Unforgivable crimes against the people of Syria

by Cesar Chelala

That some of my ancestors came from Syria may be one reason for the horror I feel over the tragic events in Houla, Syria, where at least 108 villagers, including 34 women and 49 children were massacred last month. Who is responsible for this tragedy?

As both sides — the rebels and the government — blame each other, the decision by the United Nations Human Rights Council to conduct an independent investigation is a positive step. The council called for a team of investigators led by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro to conduct an investigation and “identify those who appear responsible for these atrocities and to preserve the evidence of crimes for possible future criminal prosecutions.”

Navi Pillay, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said those responsible could face prosecution for crimes against humanity, and called for the U.N. Security Council to refer Syria to International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo. The Houla tragedy resists any attempt to oversimplify it.

As rebels blame the Assad regime, the president and its allies deny any responsibility for the May 25 attack. Syria’s delegation accused antigovernment rebels of carrying out the killings, and said its own investigation was under way. Russia and China, however, called the resolution “unbalanced” and indicated that U.N. observers were already investigating the massacre and that there was no need for an additional investigation.

Russia has issued particularly harsh comments to those in the West who blame the government for this tragedy. Said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich: “This is, above all, unwillingness by some leading international and regional actors to act on the Syrian track in accordance with the logic of peace.

“Preference, as we have seen, is still given to their own agenda, the main point of which is a change of regime in Damascus. The tragedy in Houla has shown the consequences of financial assistance and supplies of smuggled advanced weapons to militants, the recruitment of foreign mercenaries and … all sorts of extremists.”

On May 31, Human Rights First issued a report stating that a Russian cargo ship had delivered heavy weapons to the Syrian port of Tartus and that they were probably intended for President Bashar Assad’s security forces. During a visit to Germany for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin had said, “Russia doesn’t provide weapons that are usable in civil conflict.”

Many view the Syrian struggle as just a proxy conflict between Russia, China and Iran, on one side, and the Western powers on the other. Some Western governments, including Canada, have expelled their Syrian diplomats and threatened to strengthen sanctions. These moves have not resulted in any change in the pace of destructive actions in Syria.

Russian and American diplomats are considering what some call the “Yemenski Variant,” a proposal modeled after the transition in Yemen that got rid of President Ali Abdullah Saleh while keeping many of his supporters in place. This idea will probably be on the agenda at the upcoming meeting between Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama.

In the meantime, the certain veto by Russia and China of any international military intervention like the one in Libya presages an intensification of the conflict, which is claiming the lives of many civilians, notably children, a loss that doesn’t seem to faze the fighters enough. To the killers in Houla, Syria’s future, its children, seem “expendable.”

On June 3, speaking before the Syrian Parliament, Assad said not even monsters could have carried out such an “abominable” massacre. Yet, as reported in the press, Houla residents insist that those who carried out the massacre came from a local militia loyal to the Assad regime, called Shabiha, from a neighboring Allawite village. Knowing who the perpetrators were doesn’t diminish the horror of the act; it only signals direct responsibility.

Those bloody killers of children should be reminded of a poem by Pablo Neruda, one of the world’s great poets, who ends his poem “I explain a few things” (about the Spanish Civil War) with the lines:

Come and see the blood in the streets,

Come and see

The blood in the streets,

Come and see the blood

in the streets!

To use Neruda’s words in a different context, those “jackals the jackals would despise” deserve the world’s contempt.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., a winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award, writes extensively on human rights and foreign policy issues.