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.