If one was willing to entertain the shabeehas- on- the- loose theory as I was in a previous blog post here, then this latest tragedy, at Mazraat al-Qabeer, renders this theory even less likely. In the absence of concrete evidence, I still can’t say it is impossible or inconceivable, but using logic and observation of existing facts on the grounds and of political developments, this second massacre benefits no one but the more sectarian elements of the armed opposition who are crying out for a NATO invasion.
But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment and take up the opposition’s argument: Yet again, the Assad regime can’t think of a better time to commit another massacre of women and children, except on the eve of UNSC meeting, not to mention the US-led “Friends of Syria” meeting in Istanbul. The irony is clearly lost on Reuters who aptly headlined their report: “Syria accused of new massacre as U.N. meets.”
Clearly Assad wasn’t satisfied with the international reaction to his alleged orchestration of the Houla massacre, including the UN Human Rights Council’s call for a referral— of what it considered the regime’s “crimes against humanity”—to the ICC. No, the regime suffers from a case of collective masochism and WANTS more pressure, more isolation and more sanctions. It also wants to embarrass Russia and compel it to go along with the “Yemen” solution the US has been pushing Russia to endorse, as Reuters reports: The main point of Annan’s proposal, they said, was to get Russia to commit to the idea of a Syrian political transition.
The regime also wants an even bloodier civil war, and an even more sectarian climate to keep encouraging those al-Qaeda inspired groups who target its infrastructure, because loss of control over its territory will certainly will keep the regime’s power centralized and Assad strong. As an authoritarian ruler, a weak state is precisely Assad’s objective. And of course the Assad regime is keen on stirring ant-Shi’ite sentiment against Shiítes everywhere, especially its ally Iran. Just see this Reuters excerpt below, they have it all figured out:
Shabbiha, drawn mostly from Assad’s minority Alawite sect that identifies with the Shi’ites of Iran, have been blamed for the killings of civilians from the Sunni Muslim majority. That has raised fears of an Iraq-style sectarian bloodbath and reinforced a wider regional confrontation between Iran and the mainly Sunni-led Arab states of the Middle East.
See? These regime-orchestrated massacres aim at promoting just this type of information warfare—the Alawites who identify with their co-religionists in Iran (not in Lebanon or Iraq or Turkey or anywhere else apparently) are responsible for the sectarian bloodbath that has gripped their country, which Salafi and Wahabi Sunnis and al-Qaeda groups are merely reacting to. They want to drag Iran into a regional sectarian war which will make the Islamic Republic lose any remaining Sunni popular support it still enjoys in the region, and which will turn it into the new Shi’ite bogey-man which will replace Israel as the Arabs main enemy. Why? Because that’s what allies do. They try to fulfill the openly declared sectarian agendas of theirs and Iran’s principal regional rivals—Saudi Arabia, Qatar etc.
Right, makes perfect sense. But hey the regime is suicidal and irrational so motives should never be entertained.
On a less sarcastic note, and in the absence of any concrete or convincing evidence of regime-linked groups culpability for the massacres, it is worth reproducing Alstair Crooke’s who dunnit theory here:
British intelligence officer Alastair Crooke told RT these attacks are not characteristic of the cultural region to which Syria belongs.
“This type of killing, beheadings, slitting of throats (of children too), and of this mutilation of bodies, has been a characteristic not of Levantine Islam, not of Syria, not of Lebanon, but what happened in the Anbar province of Iraq. And so it seems to point very much in the direction of groups that have been associated with the war in Iraq against the United States who have perhaps returned to Syria, or perhaps Iraqis who have come up from Anbar to take part in it,” he says.
Crooke believes the Al-Qaeda connection is misleading, as the massacre has its tactical and ideological roots in the Iraq war.
“I think the attack is more close to Musab al-Zarqawi [who declared an all out war on Shia in Iraq], than Al-Qaeda as we know it, in the sense that Zarqawi and Iraq gave birth to this very strong, bigoted, anti-Shia, anti-Iranian rhetoric. Much of that came into Syria when fighters from Anbar returned to their homes around Homs and Hama.
“So yes, we’re talking about Al-Qaeda like groups that are at the very end of the spectrum of the opposition. They may be a minority in terms of the numbers of the overall opposition, but they are defining the war,” Crooke maintains.
I am copy-pasting here two different accounts of how the Syrian Alawites get their arms. I subscribe to the second account, which I consider relevant in the context of the sectarian warfare that plagues Syria today.
The first account is made by Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and founder of the widely read blog, Syria Comment. Here’s what he told NPR:
“So we’re - the Assad regime is relying more and more on the Shabiha. These are irregular troops that are being drafted in, because as semi-regulars defect for the military at the very bottom, the military has to counter-balance that. And they’re bringing in - they’re arming villagers, and they’re bringing more Alawite irregular troops in in order to do the heavy lifting and to - and that means we’re increasingly getting more sectarian with Sunni rebels against this Alawite - increasingly Alawite military effort.”
The second, which I find much more convincing and comprehensive, is a response to Landis’ remarks written by a very knowledgeable and trusted source on Syria who resides there. Here is his account:
“About the arming of people, just would like to point out the following.
