It has been silent for a while but now it looks like the interventionist are making a new attempt to get their way with Syria. This time they try to abuse the massacre in Houla as an excuse.
What happened was that there was first a battle between the army and the FSA in which the army used artillery. Then the FSA - that had been hiding among the civilians - temporarily left Houla to attack army posts. While they were away some militias used the opportunity to commit a massacre.
The Security Council took the opportunity to condemn Assad for using artillery. But using artillery is just the way the Syrian army fights. It causes occasional civilian deaths because the FSA likes to hide among civilians but it is not the main cause of civilian deaths. In Houla less than 20 of the death are from shelling and it is likely that at least part of them are opposition fighters.
When problems started in Syria the US at first attempted to have resolutions that condemned the Syrian army for using violence but left the opposition off the hook. They didn't get their way with that but in the end they got a clause on using artillery (that the FSA doesn't have) in the Annan plan. It is hypocrisy: all fighters should stay away from civilian centers, not just those from army.
What we really need to know is the answer to two questions:
- what was the fighting in Houla about? Who started it and what were the goals of both parties? With both Sunni and Alawite villages in the area and the FSA having a reputation for ethnic cleansing of such villages it is not hard to see potential for conflict.
- Who were the militia's who committed the massacre? Did they have a motive? Was this a revenge for something else?
As I have written often before: when will Annan finally get serious about negotiations? That is the only way out. And you can't wait until the violence has stopped: negotiations are needed to create the trust that is needed for violence to stop.
Postscript: there are at least some answers: according to Human Rights Watch, as cited in the WSJ, at least 62 of the casualties are from one family (the Abdul Razak family in Taldou). According to the WSJ article "One resident said the attacks on Friday might have been to avenge a rebel assault on a nearby Alawite village a day earlier. Rebel fighters also admitted putting up a stronger fight with government forces on Friday than had been claimed initially. That fighting appeared to be what the government blamed for its artillery barrage."
Postscript 2: Here you can find the complete text of the press conference in which the Syrian government denies responsibility for the Houla massacre.
Postscript 3: This article ("I saw massacre of children, says defecting Syrian air force officer") contains a summary of an interview with Major Jihad Raslan, an air force officer who was on leave in Houla when the killings happened and later defected. His account is not very informative. He reports that the massacre has led to an increase in defections.
Postscript 4: This article (The Houla massacre: reconstructing the events of 25 May) tries to reconstruct what happened. A fragment: Maysara, a local elder who doubles as a leader in the Syrian Revolutionary Council, said the shelling lasted for about three hours. "Just as we were getting ready to start the demonstration, the shelling started," he said. [..] The people of Houla had been attacked before, but [...] the [intensity of the] shelling was unusual," said a second local, Abu Aruba. [..] The barrage was followed by a movement of security forces, according to Maysara. "The regime army was gathering near the water plant [on the southern outskirts of town]," he said. "We knew they were planning something big."
Abu Aruba estimated that around 300 men gathered at a Syrian military depot near the water plant. According to several accounts, the Shabiha and regime troops rallied after members of the Free Syria Army attacked a checkpoint earlier in the day. The men at the water plant were a mix of security forces and the feared loyalist Shabiha militia that has been at the vanguard of the 16-month nationwide crackdown on dissent.
The homes of the Abdul Razziq family were the first that the militias reached when they approached Taldou. More than 60 of the massacre victims are thought to have belonged to this single extended family.
The Shabiha approached from the south-east – from the direction of Foulah and Qabou, according to numerous local accounts. "The Shabiha took advantage of the fact that there was no one there to protect them," Abu Aruba said. "There was no one there on the outskirts. They just slaughtered everybody." By early evening, much of the killing had stopped, the witnesses say. According to the residents of Houla, most of the militiamen had returned to Foulah and Qabou. A small group, however, remained behind. It is this group which is believed to have gone looking for the Sayed family at about 3am on Saturday morning.
There are some inconsistencies in this report. Outside the Abdul Razziq and the Sayed family and the victims of the shelling only about 10 people were killed. This suggests targeting, not random killing. So why does the opposition deny that? The other inconsistency is that the opposition first claimed that all the casualties were due to shelling and later changed that story.
Postscript 5: Here is a report from a pro-Assad site: [The witness] said that the victims belong to the family of al-Sayed, with Muawiya al-Sayed being a police officer who didn't defect and was always in danger, along with two other al-Sayed households who are related to Meshleb al-Sayed who recently became Secretary of the People's Assembly.
The witness added that another family that was targeted is Abdelrazzaq family which consists of four household and supports the government, noting that the houses belong to al-Sayed family are located next to the houses of gunmen and their relatives, wondering how the gunmen's children weren't killed if the attack had been perpetrated by "Shabiha" as some claim?
She added that another family that was untouched is that of Faour, and that all the members of this family are armed and one of whom acts as a cameraman for al-Jazeera, wondering how none of these people died when their houses were full at the time of the massacre.
About the perpetrators another witness said according to this report: He explained that the group led by one Haitham al-Housan hated al-Sayed family, and that they're killers, not revolutionaries, and their trade is abduction, murder and theft through which they amassed millions, adding that this group didn't even fire at the detachment but rather at the house where Okba al-Sayed, his brother, his sister-in-law and their children were, killing them.
