I want to thank Barbara and Erica for starting this blog and for inviting me to join it. This is a great group. Collectively, I think we can make a real contribution to the public dialogue on security issues.
The Houla massacre marks some kind of departure from prior practice by the Syrian security forces; it is not a routine event. So, what needs to be explained is: why the change? In a post on June 5, Barbara F. Walter argued that the massacre was a calculated and rational act of the Syrian regime, aimed at intimidating the population. She pointed to the possibility that Houla signals the weakening of the regime relative to the uprising. As the uprising grows stronger, the regime needs to escalate the violence to convince the Syrian people of its strength. Here I want to explore an alternative possibility.
Assad’s moral responsibility for Houla and many other atrocities in Syria is beyond question. But, I have my doubts that the massacre at Houla, specifically, was a calculated move by the regime. Assad wants to intimidate the Syrian population, but he also wants to keep foreign governments off his back. Keeping army and militia violence under some limits gives his international supporters (principally Russia) something to work with, while shocking atrocities like Houla make it much harder to keep the international community at bay. Striking a balance between enough violence and too much violence is extremely difficult, especially when the regime relies on irregular forces that are outside the formal military chain of command and may have local scores to settle.
Moreover, intimidating people can be a tricky proposition. If the violence is too massive and seems too random, it can make people believe that supporting the regime or simply staying at home offers no protection. If intimidation is your goal, it makes sense to use violence somewhat sparingly, so that people feel there is a clear way to avoid it.
Based on these considerations, my guess is that Houla was intentionally targeted, but not for a massacre on the scale of what actually took place. The local commander, or more likely the local militiamen, then took it upon themselves to “finish the job” for reasons that are quite specific to Houla. In this sense, I suspect Houla was a “mistake” from the point of view of the regime, rather than an intentional escalation.
From the point of view of policy, the difference matters. The international community has seen 14 months of bloodshed without intervening. If Houla indicates a persistent escalation of the violence to the level of routine large-scale massacres, it changes the stakes for outside actors and makes intervention more likely.