Syria: up to 100 dead in "new massacre"

What next for the conflict-torn country?

Last week, the Houla massacre shocked the world. In one of the worst moments of the Syrian war so far, 108 people – at least 49 of whom were children – were murdered by state-sponsored militia, who went from house to house slitting their throats or shooting them in the head.

It was clear at the time that this was not the first massacre Syria had seen, and nor would it be the last. However, the extremity of the incident seemed to mark a watershed in the escalation of the protracted and bloody conflict. That appears to have been borne out, with reports today of a “new massacre” of men, women and children, this time in Mazraat al-Qabeer, a small village near the city of Hama.

According to a spokesman for the opposition group, the Syrian National Council, 100 people were killed, including 20 women and 20 children. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights separately reported 87 deaths. While the lack of media access to Syria makes it difficult to independently verify the facts, there is little doubt that something happened here. The regime says that the military killed “terrorists”, but denied that a massacre took place. It appeared to blame the opposition for the killings, with state media reporting that terrorist groups had committed a “heinous crime”.

The opposition, however, claim that the village came under heavy tank fire, before shabiha (state-sponsored militia) fighters took to the ground, shooting, stabbing and burning people to death. The BBC quotes one activist from the area:

They executed [nearly] every person in the village. Very few numbers could flee. The majority were slaughtered with knives and in a horrible and ugly way.

Graphic videos and images of charred corpses are proliferating online.

This tragedy comes as the United Nations’ special envoy, Kofi Annan, returns from Damascus to address the General Assembly in New York about the progress of his peace plan for Syria. It would be difficult to argue that the plan has been anything but a failure.

Where does this leave the west? Inevitably, more atrocities will lead to further calls for military intervention from the west. Yet, as a New Statesman leader pointed out last week, this is fraught with difficulties. The opposition is by no means united in calling for western intervention, while a substantial percentage of the population unambiguously supports President Bashar al-Assad. Elsewhere, the on-going bloodshed in Libya acts as a living reminder of the dangers of military action. There is also the risk of triggering full blown civil war, as the conflict hardens along sectarian lines, compounded by the cold war being waged between Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

After the Houla massacre, Fawaz Gerges argued that military action remained unlikely:

Atrocities could make military intervention more likely, but the west, and particularly the US, believes that the disadvantages of intervention (increased carnage and a region-wide war) outweigh the advantages of saving civilian lives.

Already, up to 12,600 lives have been lost during the 15 month conflict, with comparisons being drawn to the early stages of Lebanon’s 15 year civil war. If the UN has any real hope of achieving its aim of a negotiated settlement, Russia must come on side. The question is: how many more massacres will it take for something to change for the better?
 

UPDATE 3pm:

The chief of the UN monitoring mission, General Robert Mood, has said that Syrian troops blocked UN observers from visiting the site of the massacre: "They are being stopped at Syrian army checkpoints and in some cases turned back. Some of our patrols are being stopped by civilians in the area." The Syrian government said this was "absolutely baseless" and accused rebels of carrying out the massacre to try and garner international attention.

A member of the Free Syrian Army, December 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Ukrainians now have more freedom of travel - but less freedom of thought

Ukraine's government is rightly concerned about Russian cyber aggression. But does that merit online censorship?

Ukrainians have sacrificed so much in their bid to be recognised as fellow Europeans. Their struggle to extricate themselves from Russian domination is written in the blood of the Euromaidan protestors and the toll of its military dead.

The slow progress of Ukraine’s emergence, into something resembling normality, passed another milestone on 17 May, when President Petro Poroshenko signed an agreement with the EU allowing for visa-free travel in 34 European countries. 

From Sunday 11 June Ukrainians with biometric passports will be able to travel in Europe and stay for 90 days within a 180 period. There are obvious economic benefits to the new agreement. Ukrainians will be free to travel and conduct business with much more efficacy. The new agreement will also reduce the insularity of Ukrainians, many of whom yearn for the cosmopolitanism they see in Western Europe. President Poroshenko was mindful of the symbolism of the agreement. He declared: "Ukraine is returning to the European family. Ukraine says a final farewell to the Soviet and Russian empire."

Perched on the periphery, Ukraine is now set to become more woven into the European mainstream. Ukrainians sense that the western door is slowly but inexorably opening, and that both recognition, and validation beckons. In this respect, it seems that there is much to celebrate.

However, as ever, Ukraine hangs uneasily in the balance between the old ways and the new. On 16 May, Poroshenko signed a decree blocking access to Russian social media websites Yandex, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. Millions of Ukrainians sign in to these websites every day. Even Poroshenko himself uses them. Five Russian TV stations are already banned in Ukraine. Poroshenko says that "Ukrainians can live without Russian networks". And it is certainly a fact that Ukrainians have responded to the decree by turning away from the Russian platforms in great numbers. Ukrainian Facebook is growing by some 35 percent a day.

In the context of Ukraine’s continuing conflict with Russia, it is perhaps understandable that the government in Kiev wishes to limit Russian trolls, together with Russian state influence and misinformation. This is certainly also the case across the whole western world, which is keenly aware of Russian cyber aggression. Nevertheless, one must ask why countries such as Britain, France and Germany continue to allow their citizens to access Russian media platforms, when Ukraine does not. 

While the new travel freedoms for Ukrainians has unleashed optimism, the latest decree has indicated something a little darker about the future. President Poroshenko would do well to consider the actions of other European governments that he so ardently wishes to emulate. Closing down social networks is usually done by authoritarian regimes like North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia. But Poroshenko advocates democracy, and in democracy there is no place for such acts. It is surely a mark of a nation’s maturity to encourage freedom of thought, as well travel.

Mohammad Zahoor is the publisher of Ukrainian newspaper The Kyiv Post.

 

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