After 15 months and upwards of 13,000 dead, perhaps we should be grateful that the UN Security Council managed to condemn the Assad regime of something, even if only in a “non-binding” presidential statement. So far, the council has not issued a single binding resolution that carries the full weight of international law behind it. Nor will it, so long as Vladimir Putin believes the United States is not just angling for regime change in Damascus but in Moscow as well.
A close examination of the statement the council put out Sunday night shows that even in what should be diplomatic defeat, despotisms are still able to cajole the West into pretending that there is moral and military equivalence between a proven atrocity-maker and its victims. For while the statement condemned the Syrian government “in the strongest possible terms” for “attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood,” it did not assign blame for the more gruesome face-to-face slaughter of women and children that commenced once those neighbourhoods had been shelled (the vast majority of the victims died this way, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights). The statement further heaped insult onto the Syrian rebels by suggesting that they too had to be brought to justice for defending the lives of civilians: “The members of the Security Council reiterated that all violence in all its forms by all parties must cease. Those responsible for acts of violence must be held accountable.”
In his press appearance following the announcement, Bashar Ja’afari, the Syrian ambassador to the UN, denied the regime had done anything wrong at all and implicated foreign terrorists were the true culprits. This accusation somewhat vitiated his promise that Damascus would conduct a full investigation into the Houla massacre and present its findings in three days. Then on Monday, at a joint press conference with British Foreign Minister William Hague in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “We are dealing with a situation in which both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people,” yet offered nothing to substantiate what he meant by “evidently.”
Sadly, Lavrov’s British counterpart sat through this bald-faced lie after reaffirming Russia’s role as a “strategic” partner with whom the UK has had, on occasion, disagreements over Syria. The plan put forth by Kofi Annan, Hague incredulously maintained, “offers the best chance to break the ongoing cycle of violence.” He declined to even mention Houla by name. Now he must seriously ask how he’ll be able to persuade this strategic partner to abandon its only client-state in the Middle East when he can’t even persuade the Kremlin to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, Scotland Yard’s chief suspect in the London assassination of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko.
What happened on Friday was as follows. The Syrian military mercilessly bombarded, with heavy artillery and mortar shells, Al-Houla, a district of Homs. A preliminary UN investigation has found that in Taldou, a village in the district, the impact of the blasts and the resulting shrapnel killed fewer than 20. The rest, including 59 women and 32 children children, were then murdered by the regime’s regular soldiers and paramilitary shabiha gangs, which invaded the village and went house to house bayoneting and shooting entire families at point-blank range. The shabiha then proceeded to mutilate the bodies of the slain, gouging out eyes, for instance.
How do we know this? Because scores of eyewitnesses have corroborated it, including this young boy, who said: “First the army came in and starting wrecking people’s homes. My mom told us to hide in the animals’ paddock for half an hour. She said we’d come out after. When we came out there was blood everywhere … I saw the neighbours being slaughtered. The little kids and the teenagers.” Another boy who survived the massacre said that both uniformed soldiers and “bald and bearded” civilians—shabiha—arrived off a tank outside his house and shot their way inside. Moreover, as the Daily Telegraph’s Alex Thomson reported from Houla, “In Houla right now you still find civilians where the FSA control the ground. Yet there are none (except corpses) where the Syrian army is in control.” UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous yesterday further legitimated this explanation.
The truth is important not just for posterity’s sake but for what seems to be the Obama administration’s long-sought-for “Plan B” after the Annan plan officially fails: to get Russia to play the part of peacemaker. Just as the shabiha were getting to work in Houla, and just as yet another Russian ship full of weapons was en route for the port of Tartus, the New York Times disclosed that Obama was seeking Putin’s help in brokering a “negotiated political settlement” to the Syria crisis. The so-called “Yemen model” for transition would require only that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad step down from power and into retirement, no doubt to a cushy dacha somewhere off the Black Sea. However, the institutions of state terror—and most of the personnel behind them—would remain in place. Assadism without Assad, in other words. There are several reasons this plan will not work.
First, the Assads see their rulership as a matter of life and death, not as a political consideration; the dictatorship is less a personality cult than it is a mafia-style apotheosis of la famiglia, which is why they spent the last 42 years creating an image of themselves as demiurges. Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government was family-based too, but in far a less messianic way; Saleh also acknowledged that he’d have to resign power eventually, owing mainly to American and Saudi pressure tied to counterterrorism in Yemen. Assad shows no such sign of acknowledging his inevitable exit. Second, the Syrian revolution is as much about ending an apartheid-patronage system as it is about creating democratic state, yet Russia relies for its own commercial and military interests on preserving the former. Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, freshly returned from Moscow, smartly observes:
What the “regime” means to the Russians is Alawite control of security and military apparatuses. If regime survival under this formula is not possible, than the powers-that-be in Russia would not be too opposed to the fragmentation of Syria so long as coastal areas remain under Alawite control, which is the likely outcome in this case. To ensure getting their desired outcome, the Russians will continue propping up the regime by supplying it with arms, which they claim are not meant to be used against protesters but against future western intervention, and by continuing to be a stumbling block in the way of any meaningful UN-led action or condemnation.
So Russia will, in the end, accept nothing less than the balkanization of Syria. So much for the insistence of countless Security Council statements that the country’s “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” be preserved.
Another hiccup in the Yemen model is the small matter of the Syrian people. The opposition will not accept the terms of such a cynical compromise, assuming one were even possible, if it means that the rapists and butchers who have been putting them through hell this past year and a half get to keep not only their heads but their jobs.
Much as Obama is loath to admit it, and much as it may interfere with his plans for reelection, Syrian self-determination is meaningless if the “self” doing all the determining is a former KGB agent.