The Turning Point in Syrian Civil War: Houla Massacre and Afterwards

Despite the ceasefire, which was stated to have taken effect on April 12th with the »»

Despite the ceasefire, which was stated to have taken effect on April 12th with the attempts of Kofi Annan, the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States, the acts of violence also killing the civilians in Syria carry on.

The conflicts, which became intenser approximately after two days following the acceptance of the Annan plan, could not be stopped; despite the fact that the number of international observers was increased. However, none of the conflicts has shocked the international community more than the massacre in Houla. The images and news reflected from Houla in the public opinion have blatantly showed that the Syrian regime and its supporters could turn towards committing a total massacre to suppress the uprising. The fact that pro-regime Syrians directly target civilian women and children points out that a new strategy has been put into effect in the Syrian civil war. As a matter of fact, the Assad regime, which could not suppress the uprising and armed opposition, directly targeted civilians and paved the way for the division of Syria. As the UN once again remembered the Bosnian Genocide with the Houla Massacre, the most important responsibility of the international community has been to show that one would not keep quiet about the civilian deaths. As a matter of fact, many countries, including Turkey, decided to expel Syrian diplomats in a protest against the massacre.

International Observers and Massacre 

A massacre, alleged to have been committed by the Syrian regime forces, took place in Houla on May 25th, when some 300 international observers were in Syria. Following the arrival of the UN observers in the area immediately after the event, the world public opinion reached more detailed information about the massacre committed in Houla. The UN observers reported that 108 people, including 34 women and 49 children, were killed in Houla near Homs. While UN observers counted 49 children and 34 women among the dead, they stated that some of them were killed by the direct attacks from tanks and artillery fires. Condemning the Houla massacre, UN Security Council members highlighted the role that the Syrian military units played in the massacre. (1) On the other hand, the fact that civilians were killed by shooting at close range and by being stabbed during the massacre points out that paramilitary forces of the regime involved in the Houla massacre. As a matter of fact, the UN's peace keeping chief Herve Ladsous also stated there is strong suspicion that the Shabiha militias were involved in this tragedy in Houla. “Part of the victims had been killed by artillery shells, now that points ever so clearly to the responsibility of the government. Only the government has heavy weapons, has tanks, has howitzers. But there are also victims from individual weapons, victims from knife wounds and that of course is less clear but probably points the way to the (pro-Assad) shabbihas, the local militia,” Ladsous said. (2) 

On the other hand, the Syrian government, which formed a committee to investigate the Houla massacre, held the opposition responsible for the death of civilians. The Syrian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jihad Makdissi made a statement saying that government forces were not responsible for the massacre which took place in the Houla area of Homs province. Makdissi also stated he condemned in strongest terms this terrorist massacre against the Syrian civilians. In his statement, Makdissi indicated that opposition activists attacked Syrian military positions, killing three security personnel during the conflict. Makdissi also emphasized that the security forces in the area did not leave their places because they were in a state of self-defense. (3) 

However, in the statement of the UN Security Council, also supported by Russia and China, certain concerns regarding that both military units and militia forces had been involved in the conflict were mentioned. In the statement of the UN Security Council, two points come to the forefront. One of those was the fact that the victims had been killed by artillery shells, tanks, and similar heavy weapons. And the second was that civilians were killed by shooting at close range and by being stabbed. Therefore, as understood from the statement of Makdissi; first of all a conflict took place in the area, and then the military units directly turned the attack. While turning the attack, it is highly likely that the settlements were attacked by heavy weapons without any target. Whatever the reason might be, it is not acceptable that the security forces in the settlements attacked against the civilians by heavy weapons without setting any target. The second is that following the conflicts, militia forces of the regime or some pro-regime civilians organized attacks against the Houla people, whom they accused of supporting the opponents. Thus, the regime supporters, taking the support of military units, committed a massacre against the civilian population. The fact that UN observers also mentioned the role of militia forces, as well as military units, in the Houla massacre in their statement is significant. Nevertheless, the Houla massacre will have implications both at national and regional levels. It would be good to briefly touch on these implications.  

