggest blow has been the fall in oil exports as foreign oil companies cease operating here.
Both the government and the armed opposition have become stronger in the past six months and neither side sees much reason to compromise. It feels like the beginning of a long war.
The Scene in One Damascus Suburb
Soldiers guard earth barricades surrounding Douma on the outskirts of Damascus, while tough-looking militants control the streets. It is a stalemate which neither side, for the moment, is willing to break.
On seeing UN vehicles, passers-by shout anti-government slogans amid chants of “God is Great”. A boy rips open his shirt to reveal white bandages on his chest which he also tries to remove, to show what look like burns underneath. “It may look safe in the daytime, but after 7pm snipers in high buildings shoot people walking in the streets,” says a man riding a red motor scooter. “They shot two children and three young men last night.”
A crying woman, veiled and in the black robes worn by most women in this conservative Muslim district, says her son was arrested six weeks earlier and she had not seen him since.
For all their complaints of snipers, arbitrary arrests and disappearances, the crowd of a hundred people in the centre of Douma do not appear frightened that they will be attacked by government forces. About a third of the shops are open. Mobile phones do not work but somebody has collected the rubbish, unlike in the embattled city of Homs where it lies in rotting heaps. Local militants are well-organized, with disciplined young men in a sort of uniform of black shirt and trousers guarding the door of a mosque that serves as their headquarters.
“The Muslim Brotherhood has always been strong in Douma,” explains a Christian observer. An official from the mosque says: “This struggle goes back a long way.” He offers to show us the outside of a house belonging to a militant that was sealed in 1980 during the last Sunni Muslim rebellion and had never been reopened.
Inside the mosque, a team from the UN Supervision Mission in Syria(Unsmis), which has 300 monitors in the country, are seeking to mediate between local militant leaders and the government. Discussion revolves around immediate issues such as detainees, sniping, access to hospitals and the restoration of services.
Although people in Douma vocally claim the UN is doing them no good, they want more UN monitors, particularly if they can be stationed in Douma at night. Martin Griffiths, the deputy head of Unsmis, acknowledges: “Where they are present violence tends to reduce. If we had four brave [UN] observers staying overnight in Douma it would make a difference.” He adds that until there is a reduction of violence, there can be no real political dialogue.
Douma, a suburb of at least 180,000 people, shows few signs of physical damage aside from some buildings pock-marked with bullet holes. Local people complain of killings, disappearances and destructive searches, but not of buildings being destroyed. Nevertheless, perceptions of the violence within Syria are very much determined by rumor and YouTube postings by the opposition. Many people six miles away in central Damascus are convinced that Douma, which they dare not visit, has been pounded into ruins. “Maybe the government did not let you see all the city,” a politically moderate businessman says disbelievingly, but there had been no government officials with us on our visit to Douma.
The violence is much worse further north. Taxi and bus drivers will often refuse to risk the road to Aleppo, which passes through rebel-held territory around Homs and Hama. The UN confirms that this week there has been heavy fighting at Rastan on the main road north of Homs. “There are many defectors from the Syrian army fighting there,” a UN official says.
While the Syrian army is meant to withdraw heavy weapons from city centers under the terms of the Kofi Annan ceasefire agreement on 12 April, it can keep them to guard main roads.
Although some international diplomats outside Syria say Mr Annan’s ceasefire has failed, many Syrians believe the violence could get much worse. The Syrian army could launch more assaults backed by heavy armor and artillery on insurgent held areas. Reflecting this, a popular saying in Damascus is that “the Minister of Defence has not yet got out of his pyjamas”. According to a statement by Unsmis, over the past six weeks, since the Annan ceasefire, the “level of offensive military operations by government forces decreased significantly” while there has been “an increase in militant attacks and targeted killings”. A report published this week by another UN team, which has not been allowed to enter Syria, said both sides were carrying out human rights violations, but blamed the majority of them on the government.
Greater Damascus is mostly quiet, with Douma its most violent area. The capital’s five million population has been swollen by at least 400,000 refugees from Homs. Many are living in hotels and apartments previously occupied by pilgrims from Iraq and Iran visiting Shia shrines. The banking system has been paralysed by sanctions.
But the degree of economic calamity has been exaggerated, economists say. Nabil Sukkar, the managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment and a former World Bank official, says: “The economy is hurting but it is not collapsing.” He points out that the biggest sector is agriculture and rains have been good, tourism is not as important as in Egypt or Lebanon, and what has been worst affected is oil exports. Even in Douma the vegetable market is open and in Damascus there is a minor building boom as people illegally add several stories to apartment buildings on the grounds that the government is too preoccupied to enforce regulations.
Mass detentions have, however, created an atmosphere of fear in the capital, according to one diplomat. “People are more frightened than they were last November and December,” he says. “The government is stronger, but so is the armed opposition.”
