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Is Assad Losing Control?

Sorting Out the Houla Massacre

by PETER LEE

Juan Cole jumped the gun a bit by attributing the hundred-plus deaths in the Syrian town of Houla to a Syrian Army artillery assault.

In a perverse way, a massacre by the Syrian military would have been almost a stabilizing phenomenon.

It would have placed the bad-guy hat firmly and irrevocably on the heads of the Syrian armed forces.

It would also have served as an affirmation that the Assad regime is in complete command of the security forces and responsible for the atrocities committed against Syrian civilians.

And it would have given Dr. Cole added ammunition to argue for a new humanitarian intervention in Syria against the convenient and vulnerable target of the Assad regime, one that might banish the embarrassing memory of the last intervention he promoted: the fiasco in Libya.

Instead, the Syrian conflict appears to be spiraling out of control, with Syrian army military commanders either turning a blind eye to, condoning, or supporting the activities of local death squads.

The picture, murky as it is, of the atrocity at Houla is of a fierce battle between government and insurrectionary forces in Houla, followed perhaps by a tactical withdrawal by the rebels.  Then some combination of soldiers and pro-government irregulars moved in for a massacre that might have been local score-settling for the assassination of a pro-government informer in a nearby village, a horrific warning to Syrian soldiers who defect (Houla was reportedly a refuge for many defectors and their families), or a brutal escalation in COIN-style terror.

In any case, the people who perpetrated the atrocity apparently knew who they were looking for, if a persuasive account in the Guardian is accurate:

“They came in armoured vehicles and there were some tanks,” said the boy. “They shot five bullets through the door of our house. They said they wanted Aref and Shawki, my father and my brother. They then asked about my uncle, Abu Haidar. They also knew his name.”

From the point of view of the Assad regime, credible accusations that its military, security personnel, and irregulars are operating death squads shred its rather threadbare claim to the role of protector of Syria’s citizens against terrorists.

As Patrick Cockburn points out in a lengthy piece in CounterPunch, the Annan peace process was something of a lifeline for Assad. The regime has demonstrated considerable more forbearance than the rebels, who would prefer to see the peace process collapse, and had little to gain and much to lose from the carnival of massacre in Houla.

From the point of view of Assad’s patrons in Russia and China, Houla hints that Assad is losing control of the military and security apparatus, casting severe doubts on his abilities to manage a political transition for Syria.

Reporting from Damascus, Cockburn wrote:

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.

Therefore, Russia and China have both been prompt to call for an investigation of the massacre at Houla.

Possible but unlikely outcomes are that Houla turns out to have been some hideous false flag operation, or some local freelance murder spree.

If, on the other hand, evidence shows that the official security and military apparatus, presumably at a local or regional level, orchestrated the operation, I expect that Beijing and Moscow will be very interested to see if Assad can enforce accountability and demonstrate, to the satisfaction of Russia and the PRC if not the international community, that he can punish and reassign the commanders and security chiefs responsible for dealing the Annan plan so conspicuous a setback.

If Assad can’t do it, it is possible that Russia, which is reportedly impatient for a change at the top in Syria, will probably find somebody who can.

It does not appear that Russia or China (or, for that matter, Iran) are interested in backing proxies in a sectarian civil war in Syria.  They will support the Annan plan and the political process as long as they see a chance for a successor regime to claim, even in some diminished way, the mantle of Syrian national legitimacy.

If the government becomes irrevocably identified with death squads as well as the well-known brutality of its military and security apparatus, Beijing and Moscow will probably throw in their losing hand.

Peter Lee edits China Hand. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org