The Houla Massacre, When Enough is Enough

(di Richard Spencer, The Telegraph). All wars unleash their demons. Srebenica, Halabja, My Lai, and now, Houla: they seem unbelievable at the time, but when the truth is extracted from the fog, it is often worse than imagined.

At some point, witnesses – which in the digital age means all of us – have to force into our heads the idea that a recognisable human being decided to unpin the grenade, or swing the machine gun turret, or wield the knife.

How did it get there, the mentality that could apply the blade to the throats of children seized at random, as they apparently were in Houla on Friday?

To understand this is to understand the trajectory of civil war, and in this case the tactics of the Assad regime.

Barring some alternative explanation, and none has yet been forthcoming even from the convoluted justifications of Syrian state media, what appears to be happening in the towns and villages around Homs is this: regime forces fight the Free Syrian Army, and then the Shabiha or “Ghost” militias impose terrible consequences on the civilian population.

The militias are Alawite, the minority Muslim sect that holds power in Syria; the opposition in this mixed-sect area is Sunni; and there is a frenzy with a reason to these attacks, of which there have been half a dozen on varying scales in recent weeks.

The gangs involved in them believe it is victory, or nothing. The regime’s consistent message is that the revolutionaries wish to impose a Sunni dominance that will leave no place for the Alawites. From outside, this is easy to deconstruct; inside Syria, the discourse runs wide and deep.

Earlier this month in Damascus I listened to cosmopolitan people I liked and trusted tell me that agents of Gulf countries had laced the food of demonstrators with drugs, driving them out of their minds. It had not occurred to them that the television reports which told them this were lies, drawn from the Arab Spring boilerplate, and they seemed shocked when I mentioned that Col Gaddafi’s henchmen had told me exactly the same of his Libyan opponents a year ago.

If well-educated professionals can be so naive, how much easier must it be to manipulate the mindset of those drawn into the lower reaches of the paramilitary groups which, defectors have told me, are used specifically to allow the trained brigades to remain ignorant of what is done in their name.

There is a disconnect, as many point out, between Damascus and the provinces, but in fact the disconnect in Syria is the same as that in many Arab Spring countries. This is the rift between an increasingly sophisticated centre of society, and a remnant who have been left behind, many in the more thuggish branches of the security forces, who perhaps rightly feel that in any new order there will be even less of a place for them.

The Alawites, the sect to which the Assads belong, were historically the underdogs of Syrian society – which is why the French used them to fill their colonial army, a small bit of explanatory history. They have been told before to fight for their future by any means necessary, and are now being told to again.

It is a cunning tactic, because it is self-fulfilling – by doing so, they excite a rabid response, and the violence becomes cyclical.

The regime works on the assumption that the messier this becomes, the lower the chances of intervention to stop it.

It believes it can work round the UN observers and that the western powers, bedevilled by elections and financial crises, don’t want to get involved, and just need an excuse to hold off.

But other regimes have taken that gamble. Their leaders are now in the Hague. Internal pressures on the regime grow, its neighbours are either terrified, outraged or discredited, and the Americans are now said to be helping the Qataris deliver arms to the rebels.

Is it possible that Houla will prove a throw of the dice too far for the Assads?

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