Home US & World News NEWS: Houla massacre suggests Syrian conflict is 'out of control,' a 'civil war'

NEWS: Houla massacre suggests Syrian conflict is 'out of control,' a 'civil war'

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In a press statement, the U.N. Security Council "condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of El-Houleh, near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of Government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood."[1]  --  The U.N. News Center said that "On Saturday U.N. observers went to Houla, a village near Homs, and confirmed the killings as well as the wounding of hundreds of civilians.  They also confirmed from an examination of ordnance that artillery and tank shells were fired in the area."[2]  --  But the Beirut Daily Star noted that while the statement "blamed Syrian forces for artillery and tank shelling of residential areas" and "also condemned the killings of civilians 'by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse,'" it "avoided saying who was responsible for these attacks."[3]  --  Syria denied the possibility of Syrian troop involvement in the massacre, but anti-régime activists "scoffed at the government's version of events."  --  The BBC said that "Russia's deputy ambassador to the United Nations told journalists that it was not clear who was responsible for the deaths -- and denied charges that most of the deaths were caused by army shelling.  'There are substantial grounds to believe that the majority of those who were killed were either slashed, cut by knives, or executed at point-blank distance,' he said."[4]  --  The Financial Times of London quoted the director of the London School of Economics’ Middle East Center, who said that "What Houla tells me is that the conflict has already spiralled out of control.  It smells like civil war.”[5]  --  Another analyst, referring to the reports of the cold-blooded massacre of children, said:  "It’s the extremism of the violence that is scary.  We didn’t see anything like this even in Iraq."  --  Abigail Fielding-Smith and Roula Khalaf noted that "many activists have blamed a pro-government militia known as the shabbiha for at least some of the killings"; the shabbiha or shabiha are made of Alawites, and "analysts say the Alawites are now convinced that their existence depends on that of the regime." ...


1.

SECURITY COUNCIL PRESS STATEMENT ON ATTACKS IN SYRIA


United Nations Security Council
SC/10658
[May 27, 2012]

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


The following Security Council press statement was issued today by Council President Agshin Mehdiyev (Azerbaijan):

The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of El-Houleh, near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of Government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood.  The members of the Security Council also condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse.  The members of the Security Council extended their profound sympathies and sincere condolences to the families of the victims, and underscored their grave concern about the situation of civilians in Syria.

Such outrageous use of force against civilian population constitutes a violation of applicable international law and of the commitments of the Syrian Government under United Nations Security Council resolutions 2042 (2012) and 2043 (2012) to cease violence in all its forms, including the cessation of use of heavy weapons in population centres.  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.  The members of the Security Council requested the Secretary-General, with the involvement of UNSMIS [United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria], to continue to investigate these attacks and report the findings to the Security Council.

The members of the Security Council demanded that the Government of Syria immediately cease the use of heavy weapons in population centres and immediately pull back its troops and its heavy weapons from in and around population centres and return them to their barracks.

The members of the Security Council reaffirmed their strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity of Syria, and to the purposes and principles of the Charter.

The members of the Security Council reiterated their full support to the efforts of the Joint Special Envoy for the implementation of his six-point plan in its entirety and requested him to convey in the clearest terms to the Syrian parties, and in particular the Syrian Government, the demands of the Security Council.

2.

SECURITY COUNCIL STRONGLY CONDEMNS MASSACRE OF CIVILIANS IN SYRIA


U.N. News Center
May 27, 2012

http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=42095&Cr=syria&Cr1=


The Security Council, meeting in an emergency session on Sunday, added its voice to the condemnation by United Nations officials of the recent massacre of men, women, and children in the Syrian village of Houla.

The Council was briefed in a closed-door session by Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous as well as by video-link by General Robert Mood, head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), on the killings that took place on 25 May and in the early hours of 26 May of a reported 108 civilians, including over 30 children.

