The Houla massacre

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad sent his thugs into the town of Houla on Friday.  The attack began with a round of tank and artillery fire.  When it was over, at least 108 people – including 49 children and 34 women, according to the United Nations – were dead.

What came after the artillery bombardment appears to have been the “tipping point” for world opinion, as U.N. special envoy and former Secretary-General Kofi Annan described it.  Death squads from Assad’s “shabbiha” militia went door to door, slaughtering whole families.  Over thirty of the murdered children were less than 10 years of age.

U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville said, “What is very clear is that this was an absolutely abominable event that took place in Houla, and at least a substantial part of it were summary executions of civilians – women and children.  At this point, it looks like entire families were shot in their houses.”

This sort of thing has been going on for a long time, while U.N. observers observed, and U.N. special envoys said special things about “peace plans.”  The rebels have committed some war crimes as well, but the Syrian government routinely blames all horrors on their enemies, always described as “terrorists.”  They tried that with the Houla massacre too, but even the passive souls at the United Nations weren’t buying it.

“It’s been said time and again that these are very serious international crimes,” fumed Colville.  The Assad regime will never become more than mildly annoyed at hearing such things said time and again.  The question is, will anyone do anything about it?

The situation seemed immediately different this time.  Annan said it was “very encouraging” that the Assad regime was organizing an “investigation” of the Houla massacre, but he quickly discovered he was among the few people on Earth content to wait for the results of that investigation.  By Tuesday afternoon, Syrian diplomats had been expelled from Italy, Spain, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Britain, and the United States.  Words were not minced when the 72-hour explusion notices began flying.  There has also been talk of banning Syria from the upcoming Olympic games in London.

Notably, Russia also condemned the killings in Houla, a very significant departure from their previous “see no evil” policy.  For the first time, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov mused aloud that maybe he wouldn’t miss Bashar Assad so much, if his regime were to come to an end.  “It is not the most important thing who is in power in Syria, or what regime has power,” said Lavrov.  “For us, the main thing is to put an end to the violence among civilians and to provide for political dialogue under which the Syrians themselves decide on the sovereignty of their country.”

The Russians want further investigation, and they were far more willing to entertain the notion of rebel terrorists carrying out the door-to-door shootings, but even limited criticism of the Assad regime is being taken as evidence of a Moscow mood swing.  Still, you’ve got to marvel at a diplomatic posture that pretends Bashar Assad’s position on “Syrians themselves deciding on the sovereignty of their country” is even the tiniest bit unclear.

As for stronger measures, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) declared his support for establishing “no-fly” and “no-drive” zones in Syria.  “Compared to Libya, the strategic upside of taking out Assad is far greater,” he maintained.  “We’ve used force to stop slaughter less strategic and egregious than this.”

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney judged Kofi Annan’s tattered “peace plan” to be an ineffectual diversion that “has merely granted the Assad regime more time to execute its military onslaught.”  He favors arming and organizing the Syrian opposition, as “the bloodshed in Houla makes clear that our goal must be a new Syrian government.” 

However, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Administration doesn’t believe “further militarization of the situation in Syria at this point is the right course of action,” but added, “this weekend’s massacre is a horrifying testament to this regime’s depravity.”  It doesn’t sound like the President is waiting on pins and needles for the results of that Syrian internal investigation.