May 2012, Week 4


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Mon, 28 May 2012 21:26:15 -0400
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Exclusive dispatch: Assad blamed for massacre of the

The war in Syria escalates with the brutal killing of
32 children

Patrick Cockburn Sunday, 27 May 2012


In a massacre of unprecedented savagery that brings
Syria close to civil war, some 32 children and 60
adults have been slaughtered in villages in the Houla
area of central Syria. Anti-government militants blame
pro-regime gunmen for carrying out the butchery in
which children and their parents were hacked and shot
to death.

The figure for the number of children and adults killed
was confirmed in an interview with The Independent on
Sunday by General Robert Mood, the head of the team of
300 UN observers which is seeking to reduce the level
of violence. "My patrols went into the village," he
said. "I can verify that they counted 32 children under
10 killed. In addition, there were more than 60 adults

General Mood would not explain how the villagers died,
but horrific pictures posted on YouTube appear to show
that they were shot or knifed to death, some having
their throats cut. The small bodies of the children
were covered in sheets as they were taken by survivors
screaming in grief and disbelief from the houses where
they had been murdered.

The massacre is the worst single incident in Syria's
14-month crisis because it involved the deliberate
murder of children as well as adults. Militants say the
perpetrators were pro-regime gunmen, known as the
shabiya, who had captured Houla. If true, the shabiya
may have been members of the Alawite sect, which is
supportive of the government. Alawites inhabit a string
of villages south of Houla, which is 25km north-west of
Homs. The Syrian leadership is largely drawn from the
Alawite sect.

General Mood said that fighting around Houla started on
Friday evening with the use of "tanks, artillery,
rocket-propelled grenades, and heavy machine guns".
This implied an attack by government forces since the
insurgent Free Syrian Army does not have heavy weapons.
This confirms the militants' story that there had been
big anti-government protests on Friday in Houla, where
there have previously been many anti-government

The calculated slaughter of Sunni villagers and their
children by Alawites brings a new level of violence to
Syria and propels it towards sectarian civil war.
Yesterday, Damascus was quiet aside from one protest in
an outlying district, but fighting has intensified at
Rastan, north of Homs. Observers from the UN
Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMS) have mediated a
ceasefire there, leaving insurgents in control of the
town. But this straddles the main highway linking
Damascus and Aleppo, so the government is unlikely to
allow the Free Syrian Army to hold the town for long.

The Houla massacre could mark a crucial stage in the
war in Syria because it will energise the insurgents
inside and outside the country. It will make it more
difficult for any compromise or new ceasefire to be
arranged between President Bashar Assad and his
opponents. It will increase hatred between Sunni and
Alawites, a heterodox branch of Shia Islam. This has
already been seen in the past week, with 11 Shia
pilgrims kidnapped by insurgents in Syria and 10 people
killed in associated violence in Lebanon. Houla is not
far from the Lebanese border, and the latest atrocity
is similar to what happened in the Lebanese civil war
between 1975 and 1990, when different communities
repeatedly massacred each other.

The pictures of the dead children of Houla are likely
to create an international outcry and underline that
the ceasefire arranged by the UN-Arab League envoy Kofi
Annan is foundering. General Mood confirmed yesterday
that there was no real ceasefire in Syria and said that
there could not be an effective one until the
combatants themselves implemented it. He emphasised
that unarmed UN monitors cannot impose a truce, though
in some areas, such as Homs, they have succeeded in
"calming" the situation. He said: "The solution to the
Syria crisis lies in the hands of the Syrian
government, the fragmented opposition, and those
outside fuelling the crisis by supplying arms and

Mr Annan is due in Damascus in the next few days to try
to patch up a new ceasefire, but neither the government
nor its opponents have carried through on past
agreements. The government suppression of peaceful
protest with gunfire and mass detentions has continued.
At the same time, the Islamicisation and militarisation
of the opposition is frightening minorities, such as
the Alawites, Christians and Druze. The government is
targeting moderate and secular opposition in order to
present a stark choice to Syrians, and the world,
between itself and Islamic fundamentalists.

Last night, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said:
"There are credible and horrific reports that a large
number of civilians have been massacred, including
children. Our urgent priority is to ensure those
responsible are held to account. We will be calling for
an urgent session of the UN Security Council in the
coming days. The Assad regime must cease all military

The President and his First Lady... and their people

He is the President; she is the First Lady; they are
dead children. He governs but doesn't protect; she
shops and doesn't care; they will never grow old. His
father was an autocrat; hers a Harley Street doctor;
theirs are bereaved. He will sleep in his bed tonight;
so will she; they will be in their graves. However you
conjugate the lives of the Syrian leader and his
people, there is something very wrong.

Two days ago, they were all alive. He and she in their
gilded residence, looking much as they do in this
photograph - he sharp-suited, she sun-glassed and with
a watch of gold on her wrist. The children were in
their ramshackled homes in Houla, poor but alive. Then
the men of war came. When they left, the children were
as you see them here in this, the most grotesque
picture yet to emerge from this land of the alleged

There are still photographs of this scene, and video.
And over the footage that would bear more than enough
testimony to the redundant regime of Assad, the voice
of a man can be heard screaming. "These are all
children!" he cries, shrill with angry despair, "Watch,
you dogs, you Arabs, you animals - look at these
children, watch, just watch!"

And one hopes that those on the United Nations Security
Council, when it reconvenes, will look into the staring
eyes of these dead children and remember the hollow
words of Assad's wife when she simpered that she
"comforts the families" of her country's victims. 


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