National and Regional Impacts of the Houla Massacre

It is necessary to already envisage that the Houla Massacre will have considerably important consequences at national, regional and global levels. The most important consequence of the massacre at national level is that it shows once more that a peaceful and democratic transition in Syria is quite difficult. It has become difficult to crack the door open for the political dialogue between the supporters of the regime and the opposition, in the aftermath of the Houla massacre. It is significant that the Syrian opposition gives the Syrian regime 48-hour deadline for implementing Annan's six-point peace plan. The opposition also warned that if the Assad regime does not withdraw the military units from settlements soon, the Syrian opposition might start a comprehensive war. The Security Council members and Kofi Annan highlighted once more that the military units in settlement should be withdrawn.

The second important impact of the Houla massacre at national level would be that the massacre will deepen the sectarian split within Syria. As a matter of fact, the Syrian population, which started to go through a split upon the anti-regime uprising, has directly entered in the split process on sectarian basis including the groups with no political opinion. This situation might lead the Syrian population to lose its will of living together. It was known for a long time that the suicide attacks carried out by al-Qaeda related elements, and especially Damascus, had increased the anger among the pro-regime minority groups. Also, civilians had been killed in many demonstrations staged by the militia forces of the regime. Nevertheless, the allegations put forward following the massacre committed in Houla also show the dimension that the split in Syria attained. A journalist, who went to Houla after the massacre, states that relatives of the victims accuse Shiites and Nusayris coming from settlements such as Kabu and Fullah, located in the East and West of Houla. In fact, during the civil war, both abductions and attacks against the civilian population took place in both sides. However, the Houla massacre should be considered quite important, because it is the beginning of a process that Syria's civilian population, who lived together for years, started to slaughter one another. Therefore, the Houla massacre might be the beginning of a process that could lead to the expansion of conflicts, and it could also lead the civilians to become hostile to each other in sectarian terms. As a matter of course, this situation might result in a big disaster for all Syrians. According to the statements of the journalist, who visited Houla after the massacre, the slogans chanted in Houla was saying that they would commit a massacre against Shiites and Nusayris after they win the civil war, and that they hate them.

In this context, another consequence of the Houla massacre is that it might lead to a substantial rise in migration within the country. The number of migrants within the country before April 12th was indicated to be approximately 230 thousand. In parallel with the on-going conflicts after the ceasefire, this figure was said to have reached almost 500 thousand. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the massacre, there might be a substantial rise in the number of people who have to migrate. Syria can turn into a country, where sectarian and ethnic components begin to gather in certain areas. After the aforesaid split, it could be quite difficult to convince Syrians to live together.

Another nation-wide consequence of the Houla massacre might be that especially Sunni Arabs and also other groups within the regime could withdraw their support. In addition to Sunni Arabs, Druses and Christian elements may have to change their sides in the Syrian civil war. Also, the figures at administrative level have had to make a decision following the Houla massacre: Either to act in unison with the regime and to take part in crimes that regime-related elements have committed, or to act in line with sectarian and moral principles and to end the cooperation made with the regime. It is possible to expect a limited disintegration in political and bureaucratic structure of the post-Houla regime. 

The Houla massacre shows that the security forces lost control in the civil war. As Makdissi put forward, if military units did not really played a role in deaths of civilians, then it could be suggested that the pro-regime civilian elements started to take independent initiatives. The fact that pro-regime civilians have taken part in the conflicts on their own points out the start of an extremely critical process. This situation indicates that the state has lost its control over the society and the regime supporters started to act with the reflex to protect the regime. If the Assad regime does not punish the people involved in the conflicts in Houla, the regime will pave the way for new massacres in Syria.  

