The awful massacre at al-Houla is a horrific indication of Syria’s inexorable descent into a vortex of violence that increasingly resembles the Algerian civil war of the 1990s.
The Algerian war began in January 1991 when the ruling FLN – the party which had had ruled the country since independence – refused to allow the second round of elections that would almost certainly have given the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) a majority in parliament.
That decision unleashed a chaotic conflict that was punctuated by numerous massacres of civilians, whose authors were often difficult to determine. In some cases, whole villages and neighbourhoods were wiped out with staggering brutality. As in Syria, most of these atrocities were attributed by the FLN to Islamist ‘terrorists’, such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a shadowy organization with an unrivalled reputation for cruelty and mass murder.
However, a number of deserters from the security forces claimed that members of the Algerian security forces disguised themselves as Islamist guerrillas in order to carry out some of these massacres.
These claims were supported by human rights groups, including Amnesty International, which noted that many of the worst massacres took place in areas where the security forces had a strong presence, yet failed to intervene to prevent them.
Such toleration – or complicity – was partly intended to discredit the Islamist opposition both nationally and internationally and confirm the regime’s depiction of its opponents as bloodthirsty ‘devils’ and ‘forces of evil’ who were leading Algeria towards fitnah – chaos.
Atrocities such as the Bentalha massacre of 1997 also served to terrorise the civilian population into looking to the state as its protector and accepting the various ’counter-terrorist’ measures implemented by the Algerian government – measures that were largely supported by Western governments because they were directed against ‘Islamic fundamentalists’.
Not all massacres were ‘false flag’ operations carried out by the security forces. On the contrary, guerrilla groups such as the GIA routinely murdered civilians with impunity for their own purposes.
In some cases massacres were intended to demonstrate that the state was unable to guarantee security or protection to the Algerian population. Others were motivated by religious fanaticism and a desire for vengeance by Islamist groups who divided the Algerian population into ‘enemies of Islam’ and ‘supporters of the jihad’ and regarded even the mass murder of women and children as a justifiable punishment.
The fact that the GIA was heavily penetrated by the Algerian secret services, and was in any case a highly localised organization run by various local ‘emirs’ who often acted as a law onto themselves, made it difficult to determine who was carrying out these massacres and why.
Throughout the conflict, both the Algerian regime and its opponents regarded the political loyalties or passivity of the civilian population as the key to winning their confrontation, and neither accepted any moral or ethical restraints in their use of violence to shape its outcome.
The al-Houla massacre may well prove to be a watershed moment in the Algerianisation of the Syria conflict. As in Algeria, its motives are murky and its perpetrators obscure. As usual, the Syrian government has denied responsibility and blamed the killings on ‘terrorists’.
The Syrian opposition, for its part, claims that it was carried out by Allawites from the shabiha militia, which acts in support of the security forces. There is, for the time being at least, no way of ascertaining the truth.
From a strictly cui buono perspective however, it is difficult to see why the Syrian security forces would authorize an event like this, given the presence of UN observers on the ground and the close and mostly hostile international scrutiny directed at the Assad regime.
This doesn’t mean that the security forces or their irregular allies were not directly or indirectly responsible, since logic and self-interest don’t always prevail in these situations.
But the main ‘beneficiaries’, politically-speaking, of the al-Houla massacre, are the Syrian opposition, who know that such events will always find a single default interpretation amongst the international proponents of ‘regime change’ .
Once again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Assad regime’s ‘terrorist’ allegations were correct – though as in Algeria, the possibility that opponents of the regime were responsible cannot be ruled out.
What is certain is that at least 90 people were savagely murdered, 32 of them children. And sooner or later this massacre will be answered by another. In Algeria, it took at least 100,000 deaths and 7,000 disappearances at the hands of the security forces before the war finally burned itself out.
Al-Houla is likely to prove a defining moment in a political confrontation that began as a protest against the dynastic entitlement of the Assad family and now increasingly overlaps with sectarian tit-for-tat savagery, and whose violence is likely to get much, much worse until – or if – it stops.
And tragically for Syria, too many people, both inside and outside the country, have no interest in stopping it at all.
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