Will Houla be al-Assad’s My Lai? Artillery Massacre of Children in Syria

Syria’s military bombarded the town of Houla in Homs province on Saturday, killing 90 persons, including dozens of children, according to opposition sources.

The Baath regime in Syria has survived despite 14 months of popular rallies, demonstrations and revolts because at least half of Syrians, especially in the big cities such as Aleppo and the capital, Damascus, have been more afraid of a Muslim fundamentalist takeover than of a continued one-party dictatorship.

The harsh crackdowns of the security forces on peaceful civilian rallies and the deployment of snipers against them has changed some minds, and the government attacks on protesting university students in Aleppo recently provoked significant demonstrations in that city.

The Baath military typically only deploys artillery against city quarters dominated by defectors and armed men of the Syrian Free Army, and my guess is that they were attempting to retake Houla from the SFA. Artillery barrages allow them to avoid taking high casualties in hard hand to hand fighting in narrow city alleyways.

But artillery is a blunt weapon, and if it hits apartment buildings full of non-combatants, it can cause a massacre. Seems to me that bombarding an inhabited city quarter is almost always a war crime, since civilian casualties are eminently foreseeable.

The outcome in Houla is so horrific that it may turn the stomachs of the remaining Syrians who are on the fence, and produce a new backlash against the regime. The revolution in Syria is a contest of wills between the regime on the one hand, and on the other the revolutionaries (who have a civil and a military wing that seldom agree). The revolutionaries have remained steadfast in the face of massive brutality, for over a year. Their will seems strong. The regime seems to be popular in fewer and fewer places. The will of all but its devoted cadres is being shaken.

The inner core of the Baath Party is incapable of feeling remorse or taking responsibility. But it depends on the support or at least acquiescence of millions of ordinary people, who will likely be touched by Houla. Just as the US public began turning against the Vietnam War because of events like the My Lai massacre, so Houla could be a turning point.

Aljazeera English has video (warning, it is graphic and disturbing).

The Syrian Free Army then took UN observers to Houla to see the carnage (again this video is disturbing):

Likewise, Houla could have an impact at the UN Security Council. It seems increasingly clear that the Kofi Annan plan of filling the country with UN observers to encourage adherence to a cease fire is a dead letter. The question at the UN has to be, “what next?”

Those who ridicule the idea of an international responsibility to protect as a mere stalking horse of neo-imperialism will please have the decency at least to denounce the Baath regime for this bloodbath.

34 Responses

  1. The bloodbath is a bad, nay, a terrible thing.

    The consequences of intervention are guaranteed to be worse. See neighboring Iraq.

    Intervention by liberals with UN cover is just as bad as intervention by soi-disant conservatives.

    The Syrian régime killed 10,000, they say. Many more killed in Iraq, and four million displaced. And no strategic gain for the US.

    • Actually, the comparison to Iraq is silly. No one is urging a foreign military occupation of Syria, to my knowledge.

      The question is whether something could be done about those artillery barrages on civilians that did not involve an occupation.

      You guys said the same thing about Libya, where it now seems that NATO killed less that 100 civilians.

      • I couldn’t agree more Juan. I am an American who has been supporting the revolution in Syria since almost the beginning and find comparisons to Iraq and Libya like comparing apples to eggplants. I have never supported the idea of an all out invasion of Syria but having an all or nothing attitude towards the brutal and arrogant actions of the Assad regime and its supporters is to simply make excuses for turning our backs on the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians, many of whom have been children. I am a peace loving pacifist hippie girl but lately i can barely disguise my disgust with the world at large for its unwillingness to defend and protect the brave Syrian people whom I have come to love, respect, and admire like no others.

      • And the $1- or maybe $15-trillion-a-year question is, what, out of all the devices and demonics of all the hardware, software, wetware, Tupperware and networked battlespacery that the military-industrialists have bought, with our money and blood, what set of the tools of the World of Warcraft are going to be able to answer the Call of Duty and have a prayer of bringing a halt to the present murder? Gonna Send In the Flying Clones?

        And out of all those tools and toys, which ones have a prayer of keeping another Assadhole from Assuming Power and accumulating, out of the huge weapons bazaar that our very own US government works so Assiduously to keep flooding the planet with every imaginable kind of threat-creating and threat-answering-by-creating-more-threats weapons, the very weapons (and a whole lot more, stealthier and sneakier and more lethal) like the ones sold by Russians and so many others in that huge sick competition for “Mayhem Market Share,” to his uniformed, uninformed “services,” who, just like ours, are “protecting the national government from threats and enemies, foreign and domestic?”

