The fresh Baath massacre of non-combatants, in Qubair on Wednesday, is being assiduously covered up by the government of dictator Bashar al-Assad, who is preventing UN observers from visiting the scene of the crime.
Observers trying to reach it have even been shot at.
Under the almost defunct Kofi Annan plan, the whole point of the observers was to ensure that a cease-fire between the Baath army and the Free Syrian Army held. But not only has it broken down on both sides, but the desperate regime in Damascus has ratcheted up its response to being challenged by its civilians, launching a new series of attacks involving mass casualties among non-combatants. When civilians are killed in the course of a military operation aimed at gunmen, they are collateral damage. But when they are systematically targeted, that is a crime against humanity. Obviously, the perpetrators don’t want UN eyes on the scene.
Why is the Syrian Baath Party committing crimes against humanity? Because it has not succeeded in putting down the 14-month-old rebellion against one-party dictatorship by other means. They began by putting snipers on buildings above city squares and just shooting 10 demonstrators in each population center every day. The point was to raise the cost of protesting, to make people wonder if this would be their last demonstration. When the brave protesters nevertheless insisted on continuing to come out, and when the regime lost control of some city quarters to armed defectors from its own military, the regime actually sent in tanks and artillery to pound the rebellious quarters (as with Baba Amr in Homs), despite the inevitable loss of civilian life.
But that use of armor against city quarters did not succeed in quelling the rebellion, either. So the regime has gone to the next step. It is using shabiha death squads to simply kill the unarmed protesters, including women and children, and giving the death squads cover with artillery and tanks.
The death squad technique is typically the death rattle of a regime. When it deploys this tactic, the government is in real trouble. It is not a new phenomenon. The right wing El Salvador junta of the 1980s used Escuadróns de la Muerte or death squads in an attempt to destroy its opposition.
The political cost of the death squad technique can be high. It can spread dissatisfaction with the state rather than quelling it. One of the constituencies for the Baath regime’s reign of way too much law and order was the Sunni shopkeepers and merchants of the capital. But many of them have been on strike, their shops shuttered, for over a week, to protest the Houla massacre. Now Qubair will only intensify this opposition.
Likewise, al-Assad is making it easier for his Western critics to ratchet up sanctions on Syria. Inflation is running at over 30%, and the country’s currency reserves are being run down. On Wednesday, some 55 Western and Arab nations pledged to increase sanctions on the regime.
The Syrian Baath Party’s international isolation is increasing, with a UN General Assembly session condemning it today, and the Qatari president of the GA talking of the possibility of expelling Syria from that body.
Sometimes as a matter of sheer political practicality, the death squad tactic ‘works’ domestically in putting down a revolt. One thinks of Francisco Franco in Spain. But often it backfires and fans the flames of rebellion. And, the damage to regime credibility makes it a pariah.