On Saturday U.N. observers went to Houla, a village near Homs, and confirmed the killings as well as the wounding of hundreds of civilians.  They also confirmed from an examination of ordnance that artillery and tank shells were fired in the area.

In a letter sent to the Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that, “while the detailed circumstances are unknown, we can confirm that there has been artillery and mortar shelling.  There have also been other forms of violence, including shootings at close range and severe physical abuse.”

The Council, in a statement to the press, condemned the killings “in the strongest possible terms” as well as the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse.

They also demanded that the Syrian Government immediately cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers and immediately pull back its troops and its heavy weapons from in and around population centers and return them to their barracks.

Yesterday Mr. Ban, Gen. Mood, and the Joint Special Envoy of the U.N. and the League of Arab States for Syria, Kofi Annan, issued statements in which they strongly condemned the killings and urged that those responsible be held to account.

The killings have also sparked outrage from the President of the General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, who said in a statement that these “shocking” killings in a populated neighborhood are a flagrant violation of international law and the commitments made by the Syrian Government, and from the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF).

“This outrageous crime against such young children who have no part in these battles points to a new urgency in finding solutions to the Syrian conflict.  Such a massacre cannot go unpunished,” said Sarah Crowe, spokesperson for the Executive Director of UNICEF.

The U.N. estimates that more than 9,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria and tens of thousands displaced since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began some 14 months ago.

3.

Middle East

SYRIA DENIES HOULA KILLINGS, U.N. CONDEMNS ATTACK


Daily Star (Beirut)
May 28, 2012

http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2012/May-28/174835-syria-denies-houla-killings-un-condemns-attack.ashx#axzz1w90jQ5uc


BEIRUT -- Syria has strongly denied allegations that its forces killed scores of people, including women and children, in one of the deadliest days of the country's uprising, but the U.N. Security Council after an emergency session condemned government forces for shelling residential areas.

The killing of more than 100 people in the west-central area of Houla on Friday brought widespread international criticism of the regime of President Bashar Assad, although differences emerged from world powers over whether his forces were exclusively to blame.

The Security Council issued a press statement Sunday that "condemned in the strongest possible terms" the killings in Houla.  It blamed Syrian forces for artillery and tank shelling of residential areas.  It also condemned the killings of civilians "by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse," but avoided saying who was responsible for these attacks.

The council's statement said the "outrageous use of force" against civilians violated international law and Syrian government commitments under previous U.N. resolutions to stop all violence, including the use of heavy weapons in populated areas.  It said "those responsible for acts of violence must be held accountable," and asked the U.N. observer mission in Syria and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to investigate the attacks and report back to the council.

Britain and France had proposed issuing a press statement condemning the attack on civilians and pointing the finger at the Syrian government for Friday's massacre.  But Russia called for an emergency council meeting saying it first wanted a briefing by Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the unarmed U.N. observer mission.

The massacre in Houla on Friday cast fresh doubts on the ability of an international peace plan put forward by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to end Syria's 14-month-old crisis.

The brutality of the killings became clear in amateur videos posted online that showed scores of bodies, many of them young children, in neat rows and covered with blood and deep wounds.  A later video showed the bodies, wrapped in white sheets, being placed in a sprawling mass grave.

Mood told the Security Council that U.N. observers at the scene now estimate 108 people were killed in Houla, U.N. peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous told reporters outside the council chamber.  The U.N. counted 49 children and 34 women among the dead.

Activists from the Houla area said the army pounded the villages with artillery and clashed with local rebels after protests Friday.  Some activists said pro-regime thugs later stormed the area, doing the bulk of the killing by gunning down men in the streets and stabbing women and children in their homes.

The Syrian government rejected that narrative Sunday, painting a vastly different picture.

Speaking to reporters in Damascus, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Syrian security forces were in their local bases Friday when they were attacked by "hundreds of heavily armed gunmen" firing mortars, heavy machine guns, and anti-tank missiles, staring a nine-hour battle that killed three soldiers and wounded 16.

