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Terrorism & Security

US: Syria plotting more massacres, but intervening would make it worse

At a State Department briefing yesterday, a reporter asked why the US would not intervene if it knew massacres were likely to occur. The response: 'Do you have a specific proposal in mind?'

By Staff writer / June 12, 2012

This video image taken from amateur video and broadcast by Bambuser/Homslive shows a series of devastating explosions rocking the central Syrian city of Homs, Syria, Monday, June 11. Live streaming video caught the devastation during one of the heaviest examples of violence since the uprisings began over a year ago.

Bambuser/Homslive via AP video/AP


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Middle East Editor

Ariel Zirulnick is the Monitor's Middle East editor, overseeing regional coverage both for and the weekly magazine. She is also a contributor to the international desk's terrorism and security blog. 

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As the United Nations sounds the alarm about Syrian government forces using new tactics, the US is warning of impending massacres in several towns across the country.

The United Nations said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has in the last week begun using helicopter gunships to fire on towns from the air. It also voiced concerns about reports of government troops using children as human shields.

The New York Times reports that the turn to helicopters might be partially driven by the loss of tanks and other ground vehicles in clashes with rebel forces, who have been making territorial gains, seemingly driven by an influx of more sophisticated weapons and funds. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 25 government tanks have been destroyed since May 29 alone.

Syrian Army defections are also on the rise. The Los Angeles Times reports, citing an opposition member, writes that an entire base in the former garrison town of Rastan defected this week.

In a US State Department briefing yesterday, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described the helicopter development as a "very serious escalation." She also said that UN monitors report that the regime looks to be organizing another massacre in Al Haffa, while bombardments of Deir al-Zour, Deraa, Homs, Hama, and the Damascus suburbs continue. The regime has blocked UN monitors from those areas, making it difficult to confirm who is behind the violence in those towns (previous massacres have been blamed on unofficial pro-government militia), she said.

The UN envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, has expressed concern that there are large numbers of civilians trapped in those areas. If a massacre does happen in any of those spots, it would be the fifth in three weeks, according to the Associated Press.

While Syrian commanders may be able to act with impunity now, given the relatively small number of UN monitors on the ground, Ms. Nuland warned that they should heed the lessons of Bosnia. "The international community can and does learn what units were responsible for crimes against humanity, and you will be held responsible for your actions," she said.

Nuland made clear at yesterday's press briefing that the US has no plan for stopping the massacres, or intervening in Syria, despite its increasingly strident warnings or the threat of mass killing of civilians. That contrasts sharply with Libya, where the threat of massive civilian casualties prompted international intervention.

Nuland defended the US position by saying that foreign military intervention "may actually cause a greater explosion of violence," and that the best course of action was to bring to light the abuses of the Syrian regime. But she faced strong pushback from reporters who cited international regret after the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

QUESTION: I mean, I thought after Rwanda, it was “Never again,” ... I just don’t understand why it is that if you’re – if you know or have evidence that there’s about to be a massacre of potentially thousands of people, no one’s going to do anything to stop it except for ... to tell Assad not to do it.

MS. NULAND: Again, this is why we have the monitors there, so that they can play the role that they are --

QUESTION: See these people be killed?

MS. NULAND: -- designed to play to be able to get in there and stop this kind of thing from happening. But in the context of a regime that is refusing to meet its own commitments, that is refusing to cooperate even on the most basic level with what it has agreed to, we are, at this point, doing what we can to make it clear that this is an absolutely brutal, continued assault on individuals.

QUESTION: But you’ve just gotten up and said that there’s going to be a massacre someplace and no one’s going to do anything to stop it except for flail their arms and go running to Assad to tell him not to it when he hasn’t listened or done anything that you’ve told him or asked him to do for the last 15 months.

MS. NULAND: Do you have a specific proposal in mind?

Pressed further about US opposition to intervention, Nuland reiterated concerns about fueling the war in Syria.

"The concern has been that putting foreign military forces into this situation, which is on the verge, as everybody has said, of becoming a civil war, will turn it into a proxy war. … There is a concern, obviously, that you could have some states supporting one side, other states supporting another side. Our goal here is to stop the violence, not to increase the military activity inside Syria. The goal is to stop the violence," she said.


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