        What’s the way out of the circular firing squad we seem to be all-anxiously-in-line to stand up and take our places in?

        The Horror! The Horror! But what is the set of deployments and battlespace managements that will stop the Horror without catalyzing a lot worse? What’s the end-game? And given the uniform history of failure of The Brass to do any different than the previous multifarious failures, I would not suggest leaving it up to them to pick and choose, given their obvious interest in keeping the Game that they love and live off of going apace…

  2. Funny how everybody who is talking against the US intervention and wars in Vietnam, Korea, and now M.E., more specifically Syria, is failing to see the Russian influence in the hot zones and that the main cause for the Arab Spring is that the presence of US troops in the M.E. stopped at some extend the heavy shipping of the Russian weaponry towards M.E. and Africa. War World II did not end, after all.

  3. I do not think the My Lai incident turned the American public against the Vietnam War. American opinion went against the war when they witnessed the Tet Offensive in their living rooms via the national news outlets in January/February of 1968.

    I always figured it ironic that Americans have been oblivious to the massive scale human rights violations in Syria going back decades.

    More were killed by Syrian armed forces in the massacre at Hama in the 1980s than died in either the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982 or during 9/11 in NYC but almost no Americans have ever even heard of the incident outside the diplomatic and academic communities in the U.S. That massacre was in response to the Muslim Brotherhood killing members of Assad’s security services.

    The world media has done a poor job of reporting on and emphasizing the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Assad regime. Without consistent reporting by media giants there will be insufficient outrage aroused to spur the U.N. and its constituent members to action in intervening in Syria.

    So far Senator John McCain has been the most vocal member of Congress supporting giving aid to the rebels. However, the Obama administration, dealing with economic problems and being embroiled in conflicts in Afghanistan and Libya recently, is understanably reluctant to plunge into another civil disorder.

    • Not too ironic.

      If you think that more than 1 American in 100 could tell you what happened at Sabra and Shatila, you are wildly optimistic.

  4. I totally agree, This latest Massacre of the Assad regime atrocities is by all mean the most hideous and shocking.. may be because we are, just, able to watch images, videos about it.
    The Syrian regime, is a well organized mafia, locally, regionally with allies from Russia and China. I hope there is easier way than intervention to oust him, but apparently with the aids from Iran, Iraq, Hezalllah, Russia… the intervention is a must

  5. In re “all bombings being war crimes” — w/ which I heartily concur — I highly, highly recommend Sven Lindqvist’s book _A History of Bombing_. It’s a pleasure and a bombardment of revelations. As well as formally exciting: it’s written in little numbered pieces which can be read in different orders. And that totally works.

  6. To be fair, the huge outrage this has generated seems in large part an effect of the tiny UN observer force, which, by confirming and vouching for it, gained it a much huger audience.

  7. how many cilivans would a salafite regime kill in syria, syria is no libya it is a multi religious country and a sizeable majority will not accept a salafite takeover, syria is no qatar or “saudi” arabia. While the nato bombs will “kill less than 100″ the salafite hords will kill many more.

    Anyway if the NATO powers were convinced that there were no flow on effects from a bombing campaign, no wider regional implications, no counter strikes on Israel and no possibility of a regional war they would have bombed syria yesterday and before day before that.

    • syria is no libya it is a multi religious country and a sizeable majority will not accept a salafite takeover

      Indeed. So why should I be worried about a “salafite regime?” As you say, there is no chance of it happening.

      Anyway if the NATO powers were convinced that there were no flow on effects from a bombing campaign, no wider regional implications, no counter strikes on Israel and no possibility of a regional war they would have bombed syria yesterday and before day before that.

      Yes, and? Was it supposed to make NATO look worse to note that they are hesitant to intervene because the consequences might be dire?

  8. looks like a new bunch of claims to inspire a new nato war

    who knows who did the firing?, if we have learned anything about the syria/libya stuff is that people know how lie to stir up a war.

    see

    link to counterpunch.org

  9. The massacre is awful.

    But R2P is indeed a stalking horse for imperialism. There is no important difference between R2P and “regime change.” They both mean that rich powerful countries attack poorer weaker countries (because of course the R2P’ers never have any stomach to oppose people who could shoot back at them).

