Australia and the Massacre in Syria

May 31, 2012 | Sharyn Mittelman

Australia and the Massacre in Syria

Following the shocking reports and images of the massacre that occurred in the Syrian village of Haoula on May 25, there has been a chorus of international outrage. The UN reported that at least 108 people were killed among them 49 children and 34 women, by the Assad regime and pro-Assad militia ‘Shabiha‘.

AIJAC welcomes Australia decision on May 29 to expel Syrian Chargé d’Affaires, Jawdat Ali, and another diplomat, from Australia. The Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Bob Carr made the following statement:

“The Syrian Government can expect no further official engagement with Australia until it abides by the UN ceasefire and takes active steps to implement the peace plan agreed with Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan… This massacre of more than 100 men, women and children in Haoula was a hideous and brutal crime… The Syrian Chargé has again been advised to convey a clear message to Damascus that Australians are appalled by this massacre and we will pursue a unified international response to hold those responsible to account”.

Carr said an international response could include referrals to the International Criminal Court and imposing UN sanctions such as an arms embargo as well as financial and travel restrictions on identified individuals and entities.

Australia joins a list of Western countries that includes the United States, France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Bulgaria who have expelled Syrian envoys on May 29 in response to the massacre in Haolua.

While the move attempts to further isolate the Assad regime diplomatically, ultimately such actions are mainly symbolic and therefore more concrete action is required to stop the Assad regime’s brutality. It is also unclear why the diplomats were not expelled sooner, given that the Assad crackdown commenced in March last year, and approximately 10,000 to 13,000 people have been killed so far.

Annan’s ‘peace’ plan dead?

The Haolua massacre provides clear proof that, despite Carr’s reference to it, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s peace plan has not worked. The Annan plan calls for the Syrian regime to withdraw all heavy weapons from towns and cities followed by a cessation of fighting and dialogue with the opposition, all monitored by UN observers. Since Assad agreed to the plan on March 27, there has not been a cessation of violence, and indeed, after an initial lull, little sign of it even slowing. Annan met with Assad in Damascus yesterday to attempt to revive the peace plan. However, Assad opponents are concerned that Annan’s plan is only making the situation worse by buying Assad time.

Max Boot mocked Annan’s recent response to the massacre as well as the international community’s ‘almost comically ineffectual’ response in Commentary Magazine. He wrote:

“The UN Security Council voted to condemn the massacre-but not to do anything about it. Now UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan has traveled to Syria to try to “salvage” his ineffectual peace plan. He thunders from his high perch: ‘I urge the government to take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully, and for everyone involved to help create the right context for a credible political process.’

Were this quote not contained in the New York Times, I could swear that it came from the Onion-it is such a pitch-perfect parody of the weasel words that international bureaucrats use to avoid assuming responsibility for doing something about an assault on human rights. (What steps could the government of Syria possibly take to convince Annan that it’s NOT serious about resolving ‘this crisis peacefully,’ short of using chemical weapons on the protesters?) Only it’s not a parody.

And nor is this Times headline: ‘U.S. Hopes Assad Can Be Eased Out With Russia’s Aid.’ The administration must be living in some alternative universe if it thinks that Russia-Syria’s second-closest ally (after Iran) and one of its chief sources of weapons-will suddenly turn on the Assad regime after having stood by it during the massacres of the past year.

All of the attention being devoted to such dead-end diplomatic initiatives is simply indicative of the fundamental lack of seriousness in Washington regarding events in Syria. President Obama may have created an Atrocities Prevention Board, but he is doing nothing serious to prevent the ongoing atrocities in Syria.”

Is a ‘Military option’ an option?

Given the Annan’s plan apparent failure, increasing voices are urging that other options, including military options, should be considered before another Haolua takes place.

However, the Assad regime’s use of deadly force against civilians continues – perhaps because it knows that international military intervention remains unlikely. The UN Security Council is unlikely to intervene given Syria’s protection from veto powers – China and Russia. There is also a lack of appetite for “Libya-style” military intervention.