Postscript 6: ANNA News Journalist Marat Musin about Houla Massacre from Syrianews add other details: In the weekend of May 25, 2012, at about 2 PM, big groups of fighters attacked and captured the town of Al – Hula of the Homs province. Al-Hula is made up of three regions: the village of Taldou, Kafr Laha and Taldahab, each of which had previously been home for 25-30 thousand people.
The town was attacked from the north-east by groups of bandits and mercenaries, numbering up to 700 people. The militants came from Ar-Rastan (the Brigade of al-Farouk from the Free Syrian Army led by the terrorist Abdul Razak Tlass and numbering 250), from the village of Akraba (led by the terrorist Yahya Al-Yousef), from the village Farlaha, joined by local gangsters, and from Al Hula.
The city of Ar-Rastan has long been abandoned by most civilians. Now Wahhabis from Lebanon dominate the scene, fueled with money and weapons by one of the main orchestrators of international terrorism, Saad Hariri, who heads the anti-Syrian political movement “Tayyar Al-Mustaqbal” (“Future Movement”). The road from Ar-Rastan to Al-Hula runs through Bedouin areas that remain mostly out of control of government troops, which made the militant attacks on Al Hula a complete surprise for the Syrian authorities.
When the rebels seized the lower checkpoint in the center of town and located next to the local police department, they began to sweep all the families loyal to the authorities in neighboring houses, including the elderly, women and children. Several families of the Al-Sayed were killed, including 20 young children and the family of the AbdulRazak. Many of those killed were “guilty” of the fact that they dared to change from Sunnis to Shiites.
Note that once, the exactly same provocation failed at Shumar (Homs) and 49 militants and women and children were killed, when it was organized just before a visit of Kofi Annan. The last provocation was immediately exposed as soon as it became known that the bodies of the previously kidnapped belonged to Alawites. This provocation also contained serious inconsistencies – the names of those killed were from people loyal to the authorities, there were no traces of bombings, etc.
Postscript 7: Here is the translated transcript of a Russian TV documentary with some video fragments.
Postscript 8: In the mean time the Guardian reports on 4 June that UN investigators have said their evidence supported the claims of witnesses and defecting Syrian office that the Houla killings were carried out by a regime-controlled militia, the shabiha. Unfortunately it looks like the UN is only relying on opposition sources.
Postscript 9: National Review has article in which it cites German and Dutch sources. Some quotes: [...]the massacre occurred after rebel forces attacked three army-controlled roadblocks outside of Houla. The roadblocks had been set up to protect nearby Alawi majority villages from attacks by Sunni militias. The rebel attacks provoked a call for reinforcements by the besieged army units. Syrian army and rebel forces are reported to have engaged in battle for some 90 minutes, during which time “dozens of soldiers and rebels” were killed.
According to eyewitness accounts [...] the massacre occurred during this time. Those killed were almost exclusively from families belonging to Houla’s Alawi and Shia minorities. Over 90% of Houla’s population are Sunnis. Several dozen members of a family were slaughtered, which had converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. Members of the Shomaliya, an Alawi family, were also killed, as was the family of a Sunni member of the Syrian parliament who is regarded as a collaborator. Immediately following the massacre, the perpetrators are supposed to have filmed their victims and then presented them as Sunni victims in videos posted on the internet.
Already at the beginning of April, Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix of the St. James Monastery warned of rebel atrocities’ being repackaged in both Arab and Western media accounts as regime atrocities. She cited the case of a massacre in the Khalidiya neighborhood in Homs. According to an account published in French on the monastery’s website, rebels gathered Christian and Alawi hostages in a building in Khalidiya and blew up the building with dynamite.
Postscript 10: The FAZ article was retorted by an article ("Assad’s Houla Propaganda"). Given that the article made outrageous claims like that the victims were Alawi and Shiites this doesn't surprise. Here is a reaction by FSA activists from Houla.
Postscript 11: Here is the deathlist of Houla - as published on the site of the SNC.
Postcript 12: The wiki website A Closer look on Syria has a special section in hwich it tries to sort out the diverse allegations that have been made regarding the Houla massacre.
Postscript 13: Here is the UN report that declares the Syrian government and the shabiha responsible. The report contains 102 pages but less than one and a half page in the main text and four pages in Appendix IV is devoted to providing arguments for its conclusion. They mostly depended on interviews by others - partly because the government refused access. All interviews they saw supported the rebel version, except for the two mentioned in the government report. They tried to interview those two but didn't get access. Their evidence is rather circumstantial: the government had some positions that gave it considerabel control over the area and survivors fled to opposition controlled areas. What misses is an effort to reconstruct the situation and give an account of who did what and why.
Postscript 14: Here are interviews with witnesses from Houla on the Spiegel website.
Postscript 15: A closer look on Syria found more witnesses supporting the version that the rebels did it.
Postscript 16: Syria : One Year After the Houla Massacre. New Report on Official vs. Real Truth analyzes the unreliability of the UN report. Its source is Official Truth, Real Truth, and Impunity for the Syrian Houla Massacre of May 2012. Seven Essays By: Marinella Correggia, Alfredo Embid, Ronda Hauben, Adam Larson., a 79 pages long article.