In a hastily convened UN General Assembly meeting following a massacre of dozens of unarmed civilians in Syria yesterday, Special Envoy Kofi Annan all but admitted that his six-point plan to bring peace to Syria has been a dismal failure.
In a speech filled with condemnation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Annan said that, while he appealed to the Syrian leader directly a week ago to restrain his armed forces and the irregular shabiha militias working with them, the pace of the slaughter has only increased. He said the militias in particular appear to have been given "free rein" by the government.
On Friday, 108 civilians were massacred in a group of villages known as Houla in Homs Province. First, government forces shelled the area and then, according to the UN, shabiha moved in with guns and knives. Among the slaughtered were 49 children. Early accounts out of Mazraat al-Qubair, near the city of Hama, from yesterday, suggest a similar series of events unfolded there yesterday. The UN says 78 people were murdered there, though has not been able to independently confirm events. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said unarmed UN observers came under rifle fire when they attempted to visit the area.
The international moral outrage over Syria's war has reached a boiling point, but what is to be done about it, if anything, is still being worked out. Mr. Annan spoke of the need to maintain international unity on Syria and said that "the international community now must take that unity to a new level." Is that a call for military action? Perhaps. He also said "it is ... our collective responsibility to act quickly, the process can't be open-ended. The longer we wait the more radicalized and polarized the situation will become."
With the regime upping the ante with the two major massacres of civilians in a week, any hope of cooling the situation with talk in the short term has evaporated. The sectarian nature of the splits within Syria, with the minority Alawite sect that Assad belongs to rallying around him, and the country's majority Sunni Arab population in an uproar, makes a negotiated settlement even less likely. While government forces have hoped that major doses of terror like those delivered in Mazraat al-Qubair and Houla would shock the uprising into acquiescence, more likely is that they've set in motion a cycle of revenge that will feed Syria's civil war for some time to come.
Fact is, there isn't international unity over Syria. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated her demand today that "Assad must transfer power and depart Syria," but the US position, until now at least, has been that it wouldn't consider military action without UN Security Council authorization. And Russia and China, which both wield vetoes on the council, continue to staunchly oppose international action. In a joint statement yesterday, Russia and China insisted they are "decisively against attempts to regulate the Syrian crisis with outside military intervention" and also said they oppose efforts to remove Mr. Assad from power.
Annan said in his speech today that "as we demand compliance with international law and the six point plan it must be made clear that there are consequences if compliance is not forthcoming." But, what consequences? And even if additional sanctions could be agreed upon, would they be more frightening to Assad and his supporters than the loss of power and position? Muammar Qaddafi of Libya was summarily executed by his former subjects when he lost his war to hold on to power. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who went far more peacefully and quietly, was just sentenced to spending the rest of his life in jail, with two of his sons also facing long jail terms. Assad is surely looking at the fates of his regional fears and betting that fighting, and winning, is in his own best interests.
For now, his efforts to win that war are bloody and vicious. The UN High Commission for Human Rights says the use of torture has been wide spread in government detention centers. The children of wanted rebels are rounded up to generate leverage to convince their parents to surrender. Some of those children have been subjected to "sexual violence" while in custody, the UN says. In Homs, a stronghold of support for the uprising, government snipers man rooftops, and indiscriminantly shot people when they venture out of their homes for supplies. Heavy artillery and rocket fire continues to pound densely populated areas.
A farmer who survived the slaughter at Mazraat al-Qubair by hiding in an olive grove, told Reuters of how the area was pounded with artillery, then mixed units of regular Army and shabiha moved in. He watched them enter three houses, heard gunshots, then they emerged and set the homes on fire. He returned home to find nothing but charred bodies, most from a large Sunni Arab family in the area.
Mazraat al-Qubair is about 10 miles from Hama, which Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, turned into a killing ground in 1982. The city was a center of support for an Islamist uprising against the country's Baath regime, and the elder Assad put it down after he moved tanks and infantry into the city and killed everything that moved. Human rights groups estimate that at least 10,000 people were killed in that slaughter.
Now the ghosts of Hama are being joined by a new generation of victims. Thirty years ago the international community did not intervene, and the Assad regime survived and has thrived in the decades since. The younger Assad is now running his father's playbook, and seems unlikely to shift course in the face of condemnation or scolding from podiums at the UN.