UN Condemns Syria
The United Nations Security Council Sunday night condemned the Syrian government “in the strongest possible terms” for heavy-weapon attacks on the town of Houla, where 108 people, and up to 34 children, were killed on Friday.
While the carefully worded statement stopped short of blaming anyone for the “close-range attacks” that killed many of the victims, the Council condemned “the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse”.
The statement said the “outrageous use of force” against civilians violated international law and government commitments to cease violence, including the use of heavy weapons. The Syrian government denies responsibility for the massacre.
Diplomats say Britain and France had proposed issuing a press statement condemning the killings, but Russia told Council members it could not agree and wanted to be briefed first by Major-General Robert Mood, who is heading the UN observer mission in Syria. Syria is once more facing diplomatic isolation. Mr Annan is due back in Damascus today for talks aimed at rescuing his foundering peace plan, which was agreed seven weeks ago.
To survive, President Bashar al-Assad needs to avoid the international isolation which befell Libya. He also needs to prevent Syrians, and the world, from believing the fall of his regime is inevitable and they should avoid betting on a loser.
“How will Russia respond to this?” asked one foreign diplomat in Damascus yesterday. “That is the crucial question.” Russia remains Syria’s most important friend. It was Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security Council in February that relieved Syria from the danger of foreign intervention similar to that which overthrew Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
But Russia is paying a price for backing Syria, and this price will have been raised by the Houla killings. It may not want to be allied to a regime in a permanent state of crisis.
President Assad can look for longer-term support to Iran and, to a lesser extent, Iraq, both Shia powers. They see Syria as being targeted by the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Iranians have been giving some economic aid to reduce the impact of sanctions. Hezbollah in Lebanon will also be loath to see its long-term ally in Syria go down. But the Iranians, whose foreign policy is normally cautious and devious, will not want to depend on the survival of President Assad. They will look for an accommodation with any successor government, though Iran still faces a serious strategic defeat. It will be losing its one important ally in the Arab world. It will lose much of its ability to play a role as a regional power.
The Scene in Damascus
In Damascus there are small but menacing signs of abnormality. Soldiers prevent all but military and security personnel entering certain streets. Heavy goods vehicles are being stopped on the outskirts of the capital because of fear of suicide bombs.
The massacre of the children of Houla and their parents has deepened the sense of crisis here, though many Syrians are becoming inured to violence. Unlike the rest of the world, which focuses on Syria only intermittently when there is some particularly gruesome outrage, people here may be losing their sense of shock after seeing 13,000 die in the last 15 months, according to the latest estimates.
But the most frightening indication that something is wrong is the emptiness, the absence of people and vehicles in previously crowded streets. Many stay at home fixated by a crisis they largely see unfolding on television and online. In the hotel where I am staying in Damascus, I am the only guest.
The government itself often feels curiously absent, perhaps because its attention is elsewhere. Decision-making in Syria was always slow because so many decisions had to be taken at the top but now it is worse.
“I sense that lower-ranking officials do not want to take decisions themselves because they might be countermanded by harder-line officials above them,” said a diplomat. At the same time, massacres like Houla, if carried out by Alawite militia men, suggest a leadership not quite in control of its own forces.
The mood is edgy. One person, in the space of a few minutes, shifted from claiming he had total confidence in the happy future of the Syrian people to expressing grim forbodings about the possibility of civil war.
“Why do you foreigners harp on about differences between our minorities?” an anti-government human rights activist asked me in exasperation yesterday. “The French said we would fight each other when they left Syria, but nothing happened. We Syrians stick together whatever governments say about our divisions.”
A quarter of an hour later, the same man, a Christian from the city of Hama in central Syria, not far from where the Houla massacre took place, was gloomily wondering about the prospect of sectarian conflict. He explained that Houla is “on a tongue of land where the people are Sunni, but the villages around it are Alawite and Christian. I know it well because my wife comes from a village near there.” He said he was very worried that if it turned out that the Sunni villagers, including 34 children, had been murdered by militia men from neighboring Alawite villages then “I do not know what will happen”.
Damascus is deeply affected by the crisis, though this is not always visible. The banks have been cut off from the rest of the world. “All the banks in Lebanon are terrified of doing business with Syria,” said one wealthy businesswoman. “My bank manager in Beirut did not want to take a deposit I made even though the cheque was drawn on a British bank.” Many in Damascus know first-hand about the physical destruction wrought by the fighting in the centre of the country. There are some 400,000 Syrians displaced by the turmoil, mostly from Homs, who have taken refuge in the capital. Often they move into apartments previously occupied by Iraqi refugees who have returned home, some claiming that for them, Baghdad is now safer than Damascus.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.