The soldiers fought back, but didn't leave their bases, he said.

"No Syrian tank or artillery entered this place where the massacres were committed," he said.  "The security forces did not leave their places because they were in a state of self-defense."

He blamed the gunmen for what he called a "terrorist massacre" in Houla and accused the media, Western officials, and others of spinning a "tsunami of lies" to justify foreign intervention in Syria.

Makdissi did not provide videos or other evidence to support his version of events, nor did he give a death toll.  He said the government had formed a committee to investigate and share its findings with Annan, who is due to visit Damascus in the coming days.

Throughout the uprising, the government has deployed snipers, troops, and thugs to quash protests and shelled opposition areas.

A video released by the U.N. team in Syria on Sunday showed observers in Houla the day after the attack, meeting with local rebels and watching residents collect more bodies for burial.  It also showed two destroyed armored personnel carriers -- suggesting that local rebels put up more of a fight than the activists acknowledged.

In a letter to the Security Council, Ban said villages in the Houla area have been outside government control but surrounded by a heavy Syrian military presence.

When U.N. observers visited the area on Saturday, Ban said they saw 85 corpses in a mosque in Taldou and "observed shotgun wounds and wounds consistent with artillery fire."  He said "the patrol also saw artillery and tank shells, as well as fresh tank tracks" and observed that "many buildings had been destroyed by heavy weapons."

At U.N. headquarters, Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador Alexander Pankin told reporters as he headed into the closed-door Security Council meeting that "there is substantial ground to believe that the majority of those who were killed were either slashed, cut by knives, or executed at point-blank distance."

"We have to establish whether it was Syrian authorities . . . before we agree on something," he said.

A press statement is weaker than a presidential statement, which becomes part of the council record, or a legally binding U.N. resolution, but it must be approved by all 15 members and therefore reflects strong Security Council backing.

Annan's peace plan for Syria, sponsored by the U.N. and the Arab League, is one of the few points of agreement among world powers about Syria's crisis, which began in March 2011 with protests calling for political change.  As the government violently cracked down on the uprising, many in the opposition took up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops.

The U.N. put the death toll weeks ago at more than 9,000.  Hundreds more have been killed since then.

Daily violence has marred the plan since a cease-fire was supposed to begin April 12.  The Houla attack made Friday the deadliest day since the truce was announced, and has cast a shadow over Annan's visit.

In another defiant move, Syria on Sunday denied permission for Annan's deputy to travel to Damascus with his boss, a senior Arab League official said.  The rejection of former Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa was intended as a slap to the Arab League, which suspended Syria's membership and approved sanctions against it last year.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Annan's spokesman declined to comment.

The Houla attacks caused outrage among American and international officials that Makdissi's comments Sunday failed to assuage.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he would summon Syria's most senior diplomat in the U.K. on Monday so the Foreign Office could "make clear our condemnation of the Syrian regime's actions."

Kuwait, which currently heads the 22-member Arab League, called for an Arab ministerial meeting to "take steps to put an end to the oppressive practices against the Syrian people."

Switzerland's Foreign Ministry urged that an international inquiry be convened, saying the killings "could constitute a war crime."

In Paris, the head of the exile Syrian National Council also condemned the killings.

"The kids of Houla are the kids of all of Syria," Burhan Ghalioun told reporters.  "Killing the kids of Houla is like killing the kids of all of Syria."

Anti-regime activists scoffed at the government's version of events.  One Houla activist said via Skype that the area had at most 300 fighters, but that none had more than rifles and that they often lacked ammunition.

"If we had anti-tank missiles, there would be no tanks left in the area," said Mohammed, declining to give his full name for fear of retribution.

Activists reported shelling, gunfire, and arrest raids in opposition areas throughout the country Sunday as well as clashes between regime forces and rebels in a number of areas.  The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces killed at least 14 civilians, while rebels killed nine soldiers.

Activist claims could not be independently verified.  The Syrian government bars most media from operating in the country.

