Britain’s Channel Four News is the first to get to the scene and get what appear to be definitive eyewitness statements from survivors of the massacre in Houla, Syria on Friday. All place the bulk of the blame squarely on Shabiha militiamen (charges confirmed by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights). C4’s Alex Thompson’s account is compelling stuff. Here’s a snippet:
Another man suddenly approaches, educated with good English. He has gone through the emotions to reach cold, measured anger.
Over the next three hours I will deliberately ask him the same question to see if his story alters in any detail. It does not. He is willing to be interviewed and identified on camera. But to protect him we do not do this. Channel 4 News knows his name and full identity.
He describes in detail the world has not heard before what happened on Friday. He matters because over the next five hours we spend in Houla, scores of people will corroborate his story in various details.
He describes how there was intense shelling of the ground for several hours. After that the Shabiya ”“ armed militia ”“ entered the town from the southern to south western direction. He says there were around 100 of them dressed in military uniforms. They approached Dam Road which connects the large reservoir to the Houla villages. He says ”“ and all agree ”“ these men were Shia and Alawite who had come from specific Shia/Alawite villages to the south and west of Houla.
He names several villages and later we are taken to a rooftop where we can see those villages from the overwhelmingly Sunni town of Houla.
Two names come up time and again ”“ Kabu and Felleh. They are so close, not more than two or three mile as the most. He goes on describing how the killers had written Shia slogans on their foreheads as they went house to house searching out and slaughtering Sunni families.
He says to us: ”œThey have slaughtered us, they have killed us. When this is all over we will be victorious. And we will go there. And we will find them out and we will slaughter them and we will kill them. We will kill their men, women and children as they killed our men, women and children.”
There’s a fair bit of mud in the water about the leadership of Shabiha. The Assad family are accused of controlling and arming these local mafioso but that’s just uncertain enough to give a shadow of a fig-leaf of deniability to Bashar al-Assad – and that’s really all he needs when talking to Russia, China or Iran. What is certain, though, is that their victims see the militiamen as proxies for the Assad regime and as agents in a sectarian civil war which is spiralling into a multi-decade grudge match which it is often said could easily spill over into the region as a whole – just as Syria’s civil war is in part a spillover from Iraq’s lower-key sectarian feuding post-intervention (although that’s more rarely acknowledged in the West).
The pressure on the U.S. and its allies to do something is immense. Locally, the Saudis and their Sunni neighbours see Syria as just another theatre in the proxy battle with Iran which is deliberately expressed as a Sunni vs Shiite one. In the U.S. and Europe, neoliberals use Right to Protect doctrine as a humanitarian “civilian shield” while their neocon brethren are more forthright about the real aim – regime change – and the real reason for that aim – again, to land a major blow on Iran’s regional ally and thus Iran’s regional influence. Doing something, as always, means some form of military response. Suggestions begin from arming the fractional Syrian opposition – a gambit that if successful would likely only replace President Bashar al Assad with a General Mustafa al””Sheikh and, as suggested by the eyewitness C4 interviewed, a return bout of recriminatory massacres by new militiamen against innocents as well as the guilty. They end with a full-on military intervention by the West and it’s Sunni regional allies. Philip Gourevitch at The New Yorker points up the sorry parallel that would be.
To Syria hawks, like Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham, the solution to the crisis is simple: an American- and NATO-led air war against Assad. But, at the NATO summit in Chicago last week, there was no support for the idea. Proponents of intervention like to point out that Obama’s Permanent Representative to NATO, Ivo Daalder, was the co-author of a piece in Foreign Affairs which said that the ”œvictory” in Libya should serve as a model for future interventions to prevent atrocity and support positive political change. But none of the conditions that worked to NATO’s advantage in Libya””its geographical and political self-containment, Qaddafi’s abandonment, the efficacy of the opposition forces, the ease of executing the mission from the air””pertain in Syria. Instead, the situation has all the makings of just the sort of quagmire that NATO is impatient to get out of: the main item on the agenda in Chicago was to declare the plan to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 ”œirreversible.”
One US official told CNN that 75,000 sets of boots on the ground would be needed just to secure all of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles if a full military intervention aimed at regime change were attempted. That alone would catapult costs into the region of $40 billion a year, based on costs in Iraq. The sorry, quagmire-ish mess that would result from such an invasion should only be imagined, not attempted.
But really, Right to Protect interventionism is essentially a utilitarian argument – that by using violence in reply to violence the greater good of the greater number can be achieved – specifically, that fewer people will die if there is an armed intervention than if the state or non-state actor is allowed to continue killing unopposed by external forces. But it largely ignores a wider utilitarian argument to do so – that the resources required to intervene could be put to better use saving more lives elsewhere. The pressure to do something is primarily an artifact of media coverage that loves direct human-on-human violence and regime-changers piggybacking that coverage, vastly preferring it to the less telegenically attention-grabbing yet far more deadly effects of famine and drought. For a fraction of the price of a military intervention in Syria, ten or one hundred times the number of lives could be saved in West Africa.
At this point, it’s worth revisiting the real, old-school, meaning of what’s been called the Pottery Barn Rule – famously hijacked to justify occupations in iraq and Afghanistan. The real Pottery Barn Rule always was “you broke it, you pay for fixing it and get the f**k out of our store“, they were just too polite to say so outright. How much better, then, if we never act like Humvees in a china shop in the first place? And if the owners want to bust up their own store, fighting amongst themselves, maybe we should have the good sense to just let them. It’s called non-interference and it accords with the Utilitarian principle of “first, do no more harm”.
Or, as Dan Trombly puts it:
In a time of diminished resources, willpower, and options, America has a duty to its own interests, not a responsibility to intervene in the internal affairs of other states ”“ even incredibly brutal, repugnant ones. It should not chain itself to a doctrine, that for the sake of precedent, consistency, and a self-defeating conception of international order, demands the US wage or threaten war again and again for little direct gain ”“ and possibly even direct harm ”“ to itself.
The Houla massacre is a terrible tragedy, but no worse and often far less a loss of innocent life than in other areas, other situations, where Western help need not be given at gunpoint, entail a decade-long occupation or further fuel the conditions for regional unrest. Let’s not allow those who wish to see regime change in Syria, and are flying a false flag of humanitarian principles to further that agenda, lead us into another dumb war. Syria should be for Syrians to resolve.