US tries to move after Syrian child massacre

PAUL MCGEOUGH
Last updated 08:23 28/05/2012
A child with a Syrian opposition flag painted on the face seen at a protest in Lebanon against an attack by government forces on the Syrian city of Houla.
Reuters

OUTCRY: A child with a Syrian opposition flag painted on the face seen at a protest in Lebanon against an attack by government forces on the Syrian city of Houla.

Syria denies Houla killings

Outrage over massacre

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As a wave of revulsion sweeps the world after a regime massacre in Syria - 32 children, some with what appear to be bullet holes in their temples, are among more than 90 dead - Washington is manoeuvring to win Moscow's support for a plan to dislodge the embattled Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.

As many as 300 others were wounded in the bloodletting when regime forces backed by local volunteers attacked Houla, a rebel-held Sunni village near the troubled city of Homs.

United Nations monitors were in the village on Saturday, counting the dead and wounded and collecting spent tank shells that were taken as confirmation of a regime assault.

The US plan is a version of the machination by which Yemen's President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, went into exile in February while his regime survived.

But this is not the first time it has been trotted out to win Russian co-operation in easing the dictator Assad from his blood-splattered palace at the same time as offering to preserve enough of the regime in which his family is core for Moscow to believe it is not losing an ally.

But there's a problem. It didn't work the last time and even if Moscow could be cajoled into going along, this plan is too little and it is too late. As recently as January, the dictators of the Arab League took the same idea to the UN Security Council - where Moscow and Beijing knocked it firmly on the head.

Two realities go some way to explaining why Syria is not Yemen. One, the ferocity of the regime's onslaughts on its people points to an unbreakable bond between the Assad family and the wider regime and the fact that this is their last stand - they are fighting for their lives.

Assad's Alawites are a Shiite-aligned minority lording it over a Sunni majority, and they know that such a concession would mean the party's over for all of them. The family has held power so tightly and for so long that there is no B team - pull the man and his family out of Damascus and the rest face an end as ignominious as that of the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi or, if they are lucky, the former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.

Two, this is the Iraq playbook writ large. Even if elements of the regime were allowed to hang on in the event, say, that Assad was to go overseas for medical treatment and not to return, as was the case with the deposed Yemeni leader, fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda already have arrived in the country with a brief to see that nothing of the regime survives - and in that they have the backing of an increasing number of ordinary Syrians.

They are the fighters who are regularly detonating the suicide bombs against regime targets in Syria, some killing dozens at a time. And the suicide attacks are a deliberate provocation, geared to throwing all of Syria into the civil and sectarian conflict the Islamists were denied when they sought validation in the Egyptian and Tunisian chapters of the Arab Spring.

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Perhaps, too, we need to be reminded why Russia would accept the Yemeni solution.

What civility there was between Moscow and Washington has evaporated since Vladimir Putin was reinstalled as president. His recent behaviour seems to be informed by a coarse thuggishness that finds pleasure in trying to embarrass the US President, Barack Obama.

For now at least, there is no consensus among analysts on how the Yemeni proposal might be received in Moscow. Damascus represents a great deal of Cold War history for the Russians - they have a naval base there, oil and gas interests, and Syria is high on their list of arms purchasers.

To go along with Obama now would be seen as Moscow following Washington. For a while at least, especially in the months before the US presidential election when the slightest foreign-generated discomfort for Obama can be used against him domestically, do not be surprised if Putin plays Obama - without agreeing to anything.

If there was a time when the international community might have taken control of events in Syria, it passed a long time ago. For too long and despite all the diplomatic hand wringing, the West has been studiously avoiding intervening in Syria.

For some months the Assad regime has been doing to its people what Gaddafi merely threatened to do when the UN and NATO decided they had to act by providing game-changing air cover for the Libyan rebels.

But when the Nato heavies gathered in Chicago last week, only a crass reporter was rude enough to raise the Syria question. And when he did, it was batted straight back to him - Nato was not going in.

One other point to consider: what an incredible insult to the people of Syria to say the West understands their pain so clearly that it would pull Assad out and leave them at the mercy of the rest of the regime - were it capable of surviving.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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