If there was ever an instance that could graphically illustrate the ineffectiveness of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire agreement in Syria, it was a deadly attack on the villages of Houla this weekend that ended with casualties of virtually every age.
United Nations officials on the ground in the Arab country are still trying to figure out what exactly happened but preliminary reports backed up by international monitors suggest that the Syrian regime attacked the grouping of small towns with artillery fire and door to door raids by its Shabiha militia allies, killing over one hundred people.
The most shocking and saddening aspect of this attack was how many children died before the offensive was over — 49, most under the age of ten, are among the dead.
Artillery attacks by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime have been deadly for months. Since the Syrian uprising began more than a year ago, some 11,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed in government initiated violence. But when small children are killed by their very own government, some with their jaws blown off from high explosive munitions, the violence takes on a whole new dimension.
The attack on Houla epitomizes just how barbaric Syria’s conflict has become after fifteen months. Indeed, the killing that occurred over the weekend is just the type of case that can convince governments the world over that a change in their approach is needed to contain and, if possible, end the strife.
The question is whether the United Nations Security Council can actually arrive at this point.
To date, the council has been nothing but a hamstrung body, unable to make difficult decisions and too fragmented to pass important resolutions.
Courtesy of Chinese and Russian objections, the council has yet to push through any economic sanctions against the Assad regime for its military crackdown. The stalemate has convinced what once were peaceful demonstrators to take up arms and fight back themselves. The best the United Nations have been able to do is issue press statements about the extraordinary brutality, like the massacre in Houla last Friday and Saturday.
It is not just the Security Council that has been unwilling or unable to act however. Critics have charged the United States, which would like to see the Assad family dynasty collapse for good, with dragging its heels. Officials of the previous administration and some outspoken and powerful members of the Senate have blasted President Barack Obama’s national-security team with indecisiveness and a stubborn resistance to get the United States involved militarily against the Ba’athist regime.
This criticism is coming at a time when Obama Administration officials are weighting their military options — or at least trying to determine how they can assist countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which may be transporting heavy weapons to the Free Syrian Army.
Tired of stalled diplomatic measures and a ceasefire that has been broken by both sides since the pact was first signed, american intelligence officials are reportedly expanding their contacts with the armed opposition in an attempt to figure out which factions are worthy of receiving arms. Washington will still stay away from supplying Assad’s enemies but the administration could come around to the idea of supporting a Saudi, Qatari and Libyan campaign to send weapons to the Syrian president’s opponents.
No one knows whether the scheme will work. At the moment, the question may be beside the point. What is important to note is that the United States are increasingly agitated that Assad is able to snub the world over its calls for dialogue and to end the violence, despite his near total isolation. Horrific and unspeakable acts of violence like the Houla massacre will only embolden that perception.