Time and again, the Syrian regime has shocked the world. But those hoping the international community would be spurred into action have been just as frequently disappointed.
- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
The Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters and armed rebels has produced a seemingly endless stream of grim and grisly days, with more than 9,000 civilians perishing in the violence since March 2011, according to U.N. estimates. Yet some incidents have garnered more international attention than others, either due to the scale of the bloodshed or the savagery of the attack.
The slaughter of more than 100 people on Friday in Houla, a series of villages near the Syrian city of Homs, is proving to be one of these incidents. The U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned the killings, U.N. envoy Kofi Annan hurriedly organized a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an effort to salvage his peace plan, and governments around the world expelled Syrian ambassadors and diplomats. Der Spiegel is calling the massacre “Syria’s My Lai,” while Reuters has described it as “an atrocity that shook world opinion out of growing indifference.” But a look at the incidents that have played this role most prominently during the 14-month-old uprising suggests that the outrage will fade away once the headlines do.
MURDER OF HAMZA AL-KHATIB
Last May, gruesome images of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib’s mutilated body stunned the international community. Here’s how the New York Times described the footage at the time:
Video posted online shows his battered, purple face. His skin is scrawled with cuts, gashes, deep burns and bullet wounds that would probably have injured but not killed. His jaw and kneecaps are shattered, according to an unidentified narrator, and his penis chopped off.
“These are the reforms of the treacherous Bashar,” the narrator says. “Where are human rights? Where are the international criminal tribunals?”
Human rights activists claimed that the boy had been arrested at a protest in southern Syria, tortured to death, and handed over to his family in return for their silence. Syria’s state-run media, for its part, contended that Hamza died from gunshot wounds during an attack by armed groups on Syrian forces, and that Bashar al-Assad met with the boy’s family to express his condolences as soon as authorities were able to identify the corpse.
Hamza’s death inspired a popular Facebook page and mass anti-government demonstrations across Syria. “Arab revolutions — and associated social and international media — seem to thrive on icons,” the BBC‘s Jim Muir wrote at the time, “and the Syrian revolt appears to have found one.”
MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images
As Ramadan approached last July, activists wondered whether the Muslim holy month would breathe new life into their movement, since people would have an easier time organizing protests while gathering in mosques for evening prayers after each day’s fast. But on the eve of Ramadan, the Syrian military stormed Hama, which had become a protest hub as soon as government forces withdrew from the area in late June (the flashpoint city had previously been the scene of a chilling massacre in 1982 under Bashar al-Assad’s father). Activists feverishly uploaded videos of the violence, which left as many as 300 people dead in six days, according to opposition activists.
In response, U.S. President Barack Obama and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued their strongest critiques of the Assad regime yet, and regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia turned heads by sharply escalating their criticism. Turkish President Abdullah Gul called the bloodshed “unacceptable” while Saudi King Abdullah urged Damascus to “stop the killing machine” and recalled his ambassador to Syria. Nevertheless, a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violence never got off the ground.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
ASSAULT ON JABAL AL-ZAWIYA
In December 2011, as Arab League officials prepared to travel to Syria to monitor a peace plan, activists reported that Syrian forces had surrounded villagers in a valley in the northern Jabal al-Zawiya region of Idlib province, killing more than 100 people with an onslaught of rockets, tank shells, and bombs in an effort to root out army defectors — particularly ahead of the Arab League mission. Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called the attack “an organized massacre” and the “bloodiest day of the Syrian revolution” up to that point, while the Syrian government did not comment on the claims.
In the aftermath of the assault, the opposition Syrian National Council called for the U.N. Security Council and Arab League to hold emergency meetings and develop plans to protect Syrian civilians. But the incident mainly elicited tough words from Western leaders and the Arab League peace initiative ultimately failed.
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova/AFP/Getty Images
ASSAULT ON BABA AMR
In early February, Syrian forces began a month-long siege of the Baba Amr district of Homs that eventually forced the rebel Free Syrian Army to withdraw from its stronghold. As photos and video attest, the relentless bombardment reduced the neighborhood to rubble. While there has not been an overall estimate of the death toll in Baba Amr, Reuters noted at the time that residents who fled to Lebanon spoke of “a martyr if not more” in every house and “the smell of decomposed bodies, sewage, and destruction” hanging in the air. The American reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were among those who died in the shelling.
While China and Russia blocked aggressive action against Syria at the U.N. Security Council, they did join other world powers in demanding that U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos be granted access to Baba Amr. When Syrian officials eventually acquiesced, Amos was devastated by what she saw. “That part of Homs is completely destroyed,” she explained, “and I am concerned to know what has happened to the people who live in that part of the city.”
On May 25, 2012, 108 people — including 49 children and 34 women — were murdered in Houla, according to the United Nations, with entire families gunned down in their homes and most of the victims summarily executed. The Syrian regime blamed the violence in the largely Sunni area, which the Syrian military had been shelling in possible retaliation for a rebel assault on an Alawite village, on “armed terrorist groups,” while witnesses and survivors told U.N. investigators that pro-government militias were responsible for the bloodshed. A couple days later, opposition activists reported a bloody government assault on nearby Hama.
Repeated violations of Kofi Annan’s peace plan had made a mockery of the ceasefire for some time before the slaughter in Houla. But the news threw the international community’s failure to resolve the crisis in Syria into sharp relief. The U.N. Security Council condemned the Syrian government’s use of heavy weapons in Houla in a rare display of solidarity, though the non-binding statement did not assign blame for the executions and Russia, which has long vetoed more robust Security Council action on Syria, later argued that Syrian rebels — and perhaps a mysterious “third force” — were partly to blame for the massacre. Still, the New York Times claims that the Security Council’s move armed Annan with a “new mandate” for his peace plan as he met with Assad in Damascus, and the coordinated decision by Western countries to expel Syrian diplomats has left the Assad regime more isolated than ever before.
To be sure, the Syrian government isn’t the only party that has been accused of atrocities. Last June, for example, the Syrian authorities blamed armed gangs for killing more than 120 security forces in the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour, though opposition activists denied the allegations. And U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggested earlier this month that al Qaeda militants orchestrated twin suicide car bombings in Damascus that killed 55 people.
But beyond the confusion about who is behind the atrocities is the question of whether these high-profile massacres have meaningfully altered the trajectory of the Syrian conflict. Even in the wake of the Houla killings, there’s little appetite among world powers for military intervention, and engineering a Yemen-style transfer of power in Syria at this juncture could be incredibly difficult. As Reuters noted on Tuesday, Russia does not appear to see Houla as a “game-changer” when it comes to supporting tougher action against Syria at the Security Council.
When this week’s frenzied but largely symbolic diplomatic activity subsides, in other words, the international community may be no closer to devising a solution to the intractable crisis in Syria than it was before this weekend’s horrific violence.