What is known about last week’s violence in which more than 100 people, many of them children, were killed?
Where did the massacre occur?
It took place in the town of Houla, which is in the western province of Homs in central Syria. Most of the dead were in the village of Taldou, which is 1km south-east of Houla. Homs is the most restive of Syria’s 10 provinces and has become one of two main hubs of the nationwide uprising. It has a large Sunni majority as well as numerous Allawite areas, which have remained staunchly loyal to the Syrian regime. Both sides live in close proximity in many areas.
Numerous battles have been fought in the province between the regime army and the Free Syria Army, which is comprised mostly of Sunni defectors from the military. The rebel army is thought to be stronger here than anywhere else in Syria
How did it start?
Shelling of Houla and Taldou started around 3pm on Friday afternoon, several hours after regular weekly anti-regime demonstrations, according to the accounts of numerous locals. Several residents started sending out appeals for help over Skype around that time.
The UN monitoring team was contacted late on Friday afternoon. There are credible reports that members of the Free Syria Army attacked a regime checkpoint around the same time that firing started on Houla. The reports come from two local men, one of whom is the head of the Syrian Revolutionary Council in Houla.
The situation quickly escalated, with artillery and tank shells used to barrage the town for close to three hours. Houla and Taldou are both home to large numbers of defectors and their families.
From the early evening, militias entered both areas from outlying villages. Several witnesses and survivors of the ensuing massacre say the militias arrived first on foot, then later in tanks. An 11-year-old boy interviewed by the Guardian said he saw men get out of an armoured vehicle in front of his house. He says the men entered his home and killed his family. The attack on the towns continued until dawn.
What are the competing theories?
The residents of Houla are emphatic that the killers were members of the pro-regime militia, al-Shabiha (which is Arabic for ghosts), who are drawn almost exclusively from the Allawite sect. The Shabiha have been at the vanguard of the regime crackdown and are valued by the Syrian military for their unwavering loyalty. The UN has said that up to 49 of the 100-plus victims were children and a further 20 were women. The toll of non-fighters is unusually high, something that locals say points to a particular hatred towards them.
Locals say it’s insulting to them for people to blame residents of the town for killing their own families, as some supporters of the Assad regime have done. Abu Jaffour, a town elder said: “There are no such people here. There never have been and will not be in future. It is a big lie.” They insist that there are no outsiders among them and that the attackers came from the direction of the loyalist villages, especially Foulah and Qabou.
The regime has instead blamed “armed terrorists,” a refrain it has stuck to throughout the 15-month uprising. It suggests jihadists from Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan have entered Syria and overtaken the uprising. Damascus has said it would display foreign fighters captured in Syria, including at least one Briton, but it has not yet done so.
What is the significance of the surrounding villages?
Houla is surrounded on three fronts by Allawite villages, Foulah, al-Qabou, Shenya and Sharqliah. Assad is an Allawite and so are almost all of the core of the Syrian regime. Locals say that Foulah and al-Qabou have long been hostile to Houla. They claim the hostility has increased as the uprising has raged. Survivors have testified that the militiamen spoke with an Allawite dialect.
What does the available evidence say about the perpetrators?
Witnesses say some of the men were wearing at least partial military uniform. Some were in civilian clothes. Only the regime army has the ability to shell areas for a long period. There is strong evidence that shelling did take place in the late afternoon of Friday. This is supported by videos believed to have been taken during the attack and by pleas for help from locals sent as shells were falling.
Locals scorn the idea that jihadists from al-Qaida are among them. They say that none have come to them, and nor would they be welcome. They say that it would be culturally impossible for al-Qaida to be among them without them knowing. They say that just is unlikely is the regime line that the al-Qaida attackers approached from the town’s outskirts – areas that regime forces fully control.
Survivors say that the men who killed their families were Allawites, some of them from nearby villages, especially Foulah and Qabou. They claim that several openly acknowledged where they were from and why they had come.
|WRITTEN BY CHRIS FLOYD|
|TUESDAY, 29 MAY 2012 14:21|
|I must, at last, admit defeat. I simply have no words, no rhetorical ammunition, no conceptual frameworks that could adequately address the total moral nullity exposed in Monday’s New York Times article on the death squad that Barack Obama is personally directing from the White House. (“Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will.”)It is not so much a newspaper story as a love letter — a love letter to death, to the awe-inspiring and fear-inducing power of death, as personified by Barack Obama in his temporary role as the manager of a ruthless, lawless imperial state. In the cringing obsequiousness of the multitude of insiders and sycophants who march in goose-step through the story, we can see the awe and fear — indeed, the worship — of death-dealing power. This enthrallment permeates the story, both in the words of the cringers and in the giddy thrill the writers display in gaining such delicious access to the inner sanctum.