Annan's plan calls for eventual talks between all sides on a political solution to the crisis.

The U.S. hopes Russia can use its influence with Damascus to press for a political transition similar to that seen in Yemen.  In February, longtime Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh passed power to his deputy in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

U.S. officials say Russia does not oppose a political transition in Syria in theory, but has not agreed to specific terms.

4..

SYRIA CONDEMNED FOR HOULA MASSACRE AND SHELLING BY U.N.


BBC
May 27, 2012

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18229870


The U.N. Security Council has condemned the use of heavy weapons by Syria's government during a massacre in which 108 people were killed and 300 injured.

Some 34 children were killed in Friday's massacre, which has sparked international outrage.

The U.N. said those responsible for the killings must be held accountable.

Syria's U.N. envoy condemned what he called a "tsunami of lies" being told by some members of the Council, saying Syrian forces were not to blame.

The Security Council unanimously adopted the non-binding statement, which calls for the Syrian government to withdraw its heavy weaponry from residential areas and return them to barracks.

"The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings . . . in the village of (Houla), near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood," according to the statement read by Azerbaijan's deputy U.N. ambassador Tofig Musayev.

"The members of the Security Council also condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse," the statement continued.

"Such outrageous use of force against civilian population constitutes a violation of applicable international law."

This is a strong statement from a body that nearly always has to compromise to reach agreement.

Going into the meeting, Syria's big-power ally, Russia, made it clear that it needed to be convinced of the Syrian government's culpability for what had happened at Houla.  It appears to have been persuaded.

The language both at the U.N. and from the administration in Washington is very strong.  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that President Assad's rule by murder and fear must come to an end.

But diplomats stress that a political process is the best hope for progress.

One British official pointed to Foreign Secretary William Hague's trip to Moscow on Monday and the appearance of U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan at the Security Council later this week, as the next steps in trying to take the political process forward.

But Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, said some members of the council were trying to mislead the world about Syria's role in the massacre.

"Neither [U.N. observer mission head Maj. Gen. Robert] Mood nor anybody else told the Security Council in the informal session that he would blame the Syrian government forces for what happened.

"It is really pitiful and regrettable that some members of the council came out just a few minutes after Gen. Mood had finished his briefing to mislead you, to tell you lies about what happened," he said.

Meanwhile, opposition activists say at least 30 people were killed on Sunday when the army shelled the central city of Hama.  These reports cannot be independently verified, as Syria severely restricts journalists' freedom of movement.

RUSSIA'S ROLE


On a video link from Damascus, Gen. Mood told the Security Council that 108 people had been killed and 300 injured in Houla -- up from a previous figure of at least 90 dead.

He was initially quoted as saying the new figure was 116 dead, but this was later corrected by diplomats.

Gen. Mood told the BBC that "the circumstances leading to the killing are still unclear" but were being investigated by U.N. monitors in Houla.

"I have had patrols on the ground all the day yesterday afternoon and today we are gathering facts on the ground and then we will draw our own conclusions," he said.

Opposition activists say the Syrian military bombarded Houla after demonstrations.  They say that some of the victims were killed during the shelling, while others were shot dead at close range by the regime militia known as the "shabiha."

The Syrian government has denied any involvement, blaming "terrorists," and denied that its tanks were in the area at the time.

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is travelling to Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, said Britain would lean on Russia to get Syria to implement the peace plan of U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

"It's not in the interests of Russia, just as it's not in the interests of anybody in the world, for Syria to descend into an even bloodier situation and into full-scale civil war -- and that is now the danger," he said.

DENIAL


Russia's deputy ambassador to the United Nations told journalists that it was not clear who was responsible for the deaths -- and denied charges that most of the deaths were caused by army shelling.

"There are substantial grounds to believe that the majority of those who were killed were either slashed, cut by knives, or executed at point-blank distance," he said.