    The world has seen quite enough of rich powerful nations deciding to doodle over the history books of the people who live in poorer weaker countries.

    Juan, the Libyan situation has been messier than you like to admit. There have been nasty executions and ethnic cleansings after the fall of the Qaddafi gov’t, as well as a spillover effect to the Sahel. It’s true that the NATO attacks targeted heavy weapons, but so what? NATO’s allies on the ground spilled plenty of innocent blood, and their victory, as we all know, was unlikely without foreign air support. Maybe the NATO apologists are comfortable to retain some plausible deniability, but their ongoing self-congratulation is a bit thick, especially as they appear keen to keep trying their luck elsewhere.

    Hands off Syria.

    • Wow, so you don’t feel bad at all about all the genocides we didn’t intervene against? I still feel bad about them, even though I don’t know what we should have done to stop them. I think it would have been just if foreign powers had gone to war against our forefathers for what they were doing to the Native Americans. But they didn’t, and other white men subsequently did the same in the colonial world with impunity, and then whites began doing it to other whites, and the Zionists took notes for Palestine. Economic sanctions don’t seem to stop someone who believes that his economic problems can be permanently solved by eliminating a hostile people.

      Just don’t come crawling back here five years from now whining that Western failure to intervene against some genocide you actually give a damn about is an imperialist scheme to depopluate the 3rd World.

  10. You know Juan this isn´t comparable to Libya where I was absolutely pro-intervention.
    I´m still appalled and shocked. Even more so when I remember how a Syrian guide once shared his personal memories of the Homas attacks by Assad senior with us. It was a story like this one, of utterly disturbed and intimidated civilians arriving at the home of their Damascus relative´s in the middle of the night with nothing more than the clothes on, glad to have escaped alive. That was more than 30 years ago, and the insult of the government keeping everything under wraps added gravely to the injury of the killing and the shelling. Syria hasn´t forgotten Homs No.1, both sides haven´t. While it´s unwise to go for revenge, it´s pure insolence for the regime to think they´ll get away with it again.
    There we meet Qaddafi again: He thought, too, “what the hell, I´ve done that before” (and nothing happened).

    I wished we could do something. We definitely have to try at this point. Remembering the Spanish and the Yugoslavian civil war once more I just pray that the people concerned won´t let the atrocities committed guide they reaction… someone always profits from escalation of hate and brutality, and that someone is never the tormented

  11. I made two cities into one: it was Hama they flattened in 1981. Still don´t mind, they´re not too far apart of different.

  12. If this is a civil war, then why intervene? Oh yea Assad is close to Iran & Russia . “Won’t somebody please think of the children” is bullshit, children die during war, i don’t see the NATO forces being told to leave Afghanistan. American atrocities are accepted, When done by ppl we don’t like, they are “universally” condemned (by universal I mean NATO & friends)

  13. 1. If the regime is removed there will be an ethnic bloodbath. The intervention will lead to the destruction of another ancient Christian community, not to speak of the Alawites. Even if the US doesn’t send in the Airborne as in Iraq, the bloody result will be the same.

    2. We have not much of an idea who the disunited opposition is. It seems some kind of Islamist dictatorship is the likely result. Will we like that better than the Assads?

    3. “Human rights” has been a bloody fraud since the French Revolution. It is a selective excuse for ill-conceived and bloody interventions. I spit on your “human rights.”

    4. I question whether an effective civil society is possible in any country where cousin marriage and strong extended family loyalty predominates. A “democracy” of purple thumbs and ritualized elections, without a strong civil society and the rule of law.

    5. The masses crave strength.

    6. There is no benefit for the United States to be had from any form of intervention.

    Conclusion: We should stay completely out. There’s nothing in it for us, and our intervention will harm, not help, the Syrians.

  14. i am from huola where the massacre took place.
    acutely, 114 people has been killed and dozens wounded.

  15. Intervention would require a massive shift in this country away from SUV’s and other energy extravagances, and the power that oil money gives to Russia and Saudia Arabia, and to have the moral courage to oppose Israel.

    Both actions would undermine the Assad story line about defending Syria against her enemies, but both actions would require moral courage which we in the US lack.

    • A proxy war between Russia and Iran on one side and the Arab monarchies on the other. What a sickening nightmare, and a tribute to the evils of oil.