In any other age — including the last administration — this story would have been presented as a scandalous exposé. The genuinely creepy scenes of the “nominating process” alone would have been seen as horrific revelations. Imagine the revulsion at the sight of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld sifting through PowerPoint slides on “suspected terrorists” all over the world, and giving their Neronic thumbs up or down as each swarthy face pops up on a screen in front of them. Imagine the tidal wave of moral outrage from the “Netroots Nation” and other progressive champions directed at Bush not only for operating a death squad (which he did), but then trotting out Condi and Colin and Bob Gates to brag about it openly, and to paint Bush as some kind of moral avatar for the careful consideration and philosophical rigor he applied to blowing human beings to bits in sneak attacks on faraway villages.
But the NYT piece is billed as just another “process story” about an interesting aspect of Obama’s presidency, part of an election-year series assessing his record. It is based entirely on the viewpoints of Beltway insiders. The very few dollops of mild criticism of the murder program are voiced by figures from deep within the imperial machine. And even these caveats are mostly tactical in nature, based on one question: “Does the program work, is it effective?” There is not a single line that ever suggests, even slightly, that the program might be morally wrong. There is not a single line in the story suggesting that such a program should up for debate or even examination by Congress. Nor is there even a perfunctory quote from mainstream organizations such as the ACLU or Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch — or from anyone in Pakistan or Yemen or the other main targets of Obama’s proudly proclaimed and personally approved death squad.
In other words, this portrait of an American president signing off — week after week after week after week — on the extrajudicial murder of people all over the world is presented as something completely uncontroversial. Indeed, the main thrust of the story is not the fact that human beings — including many women, children and men who have no connection whatsoever to “terrorism,” alleged or otherwise — are being regularly killed by the United States government; no, the main focus is how this program illustrates Barack Obama’s “evolving” style of leadership during the course of his presidency. That’s what’s really important. The murders — the eviscerated bodies, the children with their skulls bashed in, the pregnant women burned alive in their own homes — are just background. Unimportant. Non-controversial.
“Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.
“This secret “nominations” process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia. … A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes.
“The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name. He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan — about a third of the total.
“Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions.
“He realizes this isn’t science, this is judgments made off of, most of the time, human intelligence,” said Mr. Daley, the former chief of staff. “The president accepts as a fact that a certain amount of screw-ups are going to happen, and to him, that calls for a more judicious process.”
Again, words fail. Aides pumping reporters with stories about the wise, judicious philosopher-king consulting Aquinas and Augustine before sending a drone missile on a “signature strike” on a group of picnickers in Yemen or farmers in Pakistan. The philosopher-king himself nobly taking on the “moral responsibility” for mass murder. And the cavalier assertion that “a certain amount of screw-ups are going to happen” — a bland, blithe acceptance that you are in fact going to slaughter innocent human beings on a regular basis — precisely as if you walked up to an innocent man on the street, put a gun to his head and blew his brains out all over the sidewalk …. then walked away, absolved, unconcerned, and free to kill again. And again. And again. This psychopathic serial killing is, evidently, what Augustine meant by “moral responsibility.” Who knew?
Obama’s deep concern for “moral responsibility” is also reflected in his decision to kill according to “signature strikes” — that is, to kill people you don’t know, who haven’t even popped up on your PowerPoint slides, if you think they might possibly look or act like alleged potential “terrorists.” (Or if you receive some “human intelligence” from an agent or an informer or someone with a grudge or someone seeking payment that a group of people doing something somewhere might be terrorists.) This “moral responsibility” is also seen in Obama’s decision to count “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
Guilty until proven posthumously innocent! How’s that for “moral responsibility”? Here Obama has surpassed Augustine and Aquinas — yea, even great Aristotle himself — in this bold extension of the parameters of moral responsibility.
It is, I confess, beyond all my imagining that a national leader so deeply immersed in murdering people would trumpet his atrocity so openly, so gleefully — and so deliberately, sending his top aides out to collude in a major story in the nation’s leading newspaper, to ensure maximum exposure of his killing spree. Although many leaders have wielded such powers, they almost always seek to hide or obscure the reality of the operation. Even the Nazis took enormous pains to hide the true nature of their murder programs from the public. And one can scarcely conceive of Stalin inviting reporters from Pravda into the Politburo meetings where he and Molotov and Beria debated the lists of counterrevolutionary “terrorists” given to them by the KGB and ticked off those who would live and those who would die. Of course, those lists too were based on “intelligence reports,” often gathered through “strenuous interrogation techniques” or the reports of informers. No doubt these reports were every bit as credible as the PowerPoint presentations reviewed each week by Obama and his team.
And no doubt Stalin and his team were just as sincerely concerned about “national security” as the Aquinas acolyte in the White House today — and just as determined to do “whatever it takes” to preserve that security. As Stalin liked to say of the innocent people caught up in his national security efforts: “When wood is chopped, chips fly.”
Of course, he was an evil man without any sense of moral responsibility at all. In our much more enlightened times, under the guidance of a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in the White House, we are so much wiser, so much better. We say: “A certain amount of screw-ups are going to happen.” Isn’t that much more nuanced? Isn’t that much more moral?
There is more, much more of this nullity — and rotting hypocrisy and vapid sycophancy — in the story. But I don’t have the strength or the stomach to wade any further through this swamp. It stinks of death. It taints and stains us all.