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Syrians will not soon forget brutal massacre in Houla

Let Kofi Annan continue his absurd "diplomacy". The Syrian people will neither forgive nor forget the massacre of Houla.

In the early hours of May 30, 1938, two men sat down in a room in Munich and signed a piece of paper that promised stability and peace in Europe.

Later that day, one of them, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, returned home triumphantly declaring "peace in our time", comfortable in the knowledge that only the people of Czechoslovakia had been sacrificed. Meanwhile back in Germany, the other, Adolf Hitler, reassured his Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who was unhappy at the terms of the Munich Pact, not to fret.

"Oh, don't take it so seriously," the Führer said. "That piece of paper is of no further significance whatever."

If Kofi Annan is not a student of history, then perhaps he ought to be. The lesson is simple. Agreements, certainly ones involving brutal dictators, are not worth the paper they're written on.

Last Friday, the Houla massacre in Syria left 108 dead, many of them children executed in cold blood. If any proof was needed this was it: the stillborn Kofi Annan ceasefire plan was well and truly buried.

Despite clear evidence of repeated detentions, torture and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas by Syrian government forces, it has taken the horror of Houla to finally drive home to the world what has been obvious for months. The Assad regime has crossed the Rubicon; it is inconceivable a negotiated settlement could be implemented now.

The foreign reporters may eventually move on, and the West, as Robert Fisk said in The Independent on Tuesday, "will forget". But the Syrian people will not. Houla is now imprinted in their collective consciousness. It is now their Srebrenica. Their Sabra and Shatila. This generation's Hama. People don't forget.

Not surprisingly, Syria has "categorically denied" responsibility for what it was calling a "terrorist massacre". (Which raises the question of why a regime which has ruled the country with an iron grip for four decades is incapable of arresting these "terrorists".)

After Houla, however, the world is at last scrambling to do the right thing, or get "on the right side of history", as it is called these days.

By yesterday, Spain, Italy, Canada Britain, Australia, Switzerland, France, Germany and the US had all expelled the Syrian envoys from their capitals. This will not stop the killing, but it's a start. Even the terminally ineffectual UN and its snail-paced observer mission eventually condemned the Houla massacre; although it was not until Tuesday that the UN conceded that the executions were "probably" the work of the Shabbiheh, the pro-Assad militia thugs.

Mr Annan, meanwhile, continues to veer from outrage to sycophancy, often at the same time.

"Those responsible for these brutal crimes must be held accountable," he said before quickly abandoning all credibility by adding: "I understand that the [Syrian] government is also investigating." How must these words sound to those who suffered in Houla? What possible outcome will make a mother forgive the slaughter of her child?

After Houla, Syria's Baathist regime is surely doomed. Not because the opposition are organised or are in any way equipped to defeat Assad's forces; they aren't.

Not because a Libya-style foreign intervention is on the way; the international community clearly has no stomach for this fight.

And certainly not because Mr Al Assad's allies will pressure him to stop the slaughter; Russia and China have displayed astonishing moral bankruptcy in protecting their Middle East ally.

No, it's because the images of children with slit throats have now come to define this conflict. Rightly or wrongly, many will demand vengeance.

As ever with Syria, the question is what happens next? Is Houla the tipping point or will the world continue to sit back and watch? Certainly no obvious resolution presents itself. Foreign intervention for now is off the table. Escalating violence, increased arming of the opposition and potential civil war are more likely scenarios.

Writing in The National on Tuesday, the Syrian-American columnist Amal Hanano eloquently described the cynics who predicted these self-fulfilling prophecies.

"There were many months when the struggle was peaceful, nonsectarian, without outside influences and contained within borders," she wrote. "But the critics shook their condescending fingers and raised their voices in unison, predicting the violence that was to be unleashed on the region."

The long-held view is that the Assad regime welcomes an escalation of violence from the opposition. Except it doesn't really. What the Assad regime welcomes is the perception of violence by the opposition. A full-blown civil conflict, which would target their top men, include car bombings and ultimately close in on the regime-base in Damascus, can lead to only one endgame. An endgame many dictators, from Hitler to Muammar Qaddafi, ultimately faced.

It might not happen anytime soon. But it will happen. And when it does, the Syrian president should not expect the mercy that was denied to the children of Houla. People don't forget, Bashar.

akhaled@thenational.ae

On Twitter: AliKhaled_

Updated: May 31, 2012 04:00 AM

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