Syria post Houla massacre - few options for the West

Posted by Caabu on 31 May 2012


Syria post Houla massacre - few options for the West

Chris Doyle  30 May 2012


Syria is lurching further into civil war, at least in certain areas of the country. This is clear following the horrific massacres around Houla. This area west of Homs is a tapestry of different villages - Alawi, Christian and Sunni. There was already fighting and an increase in arming before this dreadful massacre. The desire for revenge runs high. A cursory Facebook and Twitter survey shows that communal and inter-sectarian relations are dissolving, and replaced by a fearful and dangerous atmosphere. The regime has of course been promoting both sectarian fears and arming since day one of this uprising. The regime, far from feeling under pressure, dispatched its forces to surround and attack Hama once more.

The firing has barely ceased since the Annan plan was agreed to in April. This presents the international community with a major challenge, which so far it has failed to answer. The EU expelling diplomats is largely symbolic and will change little.

Russia is arguing that there should be no condemnation of the Syrian regime until evidence is provided and the facts emerge regarding Houla. Yet this is a delaying tactic. There is already ample evidence of the regime’s culpability in crimes against humanity, killing of civilians, torture, and destruction. The key point is that the Assad regime has to implement the Annan plan which includes moving its heavy military arsenal out of cities, adhering to a ceasefire and releasing prisoners.  It has not done this. There can be no excuses. No more time wasting.

But do not believe anyone who states that options are easy or clear-cut. Every plan on offer has huge drawbacks.

Given the clear and repeated reluctance of key military powers to commit forces to intervene in Syria, Russia’s opposition and the dangers that military action would involve, the international community has to find some way of adopting a unified, decisive and robust position.

The immediate focus has to be on ending the bloodshed and that means restricting the regime’s military and security forces. Only then will the armed Syrian opposition be willing to ceasefire too.


One option though is to beef up the Annan plan.


The Annan plan was very weak. It has been described as the ‘only game in town’ and to many Syrians it seems just that – a game. The 300-strong observer mission was always too small, too impotent and too slow to deploy. Those involved have worked hard, against the odds but with their hands tied behind their backs.  There were some limited successes – the fatality rate did for a period decline, journalists have got in and some prisoners released. These need to be built on rapidly.


Annan’s core team is also too small. He needs more people working directly with him as well to push the other parts of his plan.


In addition to more resources there must be greater powers, part of an Annan plus agreement clearly outlined in a Chapter VII UN Security Council Resolution. The original plan still needs implementing in full but it should now include additional elements that would transform it into a plan where the UN is control not the regime.

  1. The number of observers should be increased to at least 3000, or even up to 5,000. This could include an armed contingent with an ability to increase numbers on demand from the head of mission. This force must be totally independent of the regime with full freedom of movement and access, and powers to investigate and interview.
  2. The Annan team should take on experienced mediators who could facilitate local ceasefires between communities and disarming to prevent revenge killings and escalation.
  3. An international commission of inquiry should be set up to investigate crimes committed in Syria. This should report to the UN Security Council. It should be given full access including to detention centres and its reports should be published in full.
  4. It should be explicitly stated that universal jurisdiction applies to crimes committed in Syria.
  5. A full UN arms embargo should be imposed on Syria, with a border monitoring mechanism and maritime interdiction.


The above would serve notice to the regime of the international community’s resolute opposition to the bloodshed. The monitors could no longer be toyed with but develop into a force with genuine powers. Those who commit crimes would know that they could face justice.  An arms embargo would prevent all sides from arming the regime and opposition forces inside Syria, helping to demilitarise the situation. The regime would have to think twice before using up its diminishing stock of weaponry.


If Russia and China object then they would have to justify the unjustifiable (once again).  They are and will be blamed for their complicity.


Finally, at some stage there needs to be a political solution to this crisis. The question is whether this happens before a major civil war or after it. The regime needs to understand it will not survive forever and in essence agree terms of surrender rather than fight to the last man standing. The message its friends should be sending is that the game is up – get out whilst you can.