This lack of interest was made clear following the 2012 NATO Summit in which NATO members failed to discuss how the alliance could respond the Assad regimes massacre of civilians. As the Washington Post reported, the meeting was a lost opportunity to act on Assad:

“As with Libya, NATO could support the Syrian opposition without putting its own troops at risk. And the alternative to NATO action in Syria is not just a slower democratic victory, nor even a return to Assad-regime stability. Instead, as we’ve written before, Syria’s conflict, already increasingly violent, might well degenerate into full-blown sectarian warfare; this war could jump into Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, and al-Qaeda would profit murderously from this opportunity.”

The Haoula massacre has increased talk of a military option for the West – but it remains unclear if it can ever be anything more.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey told Fox News:

“‘There is always a military option” and he also said that the United States would be prepared to act militarily if it was ‘’asked to do so”. However, Pentagon spokesman George Little said: “The focus remains on the diplomatic and economic track.”

Bob Carr has also said that he is open to discussions about military intervention in Syria but said it would need to be discussed “very thoroughly” and that there were significant logistical and political hurdles before intervening in the war torn country.

Carr noted the challenges of military intervention (ie. lack of unity in the Syrian opposition, Syrian ground to air missile defences) and said it would require “unanimity in the [UN] Security Council for that took take place”. However, as Carr surely knows, a UN Security Council resolution for military intervention remains far-fetched, as Russia and China have made clear.

Some suggest that a global arms embargo would be most effective. However, given that Russia backs Syria and sells Syria a billion dollars worth of arms annually, this is also unlikely to occur.

Iran is also reportedly supporting the Assad regime in military operations. According to the Jerusalem Post:

“the Deputy Commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force militia admitted for the first time late Sunday that the Revolutionary Guard’s special unit has participated in military operations in Syria in support of president Bashar Assad’s regime. Esmail Ghani said the Quds (‘Jerusalem’) Force had played a ‘physical and nonphysical’ role in Syria. Ghani made his comments in a short interview with Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency, which removed the text from its website shortly after posting it. The Quds Force, which reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is an elite branch of the Revolutionary Guard, established in the 1990s to work outside Iran’s borders, including supporting terrorist organizations, particularly Hezbollah.”

These remarks represent the first time an Iranian official has publicly admitted the Islamic Republic’s presence in Syria. Middle East commentator Elliot Abrams notes the dangers of Iran and Hezbollah involvement in Syria, he writes:

“What ought to concern the United States as much or more than disorganised jihadis entering Syria to fight is the presence of organised Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces and Hezbollah fighters. They are there as Iran admitted this past weekend with respect to its own forces…and Hezbollah snipers. That is to say, they are not just trainers or advisers; they are in this fight. They are in it because Iran and Hezbollah believe that survival of the Assad regime is critical for them. They’re right, and the only remarkable fact is that we don’t seem to understand this…”

Abrams also discusses the geopolitical importance of the outcome of the conflict in Syria, and makes the case for moving beyond words to provide more effective means of influencing the outcome:

“There are two possible outcomes in Syria’s civil war: Assad wins, by killing enough people to crush the rebellion, in which case Iran and Syria (and the regime’s armorers in Russia) have a great victory. From this, dictators everywhere would learn that Ben Ali and Mubarak had it wrong and simply failed to kill enough protestors. Or, Assad loses, and with him Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia lose.

The latter result does not require American troops or planes, but does require American leadership. The Saudis and the Turks will be helpful to us but they will not lead, as the past 15 months shows. An American leadership does not mean Atrocities Prevention Boards, but the coordinated supply of arms, ammunition, training, and non-lethal goods like radios and uniforms to the opposition forces. Secretary Clinton’s “world opinion’ wont scare Assad any more than Kofi Annan does. It is time to end the charades and stop hiding behind facades, and given concrete help that will bring down this murderous anti-American regime.”

The expulsion of Syrian diplomats is a step in the right direction but clearly more action is required to stop the Assad regime’s brutality, and to prevent the negative regional repercussions which would emerge if Assad succeeds in crushing the revolt. Moreover, as Abrams points out, there is much that can be done even if a military option is not pursued.

Haoula received significant international attention because Syrians released video footage of the massacre. However, the reality is that massacres like Haoula have taken places since March last year. Tragically, they look likely to continue unless the world acts.

Sharyn Mittelman



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