The Houla massacre will also prevent Assad regime's doing politics over moral values at national level. Following the suicide attacks that have taken place in Syria in the recent period, a substantial part of the Syrian people started to adopt the victimization policy of Assad regime. However, the recent massacres committed in Houla and then in Hama will pose a major obstacle before Assad's taking the support of neutral groups over the victimization policy.

The regional consequences of the massacre, on the other hand, are that they could weaken the public opinion support for the Damascus regime. It is obvious that especially among the regional public opinion, there will be a major dispute regarding the innocence of the Assad regime. As a matter of fact, many actors in the region will have hard times in supporting the Assad regime in a period, when the Lebanese Hezbollah group strongly condemned the Houla massacre. (5) In their statement made after the Houla massacre, the Iranian government demanded the punishment of the offenders as well. In case Houla-like massacres are committed, the countries in the region may have to keep their distance from Assad. Therefore,, many groups in Turkey will have to withdraw their implicit support provided for Assad regime following the Houla massacre because of ethic and moral values. Following the Houla massacre, the supporters of Assad will have to think twice before taking a step.

In this context, after the Houla massacre, the Assad regime has faced with a risk of losing the moral support received from the populations in the region during the civil war. The Houla massacre will lead to questioning Assad's slogan saying that he is fighting against the Western imperialism. The question asking the relation between the women and children killed, and the fight against the Western imperialism will lead to weakening sympathy towards Assad.

The Houla massacre also has the potential to increase the sectarian tension in the region.  Because the local communities had regarded the problem as a Shi'ite-Sunni conflict because of the sectarian approach towards the civil war in Syria. While Shia elements in the region concretely support Assad, a considerable part of Sunnis developed a pro-opposition policy. Thus, local communities will assess victims and offenders of the massacre over the Shi'ite-Sunni perception while evaluating the Houla massacre. Therefore, it is likely that the Houla massacre will directly aggravate the Shi'ite-Sunni tension and conflict in our region. As a matter of fact, the conflicts between Shi'ite and Sunni elements in Lebanon, and the fact that civilian Shiites were abducted by the opponents in Syria could be considered as regional impacts of the Syrian crisis.

The Houla massacre formed a legal basis for taking more radical steps towards the Syrian regime at regional level. Within this scope, it is observed that many countries in the region decided to expel Syrian diplomats, after the economic sanctions. Following the expulsion of Syrian diplomats, the recognition of the Syrian opposition as legal representative of the Syrian people in diplomatic terms will be brought up to the agenda. On the other hand, the Houla massacre has once more showed the world public opinion that the conflicts in Syria started to acquire a sectarian character.  

To sum up, the crisis and civil war, which has been going on in Syria since March 2011, launched a new process with the Houla massacre. While many countries, including Turkey, expelled Syrian diplomats; it is quite likely that the aforesaid policy could have a different impact on the civil war in Syria than it is expected. While the regime feels isolated, this situation could also lead the acts of violence to further increase. In case the Assad regime overlooks the pro-regime elements' using initiative in civil war, it will have launched the process leading the state to completely lose the control in civil war. While sectarian components supporting the regime head towards more aggressive and offensive policies, opposition's responding the same way is on the agenda. Mutual attacks might lead to division and disintegration of the Syrian population which has been living together for years. Therefore, it would be a proper designation to define the crisis in Syria along with the Houla massacre as a civil war situation.  

(1) http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sc10658.doc.htm

(2) http://www.zaman.com.tr/haber.do?haberno=1295282&title=bm-Huladaki-katliamin-sorumlusu-suriye-yonetimi

(3) http://www.sana.sy/tur/236/2012/05/28/421713.htm

(4) Alex Thomson, Syria dispatch: fear and hate in the killing zone of Houla”, 30 May 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9301345/Syria-dispatch-fear-and-hate-in-the-killing-zone-of-Houla.html

(5) http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/27/us-syria-massacre-idUSBRE84Q0AE20120527

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Veysel Ayhan ORSAM Middle East Advisor, Abant Izzet Baysal University

2012-06-11

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