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Will the slaughter at Houla prove a pivotal moment in the oppression of Syria?

2012 May 30
by Paul Vallely

Photographs of dead children are particularly shocking. When John Mullin, editor of the Independent on Sunday, saw the pictures of the 32 children murdered in cold blood in Syria he decided that the usual newspaper rule – that images of the dead should not be reproduced – must be broken. He printed one small photograph on page 3 of his paper with front page headline which was both a warning and a challenge. It said: “Syria. The world looks the other way. Will you?”

Justifying his decision next day on Radio 4 he used an interesting word. The photographs were “a game changer,” he said. “As soon as I saw them I knew.”

Game changer was also the phrase diplomats were using to describe the massacre at Houla. The Syrian regime had crossed a new line of brutality. Multiple witnesses reported that, after the rebel village had been pounded by artillery, members of a government militia, the Shabiha – which means ‘the ghosts’ in Arabic – had gone in and cut the throats of small children. One report said they had done it in front of the children’s fathers as an added punishment for rebellion.

Tipping points in wars can be psychological rather than military. Sometimes, as in Rwanda, they come too late. But sometimes, as in Kosovo, they are in time for intervention to prevent more murder. Will the slaughter at Houla prove a pivot in the year-long violence in Syria in which over 10,000 people have died?

It seemed so on Sunday when Russia broke from its unswerving defence of Syria and backed a UN Security Council condemnation of the killings. Diplomats began briefing that that Moscow was privately now discussing the idea that President Bashir Assad should be forced to step down. But when William Hague went to Moscow to press the notion it seemed the Kremlin was rowing back on that, blaming both sides for the killings. Outsiders should stop inciting the Syrian opposition, he was brusquely told.

Russia’s association with the ruling Assad family go back four decades. Moscow’s total investment in the Syrian economy is almost $20bn. Last year 10 per cent of Russia’s global arm sales were to Damascus. In return it is allowed to use the Syrian port of Tartus as its only Mediterranean naval base. A Russian freighter docked there on Saturday, bringing the Assads more weapons.

Yet those expert in reading read the runes suggest that behind the scenes Moscow may be telling President Assad it can no longer defend the brutality of his repression and that he must change his approach. If so the decision has been taken personally by Russia’s returned president, Vladimir Putin. He took over foreign policy from Dmitry Medvedev just three weeks ago.

It is unlikely Mr Putin has been moved by photographs of dead children. In many ways he is more hardline than Mr Medvedev whose prime concern was to avoid Russia losing another key ally in the Middle East. It still rankles that it lost Libya by being duped into supporting a UN resolution phrased to support a no-fly zone but then used to authorise armed Nato intervention.

But Mr Putin has an acute nose for Russia’s national advantage. He may suspect that its uncompromising support for Mr Assad has begun to damage its wider interests in the Middle East, most particularly in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.  He knows that at the G20 summit in Mexico next month Barack Obama wants to talk to him privately about a Yemen-style regime-change in Syria. It would replace Mr Assad with a less controversial figure from the regime, preserving Russia’s influence in the country. Mr Putin may agree, in return for various other things he wants from Washington.

All this is speculative. But there are straws in the winds. The people of Syria can only hope it continues blowing in the right direction.

The Church Times

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