On May 25 the largest mass murder of civilians during the Syrian uprising occurred in the Houla region. Most of the 108 deaths were attributed to gunfire meaning the victims were killed at close range instead of shelled or bombed from the air. What is not as clear is the identity of the perpetrators since interviews with survivors conflict. While the Syrian military has carried out attacks on rebel controlled areas and were likely the ones to use artillery and tanks, the shootings were possibly carried out by soldiers or Shabbiha, the militias, supporting President Bashar al-Assad from neighboring towns and villages. Since 49 children and 34 women were among the victims international condemnation was predictably harsh. Within two days the United Nations Security Council approved a statement that blamed the Syrian government for its use of artillery and tanks against civilians and on May 29 thirteen of the 15 member council expelled Syria’s diplomats. Beyond threats of tightening sanctions this is the extent of the reaction.
The statement was toned down in large part because the Russians who support the Assad regime are willing to accept the government’s explanation. It should also be noted that China and Russia are the only two nations that did not expel Syria’s diplomats because of vested interests as well as foreign policies that do not interfere with the internal problems of other nations. Syria is already affected by sanctions passed by individual nations, however, China and Russia can block the imposition of UN sanctions which would cut Syria off from all trade. International condemnation, and sanctions affect Syria’s government, but it does not cripple it. Military force could, but the world community is reluctant to approve that for many reasons.
The uprising in Syria began like most during the Arab Spring of 2011, however, it along with the one in Yemen have yet to topple the government and bring about democratic change. Like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia where the uprising were successful Syria is a relatively modern nation with a secular government. However, unlike the others which are by and large ethnically and religiously homogenous Syria is not and many experts in the region fear what might happen if this situation devolves into civil war as it did in Lebanon for decades and most recently Iraq, both of which are neighbors.
Of the estimated 23 million people in Syria 90% are Arab and 9% Kurd which is not too exceptional until factoring in religious diversity. Sunni Muslims account for 74% followed by the Alawites at 12%, the Christians at 10%, and the Druze at 3%. The Sunni are the majority, however, the Assad family which is a part of the Alawite sect has ruled Syria for 40 years. The Alawites who are an offshoot of Islam were an oppressed and often persecuted group for centuries until Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad overthrew the government and successfully ruled over the various religious groups through secularization and at times brute force. While it is likely that most people in Syria would prefer someone other than Assad they do not have such options so they rally around the leader most likely to preserve their way of life.
The free world wants to believe that the rebels in Syria are fighting for freedom and democracy and certainly no one wants to see people massacred, but astute foreign policy experts are wary of what could transpire. Syria is a dictatorship, but it is a modern and until recently a stable one. The same could also be said of Iraq under Saddam Hussein. However, after the 2003 invasion religious violence increased until Sunni and Shiite Arabs were in an unofficial civil war from 2006 to 2008. Homegrown militias started enforcing a strict interpretation of Islamic laws and the new freedoms gained with the fall of Hussein were quickly lost to armed factions. Organizations like al-Qaeda took advantage of the situation and while it is a shadow of its former self there are similar terrorist groups like Al-Mursa Front to Protect the Levant and Fatah al-Islam. Both wish to overthrow the Assad regime and not surprisingly this could become an election issue. Governor Mitt Romney was quick to condemn President Barack Obama for not arming the rebels, but what would he say if the weapons fell into the hands of al-Qaeda aligned groups?
Many Syrians know all too well the horrors of civil war being adjacent to Iraq and Lebanon and some immigrated to Syria because of that violence. Arab Christians especially suffered in Iraq and many fled to Syria which has a sizable population of its own. Many of those Christians fear what could happen if radicals and fanatics take control of the opposition and they are not alone. The Kurds have not actively joined the opposition yet, but they might side with the government if they fear a resumption of ethnic persecution. The Druze who are neither Christian nor Muslim might side with the Alawites who could very well be fighting for their literal survival if this mutates into a religious conflict and strangely enough secular Sunni Muslims who prefer modernity to backwards fundamentalism.
It is because of this diversity that the Assad government has not fallen. The civilized world is worried about Syria turning into Iraq, Lebanon, or a failed state like Somalia. The repercussions and risks for militarily supporting the Libyan revolt were far lower. Our government could afford air support for the rebels as well as send weapons, but what happens after Assad is unclear. With the Muslim Brotherhood winning a majority in Egypt’s parliamentary elections there are many worried about a reactionary direction in the Middle East. While condemning the violence Israel is not taking any side yet. Assad like his father has never been a friend of Israel and his downfall would harm close ally, Iran, and her position in the Middle East as well as its access to Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, Assad is intelligent enough to temper anti-Israeli hostility in Syria while religious fanatics will not.
The Houla Massacre is a tragic loss of innocent life and it could be the turning point in this uprising, but it is too murky to say if it is a turn for the better or worse. This nation has been down this way before where we have to decide on whether to intervene or not and after the price we continue to pay the State Department and President must choose their actions wisely and not be motivated by election year politics. This is a far more complicated situation than Libya.
Personally, I hope for the best and want an outcome where Syria could have a democratically elected multi cultural government. It is not impossible, but highly unlikely and while I cannot support someone like Assad I do not want to be responsible for overthrowing him and inheriting a potentially bloody conflict. If that is the fate of Syria it would be better to not get blood on our hands.