Syria's foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said there was a clash in the area on Friday afternoon between security forces and armed terrorists.  He said that army tanks had not been in the area.

Meanwhile, a Syrian official has dismissed threats by the U.K. government to ban members of Syria's Olympic delegation linked to human rights abuses.

The White House said it was horrified by the credible reports of the massacre.

In April, Syria pledged to implement a six-point plan brokered by Mr. Annan, including a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from urban areas.

Mr. Annan is expected to visit Damascus on Monday for talks.

But the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) said it could no longer commit to the ceasefire unless the Security Council could ensure that civilians were protected.

In a statement, the FSA said that if urgent steps were not taken, then Mr. Annan's plan was "going to hell."

It said killings in Syria were taking place "under the eyes of the U.N. observers," and called on states to "announce the failure of the Annan plan."

The U.N. says that at least 10,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Mr. Assad began in March 2011.

5.

[Excerpts]

HOULA KILLINS RAISE FEAR OF SECTARIAN WAR

By Abigail Fielding-Smith (Beirut) and Roula Khalaf (London)

Financial Times (London)
May 27, 2012

http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/e1fd1e5e-a81d-11e1-8fbb-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1w8tUCziO


. . .

Massacres have taken place before in the Syrian uprising. Scores of people were killed when the regime shelled an opposition stronghold in the central city of Homs one night in early February. Later in the same month, dozens of bodies were reported to have been found on the outskirts of Homs. Dozens more were killed in the Homs neighbourhood of Karm al-Zeitoun in March.

But, according to Fawaz Gerges, director of the London School of Economics’ Middle East Centre, the killing of so many children in an area not as well known as Homs for having a particularly strong presence of armed rebels, is a “watershed” moment.

“What Houla tells me is that the conflict has already spiralled out of control,” said Mr. Gerges.  “It smells like civil war.”

Another analyst added:  “It’s the extremism of the violence that is scary.  We didn’t see anything like this even in Iraq.”

As YouTube footage of the bloodied corpses of children said to have been killed in Houla circulates ever more widely, fears are growing about the potential of the violence to spur revenge attacks.

While the regime denies responsibility for the massacre, and it is not clear if armed civilians were working alongside the Syrian army, many activists have blamed a pro-government militia known as the shabbiha for at least some of the killings.

The shabbiha are drawn from the same minority Alawite sect as the regime.  The name, which derives from the Arabic word for ghosts, originally referred to a smuggling gang in the coastal town of Lattakia but now is applied to irregular forces fighting with the regime.

Alawite and Sunni communities are interspersed around central Syria, where Houla is located.

. . .

Activists say the regime has deliberately stoked sectarian tensions, and encouraged the militarisation of the Alawite community, in order to bolster this narrative.  Although some armed groups identify themselves with Sunni religious names, and there have been reports of tit-for-tat violence between Sunni and Alawite communities in central Syria, the opposition has worked hard to contain sectarianism -- with some insisting even now that they can keep it in check.

“Syrian people have been living in coexistence for thousands of years,” said an activist in the central city of Hama.  “The regime will not get that wish [for sectarian conflict] whatever it tries.”

But some analysts fear a massacre on the scale of Houla’s shows the Syrian conflict has gone beyond the point of no return.

“The strategy of the regime has been to sow fear in the hearts of people, said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.  “The massacre is emblematic of Syria’s slow descent into brutality.”

As the LSE’s Mr Gerges said:  “We remember the Lebanese civil war in terms of various massacres. In a similar way, unfortunately, Houla will be remembered as part of a series of many and big massacres.

“When the rot has set in, massacres become tools and instruments by which various factions terrorize other’s camps.”

Western governments have been prodding Syria’s opposition forces to reach out more to the Alawite community, which makes up about 12 per cent of the Syrian population and fills the higher ranks of the military and security and intelligence agencies.

But analysts say the Alawites are now convinced that their existence depends on that of the regime.

 

Last Updated on Monday, 28 May 2012 07:44