The government arms anyone who has a “sijil tijari” and/or “sjijil sina3i” so tradesman or industrial. In addition to anyone who has agricultural land or herders. By law they are all entilted to ask for weapons (hand guns and AK47). I know industrials who did take weapons now for fear of their safety.
Some chose not to because they are afraid they might end up on a hit list as being shabbiha, in case the list of those who received weapons is leaked.
These are for self defense as most businessmen have either being threatened or want to be ready for any kidnapping or something.
Alawis (in the villages) have more or less “always being armed”, consider it a cultural thing just like the bedouins in the east (and everywhere) have always bein armed, and every other villager in syria. The government in no way whatsoever has armed them. And if anything they have asked them to show restraint.
In addition, when shias or Alawis get kidnapped, their village goes to the government for help, their response is “we cannot intervene, go kidnap someone from their side and trade or just pay the ransom”. The army and security try to take as much distance possible from these events because once it starts taking a side, its not going to look good at all, especially in front of the lower ranks seeing their superiors “defending shia villages”.
That is one of the reasons, I think, the army is still holding together.”
There is a new, and quite plausible, alternative narrative that has emerged these past two days which describes the Houla massacre as Alawite retaliation for an earlier massacre committed by armed Sunni oppositionists against the Alawite village of al-Shoumariyeh. According to many unconfirmed reports, vengeful and armed villagers and /or shabiha retaliated for the massacre by butchering villagers from the neighbouring village of Houla. Apparently, the artillery rounds the Syrian army fired at rebel-controlled Houla was an attempt to end the bloodshed in Shamariyeh, or something to that effect. How the perpetrators of the massacre entered a rebel stronghold and executed such a large massacre unimpeded remains to be seen.
Although some claim the al-Shoumariyeh massacre occurred after the Houla massacre, the Syrian news agency, SANA, reports that “foreign-funded armed terrorist groups” committed massacres in al-Shoumariyeh and Taldao on Friday, 25 May, at 2:00 p.m. Considering that the Houla massacre is widely reported to have commenced around 3 p.m. that same day, it does appear that the Houla massacre occurred after the first two, or around the same time. None of this confirms the new narrative, but it doesn’t undermine it either.
While the details are still very murky, the UN seems to have caught on to this story, or some related version thereof, as its -peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous recently declared ”There is strong suspicion that the Shabiha were involved in this tragedy in Houla.” Russia has given its blessing to a UN investigation into the incident.
Like any of the narratives about the Houla massacre, the above story has not been substantiated by any evidence, least of all the dominant narrative which places the blame squarely on the Syrian regime. I only chose to comment on this alternative narrative because I deemed it more plausible than the latter, and hence, worthy of commentary, but it remains a narrative not a fact. I don’t necessarily deem it the most probable explanation for what happened in Houla on May 25, given how much the massacre served US-NATO-GCC interests. What I am arguing here though, is that even if we assume that this Alawite revenge narrative is true, that should not implicate the Syrian regime in the massacre.
I wrote a short post a few days ago on why I thought it highly unlikely the “regime” would commit an atrocity like this. I still stand by my analysis, despite the materialization of this new narrative. When I said regime, I actually meant the Syrian army, as all fingers were initially pointed at it. I didn’t/ still don’t think it makes any sense for a conventional armed force with a clear chain of command to subject itself to charges of war crimes—which is much easier to make when there is a clear-cut organizational hierarchy and hence, accountability, not to mention potential refusniks and defectors given the heinous nature of the crime— in a context of overwhelming international pressure and when the entire world is watching every move and mismove it makes. While I am aware that the shabiha constitute the state’s “unofficial” arm, (some compare it to Iran’s basij), I still deem it highly improbable that the Assad leadership would order shabiha to carry out a killing rampage on its behalf in a Sunni village it had already shelled, for the same reasons I outlined in my earlier post: it stands everything to lose and nothing to gain. And no, the “gain” of terrorizing the villagers and rebels into submission (assuming that is even an effective method of reasserting control) just doesn’t outweigh all the risks that accompany such a tactic. It is much more probable, that these armed elements acted out of revenge of their own accord, as revenge massacres often are.
As for the argument by opposition supporters and others, which regards the regime as being ultimately responsible for all violence, irrespective of its source, the fact remains that this is a government which no longer has full control of its territory, or a monopoly on the use of violence. Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that it’s trying to retrieve sovereignty over its land by the force of arms, and in so doing, exposing itself to often unfounded accusations of wide-scale repression, killing and war crimes. At the end of the day, what we have in Syria is a situation characterized by sectarian warfare, armed insurrection, al-Qaeda terrorism and blatant NATO-GCC intervention —hardly the ingredients of a strong centralized government which can be held to account for every act of violence that takes place on Syrian soil.
One can only wait for an impartial and objective inquiry before jumping to make predetermined conclusions which only serve the agenda of those pushing for a NATO invasion of Syria. So much political capital is being made out of this inconceivably evil massacre: Both France and the US have now expressed their willingness for military intervention in Syria as a result of this atrocity, which Kofi Annan has rightly labelled it a “tipping point” in the conflict. Uncovering the perpetrators is therefore imperative not only for justice to be served but also for averting a wider regional war.