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?


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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“I hate censorship”: Larry King on his journey from prime time TV to Russia Today

The talk show host opens up about interview technique, his unique method of tweeting, and his experience of working with the state-backed channel now known as RT.

The first celebrity interview Larry King did was by chance, in a Miami Beach restaurant. He was a 26-year-old local radio presenter, and had set up his mid-morning show to broadcast from the popular Pumpernik's deli. In walked the singer Bobby Darin, famous for his hit version of “Mack the Knifereleased that year, 1959, and gave the young journalist his first showbiz interview. King has been asking questions ever since.

The 83-year-old US talk show host and household name estimates that he has done around 60,000 interviews in his time. And he’s still going. After 58 years of presenting radio and TV programmes – he hosted the nightly interview show Larry King Live on CNN for 25 years – he now hosts Larry King Now and Politicking with Larry King on RT America (the US output of the channel originally known as Russia Today).

That’s why he has been in London – to publicise his two shows as part of the Russian state-funded network’s tenth anniversary publicity drive.

“I haven’t been here in a long time, and I’m sorry I haven’t been here more because it’s a terrific city,” he says, when I sit down with him at the Mayfair Hotel restaurant. It echoes with light jazz and pristine corporate chatter.

Like a society tortoise, cheeky but reflective, King sits low on a plush leather bench with his head hunched forward. His right hand is planted beside him as an anchor, and his left is reserved for banging the table and gesticulating. He wears stylish black thick-rimmed glasses, and the rest of his outfit is every bit the smart-casual elderly hack: jeans and a blazer, stripy tie clashing with the stripes on his shirt.

“The only thing – you cannot find a good cawffee. Maybe it’s the wadda?”

An almost stereotypical born-and-bred New Yorker’s response to being away from home – his Brooklyn roots brought even closer with his assertion that he loves the “Bridish sensa yumour”, in spite of our nasty water.

Known for his laidback, non-confrontational interview style and array of high-profile subjects – Donald Trump, Morrissey, Muammar Gaddafi, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, Michelle Obama, Barbra Streisand, Marlon Brando, the Dalai Lama, Frank Sinatra and Vladimir Putin are just a few – King left Larry King Live in 2010.

It was the preening tabloid troublemaker Piers Morgan who replaced him on the prime time slot in January 2011. But Piers Morgan Tonight was a doomed venture, axed in March 2014 after plummeting ratings. King and Morgan’s relationship has been fraught, with the former calling his successor “oversold” and accusing him of making the show “all about him. He used the word ‘I’ a lot.”

In a characteristically classy response, Morgan tweeted: “I made my CNN show all about gun control & saving lives. You made yours about blowing smoke up celebrity backsides.”

He also called King an “old goat”.

King doesn’t want to discuss this spat, but warns against talk show hosts who make interviews about themselves.

“I don't use the word ‘I’, because I find, in interviewing, for my style, ‘I’ is irrelevant because the subject is not me. The subject is the guest. What I think is immaterial; my role is a conduit from the guest to the audience.”

Perhaps this detachment dispelled any qualms King may have had about hosting two shows on the often laughably biased Kremlin-backed propaganda channel. He doesn’t seem happy about some of his broadcaster’s activities though.

“I certainly vehemently disagree with the position they take on homosexuals – that's absurd to me,” he frowns. “ . . . If they say homosexuality is, like, whatever they say, all I know is, I've asked this question all my life . . . I’m heterosexual. I have no idea why. A homosexual can’t tell me why they’re attracted to people of the same sex, just as the heterosexual. You could tell me I like that skirt, I like high heels, but I don’t know why. I just know that it’s true. So I don’t understand why a state could tell people how to feel about other people.”

But he insists: “They [RT] have never censored me, or told me who to have as a guest, or not have as a guest. They distribute my show. I do the show for Ora TV [an internet network], and I have a wonderful working agreement with RT . . .

“I hate censorship of any kind, abhor it, so I would never approve of you telling me what I can say, or I telling you what you can say. And I've never been censored – in fact, my whole life – by anyone. I've been fortunate. I’ve never been told ‘don’t book this guest’, ‘don’t ask this question’, ‘don’t reveal this’. And it’s never happened to me with RT . . . If they do it, I disagree with it.

He adds: “State ruling against any individual thought is abhorrent to me. I don’t like dictatorships, I don’t like fascism, I don't like communism. I don't like ‘isms’.”

Perhaps King’s thirst for freedom is best expressed through his Twitter feed. His odd one-sentence proverbs about life’s banalities have become something of internet legend – ie articles have been written about them. Here are some examples:

“I like the smell of turpentine.”

“I've been having a hard time finding Nestlé's Crunch bars lately.”

“I don't know why, but I've never enjoyed drinking water.”

“I know about tonsils, but what is an adenoid?”

“The fear of a colonoscopy is unwarranted.”

“The rat is perfectly named.”

“Are there any babies being named Fred these days? #itsmy2cents”

“It seems to me women don't wear ankle bracelets anymore. #itsmy2cents”

“Where exactly is the Internet? #ItsMy2cents”

That final example makes the most sense considering King’s strange relationship with Twitter, and modern technology in general. He doesn’t type any of his tweets himself, preferring – when he has an idea he’d like to impart to his 2.62m followers – to pick up his chunky old black flip-phone, call his producer or assistant, and dictate his thoughts. Sometimes he dictates them directly to his wife. He proudly takes his phone out of his jacket pocket to show me.

“It's a relic, but it's my relic. I don't text, I don't like texting. I like talking . . . I use the internet to my advantage, in that I dictate tweets. But I don't read a lot of tweets. I don't know where to read ‘em! Because this phone doesn't get tweets . . . I just call a number, and the person who answers it sends them out. Why do I have to type them?”

He gestures to the three PRs (yes, three) sitting in on our interview, all of them on their smartphones. “Before I had a heart attack years ago, I used to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day. Cigarettes controlled me. When I woke up in the morning, before I put on glasses, before I got out of bed, I had to reach for that pack of cigarettes. It controlled me. Now, look at this,” he points at them as they sheepishly look up from their phones. “See that? I never want to be a victim again of anything.”

In spite of his one-way use of technology, King is plugged in to internet controversy. He nods when I bring up the recent story of Vanity Fair angering readers with a feature celebrating late-night talk show hosts illustrated with a photograph of ten suited hosts – all of them men.

“I don't know why [there are so few women presenters],” he says, but doesn’t shrug it off. He continues talking about the subject even after our interview is over and I’ve stood up to leave. “It’s also true about radio talk shows . . . If you turn on the radio in the morning, the man is the host. Why? I've never hired people, I don't run a station. I remember this story, it's true, but I don't know why. I've no idea. Why is the man the host of a morning radio show?”

He pauses and then barks: “Why on local TV are all the weathermen women? And they all wear tight dresses. Why is that? I want men weathermen. More men on the weather! Show me a picture of all the male weathermen on local TV.”

That would make a vintage Larry King tweet. He’d better dial it in sharpish.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.