Geographies of Massacres

A government under severe pressure from rebels unleashes violence that results in a massacre of families, women and children especially. This is the horror scene we’ve seen for the last few weeks in international affairs. But its is hardly confined to Syria. Two days ago in Logar province in Afghanistan, a NATO airstrike killed an estimated 18 civilians. It was hardly the first such incident. Death from the sky by a NATO missile is different from close quarter killing by a government sponsored militia, but that is little consolation to the dead. The same day, a Taliban suicide bomber murdered at least twenty street traders and civilians in Kandahar.

The massacre in Houla was also truly sickening, and immediately reminded me of the Racak massacre in Kosovo that was an important event in triggering the eventual NATO war against Serbia in 1999. It is interesting how the notion of a ‘tipping point’ has been evoked by media commentators (the latest being in the Financial Times) in its wake. The horror spectacles of massacres have always been used to mobilize and polarize. Think back to the woodcuts of religious massacres in the seventeenth century, and graphic horror stories about pregnant women and babies ripped from bellies. My old college friend from Ireland Vincent Carey curated an excellent exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library on the theme of Tolerance and Intolerance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a number of years ago which touched on the historic formula for the presentation of massacres.

The point of the FT article is that images of this massacre — and now we hear there is another — are deepening the now evidently bloody struggle in Syria between a predatory state, and its apparatus of repression, and multiple localized structures of resistance and counter-force violence. The term ‘civil war’ is used more frequently but it appears to me to be imprecise. This is a regime versus opposition struggle that unfortunately, as a result of the widespread use of violence, appears to have become a localized ethnic security dilemma. Were men from neighboring Alawite villages involved in the attack on Houla?

Witnesses say the Shabiha gathered near the water plant and the military depot nearby, before moving to the villages of Foulah and Qabou, two of four villages of the Allawite sect that surround the exclusively Sunni town of Houla.

Answering this question will tell us how ethnicized this has become and what ‘civil war’ means in this context. BBC Reporter Paul Wood argued last week that the killing is family targeted revenge killing and not all out sectarian killing, but conceded that it is slipping towards the latter.

Houla appears unlikely to be a tipping point in the diplomacy for now. Russia sees Syria as a client regime and sells it a lot of weaponry. It is not unfamiliar with the use of bloody close quarter methods to suppress revolts. The Obama administration appears to have concluded that it cannot afford to go ‘unilateral’ on this sickening affair, and is waiting, or going the extra diplomatic mile to see if it can persuade the Russians to come around, and gather in an ad hoc crisis-specific Contact Group which could support some sort of ‘humanitarian’ intervention (an ‘humanitarian zone’ supported by coercive power, with Turkish troops on the ground and NATO airplanes in the sky?). Also this is an election year and there are only downside risks in this, though I suspect folks inside the administration like Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Hillary Clinton and probably Obama himself find this tragic in the extreme.

But perhaps I am wrong. A fascinating article on Obama’s drone assassination program in the New York Times provides real insight into how ‘just war’ doctrine appears to be justifying Obama’s policy on this. So also is a policy of ‘no innocents next to terrorists’ that justifies the killing of everyone in the radius of a known terrorist target.

For a ground level view see also the excellent Frontline documentary on Al Qaeda in Yemen.

What do we call this disposition and attitude? ‘Realism,’ hardheadedness’ or (always a safe bet with Obama) ‘pragmatism’ ? ‘Responsibility to protect’ meets responsibility to ‘take the shot’? Grim, grim stuff.

About Dr Gerard Toal

Irish born academic living in Washington DC researching geopolitical competition and territorial conflicts in post-Communist Europe. Author of CRITICAL GEOPOLITICS (1996), BOSNIA REMADE (w C Dahlman) and NEAR ABROAD: PUTIN, THE WEST AND THE CONTEST OVER UKRAINE AND THE CAUCASUS (Oxford University Press, 2017).
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