  16. The root of an episode of uncontrolled organised killing by hand (ala Mai Lai) is at heart of human nature, it is the animal in us writ in blood. It comes from a desperation and deep sense of hurt. To kill a person that you dont know but yet ‘hate’ because of a mixture of circumstance, lifestyle, fear, chemicals, education (both erudition and political) comes from a nexus that the human animal can only respond to with detachment, because our rational mind cannot process everything going on all at one time. What element determines the ‘idiom’ of the event? ‘Emotion’ in Mai Lai, ‘Gods work’ in the crusades when crusaders ate the flesh of ‘hellbound’ children, ‘Purity’ in 1944/45 etc etc from disaster to disaster. Shelling from far away is not the same as Mai Lai, but its on the road to a Mai Lai. Shelling will do nothing. Assad has moved himself beyond a political solution. He should save his family and offer terms to his foe’s and he may yet live to see his children safe in a neutral country with some hope of a future. The alternative has been written hundreds of times in hundreds of nations, ‘Sic semper tyrannis’. The only uncertainty is time. One thing Syria has none of is oil, so the West will do nothing, it is an important transit for oil but not vital, Europe is getting its oil and gas from Russia/Iran, US from Saudi (Iraq in the future), Syria is a sideshow. Israel must however be nervous to think of the rise of radical Islam at the root of the ‘revolution’. This is afterall pitting minority (Assad) Sunni’s against majority (pro – Iran) Shiites just like in Bahrain, but the US has positioned itself poorly so it cannot just ignore the violence against civilians in Syria like it has in the old Trucial State where Mai Lai’s may have already happened, but no western journalists care to go and find out.

  17. 1. The footage I saw showed the bodies slaughtered with knives, there must have been a bloodbath carried by soldiers/militias, other than the bombing.

    2. the NATO and US had a big lesson from Libya, spent hundreds of millions on supporting the revolution. Nevertheless, the revolution ended with bringing Islamists with huge public support. They don’t wanna lose again. Throughout 14 months of passiveness regarding brutality of Bashar’s regime, They’ve made a clear message to the Syrian people, your revolution is D.I.Y.

  18. Truly disgusting and savage. Then again, why should any of this shock us? Am assuming that you all have been paying attention to a regime whose brutality was perfected by Assad pere starting in the early 1970s. The regime and a fair chunk of the population supporting it are now indelibly corrupt. Sorry to say but the Alawites will reap what they sow. A reckoning is coming and it will be horribly bloody.

    Ain’t the mideast just grand?

  19. The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, and of enforcing human rights norms in general, raises some very difficult questions for liberals and leftists. It pits some of our most treasured values against each other, and requires us to do the difficult work of figuring out, and under what circumstances, different values outweigh each other.

    So difficult, in fact, that large numbers of liberals and leftists have decided to respond to the conundrum by defining it out of existence, imposing more familiar, easier narratives onto the question instead of dealing with it as it actually exists.

    I’m stunned that nobody has googled Syrian’s largest export, and written a “No War for ______________!” comment yet. That’s usually what happens.

    • Too bad the reactionaries and “rightists” define out of existence any other kind of approach to security and stability than spending a quarter and more of the world’s wealth on war toys and mayhem, incapable of applying anything other than some kind of Big F___in’ Hammer to every situation, because that involves the exercise of Big Power, and presents the opportunity to keep the idiotic dead-end sameness of Great Game “policy” going.

      And now the shameless try to shame people with consciences into buying into more military BigHammerism, because no one has a clue how to derail, or at least switch off the Main Line, the Dead End Express they have us all riding on.

      Tell us, please, what combination of doctrines, drones, bombs, bullets, boots and bushwah will properly effectuate the “Duty to Protect,” which mostly gets invoked as a way to suck the rest of us into another gay, mad whirl. Seriously. Duty to Protect? Exactly how do “we” protect the people of Houla, or My Lai, or how many other atrocity-places? If “we” are so smart and rich and powerful, how do we keep the kinds of societies and militaries and kleptocracies that perform them (when it’s not OUR troops occasionally doing the deed) from rising to power? But that ain’t what it’s all about, is it?

      Good thing cognitive dissonance is not a painful disability.

      Sure looks to me like the “treasured values” that some people used to associate with “America” are nothing but disrespected, to the Nth degree, by them there Neocons and grim-jawed “patriots,” who do all these “wars of choice” and are too stupid to even manage to achieve their goals and ends. Or maybe they do — chaos, violence, destruction…

  20. the syrian regime play the games that the algerian regime played successfully in 1990`s.

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