Neil Macdonald: Why the world is deaf to Syria's screams

The regime-backed child killers who executed over a hundred, mostly women and children, in Houla last week were sending a message that nothing is out of bounds, Neil Macdonald writes. Sadly, they may be right.

This article contains a disturbing image

In the slew of material from Syria that moved across the wire services this week was a batch of nine still photos, antiseptically titled "Houla1," Houla2," "Houla3," etc. 

Now, I've seen more than my share of torn, shattered corpses and body parts — often, what's left of innocent civilians killed intentionally or just carelessly by soldiers or sundry other fighters.

Still, Houla3 knocked the breath out of me. 

It was a picture of a young child; a girl, I think, probably no older than three or four.

Quite a beautiful child — she looked as though she was just napping peacefully. Someone had washed her and swaddled her in some decorative cloth.

Probably because of that post-mortem cleansing, the bullet hole in her temple was less prominent, making the picture all the more powerful.

It forced one thought into your head: Someone, most likely a Syrian government enforcer, actually put a pistol to this youngster's head and pulled the trigger.

It was the very essence of terror, to send a message to your opponents that nothing is out of bounds.


According to those who survived the massacre in central Syria last Friday, the child killer belonged to a "shabiha" militia, which executed over a hundred mostly women and children in Houla that day, provoking worldwide outrage.

The militias are gangs, organized by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and modelled on Iran's Basiji, the thuggish state operatives responsible for another unforgettable image during the pro-democracy protests there in 2009.

This image, known simply as Houla3, was provided by the Shaam News Network and purports to show a dead child following a Syrian government assault on the city of Houla on May 25, which left over 100 people dead, most of them women and children. (Shaam News Network/Associated Press)

A Basiji sniper shot a 26-year-old girl named Neda through the heart as she walked alongside her father in Tehran. Someone recorded it and, unnervingly, Neda's eyes followed the lens as she went into shock and died.

Neda became an iconic symbol of all the innocents slaughtered by a murderously oppressive state. We can only hope the little girl in Houla3 is not forgotten either.

Normally, news organizations shy away from using such shocking imagery, usually citing standards of tastefulness.

To CBC's credit, though, I was not just permitted, but encouraged to use Houla3 in my report the other night on The National.

My editors felt that if innocents in Syria are dying for their freedom, the least we can do is look at the evidence of their suffering.

But now what?

Do-nothing plans

As ever more evidence of butchery and evil issues from Syria, sentiment is building in the West that somebody ought to do something.

Pretty clearly, the economic sanctions imposed on Syria haven't protected its civilians from the predations of the Assad regime.

Any discomfort the measures might have imposed on the Alawite and Christian minorities that run the government and military there is clearly outweighed by their conviction, probably pretty accurate at this point, that they and theirs will pay an awful price for their crimes should this current uprising succeed.

The Arab League lived up early to its do-nothing reputation, sending in monitors to back up its denunciation of Assad's brutality, then pulling them out after a few weeks.

As for the six-point peace plan being peddled by UN special envoy Kofi Annan, it has failed catastrophically. Not only has Syria ignored it, the scheme has actually provided the Assad regime with political cover — ever-shifting deadlines — to continue its repression.

Annan himself is coming off as an almost ridiculous figure. After meeting with Assad to express "grave concern" about the clear executions in Houla, the former general secretary of the UN felt compelled to say: "I note that he [Assad] condemned the killings, too."

Oh. Well. All right, then.

The UN Security Council, an organ that actually has some teeth, is paralyzed by China and Russia.

Vladimir Putin's foreign minister has made it clear that there will be no intervention in "Syria's internal affairs," adding that military intervention would be "premature" in any event.

Premature? Perhaps the Russian government has some specific death toll in mind that Assad has not yet attained?

So, the Washington Post gave voice to what many people are thinking when it editorialized that "it's time for U.S. leadership on Syria."

It is time, declared the Post, that "Mr. Obama stops counting on the likes of Kofi Annan and Vladimir Putin to spare him from the responsibility that should be shouldered by a U.S. president."

I understand the sentiment. Anyone who looked at Houla3 would.

But the Post didn't offer a single suggestion as to what President Barack Obama should do. Because there's emotion, and then there's reality.

On their own

Assuming Obama could muster domestic and international support for invading another Arab country, does anyone seriously think American-led invaders would be treated as liberators for long, if at all?

Remember Iraq? Israeli soldiers used to refer to being "stuck in the mud" of Lebanon during their decades occupying that country.

Syria, traditionally the beating heart of Arab nationalism, would be quicksand.

Perhaps the international community could impose a no-fly zone. But how that would deter thuggish militias on the ground is not clear.

An air war? It might have worked in Libya, but Libya is basically one long east-west coastal highway, simple enough to chop up and patrol and bomb from above. Syria is nothing like that.

Obama also would have to consider the inevitable spillover into neighbouring countries. Political boundaries in the Middle East were mostly created by Western powers over the last 100 years or so. Tribes and families sprawl heedlessly across them.

Already, the violence in Syria has spread to Lebanon. If the entire governing machinery in Damascus collapses, there are dangerous implications for Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq — all U.S. allies to varying degrees.

Lastly, there is the matter of will and fatigue. The American public wants out of Afghanistan. France is pulling its troops early. Canada is firm on its withdrawal.

Add to this the fact that Obama is running for re-election.

Perhaps noblesse oblige demands that America set reality aside and once again act as the globe's policeman, knowing it will be probably be thanked by neither the Arab nor, ultimately, the Western world.

The idea of simply going in and assassinating Assad and his cohort will obviously appeal to some people. Given that this regime has killed something like 15,000 of its own citizens so far, its leaders are certainly at least as deserving as those  common criminals Texas injects with poison on the death-house gurney every year.

But that's just fantasy. Knocking off foreign leaders is generally taboo, for all sorts of good reasons. The U.S. even has a law forbidding it.

More likely, as sickening and enraging as the image of Houla3 is, the Syrian people are, and will likely remain, alone against their tyrants.


  • An earlier version of this article said that Texas executed scores of criminals each year. In fact it only put to death scores once, in 2000, 40 executions, up from 35 in 1999 and 37 in 1997. Recent numbers are 24 inmates in 2009, 17 in 2010 and 13 in 2011.
    Jun 18, 2012 1:12 PM ET