The latest massacre in Tremseh is the next low point in a succession of brutal crackdowns against the civilian population in Syria. Chances for a diplomatic solution are vanishing.
A terrible bloodbath in a Syrian village has caused worldwide outrage and fueled the debate on international intervention. Up to 250 people were reportedly killed in Tremseh, near the city of Hama. If the information provided by the opposition can be confirmed, the attack on this village could be the worst massacre since the beginning of the uprising 16 months ago.
A few days before the massacre, opposition witnesses say, the army set up checkpoints on the access roads to the village. First, the army had shelled the village, which many residents had fled. Accompanied by militia members, the army then advanced on the village and killed many of the remaining inhabitants.
The Syrian government painted an entirely different picture via the state news agency. Armed terrorist groups "had captured Tremseh and indiscriminately fired on the inhabitants," it said. Security forces exchanged fire with gunmen, while three soldiers and around 50 villagers were killed. As it has since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, the regime of President Bashar Assad once again blamed "terrorists" for the violence in the country.
The head of the UN observer mission, General Robert Mood, told reporters: "From our presence in the Hama province, we can verify continuous fighting yesterday [Thursday] in the area of Tremseh. This involved mechanized units, indirect fire as well as helicopters." He said his team was ready to investigate the incident in Tremseh once there had been "credible cessation of violence and a local ceasefire."
The Syrian army has repeatedly attacked towns and civilians believed to be supporting the opposition.
The regime demonstrates its omnipotence
The location of the massacre was not an accident, said Sadiq al Mousllie, a representative of the Syrian National Council living in Germany. The majority-Sunni village is surrounded by villages with a predominantly Shiite population. This was also the situation in other massacres. This also suggests that the government is trying to drive a wedge between sections of the Syrian population, and to keep the Alawites, which include the Assad clan, on its side. "The regime is trying to use this massacre to spread a message: Look, we're dealing with the Sunni villages, but not the Alawite ones."
But al Mousllie finds it unlikely that this strategy would work. Across the country, Sunnis and Shias fought together against the Assad regime; there is currently no war of religions in Syria. So the regime has grasped more drastic means to intimidate the population. According to witnesses, some villagers were literally butchered. The television station Al Jazeera said that the attackers had dismembered their victims and distributed body parts both in the local mosque and the surrounding areas. There is no independent confirmation of these reports, however.
Militias in the service of the government
The opposition says the so-called Shabiha militias are responsible for the atrocities in Tremseh. The notorious pro-regime mercenary militia is particularly dreaded in Syria. Rafif Jouejati, spokeswoman for the opposition Local Coordinating Committees, said they were made up of mainly criminals. "Many of them were in prison but were released in order to defend the regime."
The Shabiha militias are not a part of the regular government troops. The militias are paid on a daily basis, sometimes with very different amounts. "I do not know what is used as a basis for their pay, whether the number of their victims, or the imagination that they put into their murders on the day. What we cannot say is that they are mainly Alawites - the militias come from the entire spectrum of Syrian society. They are paid very well and so are very loyal to the regime."
Signals of terror
Al Mousllie indicated that the pro-Assad militias are often active just before meetings of the UN Security Council. Through this use of terror, the regime aims to send two messages, he said. The first is for the international community and goes something like this: 'The regime couldn't possibly have done this because it would never do somehting like this before a UN Security Council session.'
The second message is being sent to the Syrian people: 'They must realize that, despite all efforts and pressure from the international commujnity, the regime is still capable of doing what it wants.' This is done to demoralize the people, says al Mousllie.
In view of the violence inside Syria, the various opposition groups agreed at a joint conference in Cairo to force the ouster of the Assad regime. There is no more room for other options, according to Jouejati, the local coordination committee spokeswoman. Any dialogue has also been ruled out with the regime. "There are neither negotiations nor dialogue with Assad and his men because that would mean speakign with the murderers. Too much blood as been spilled, too many people detained and tortured in prison, for us to even consider a dialogue," stressed Jouejati.
Chances for diplomacy evaporating
The resignation of Assad is also the only option for the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), notes Al Mousllie. It's too late for other options, he says. At the same time, the SNC continues to appeal to the international community - and especially the UN Security Council - to stop the violence. "As part of the international community, we are still banking on their support," says Al Mousllie.
Rafif Jouejati is more skeptical. She does not expect much to come of the attempts to resolve the conflict diplomatically. "The latest massacre is a classic example of what happens when Bashar al-Assad agrees to a new peace initiative, whether it comes from the Arab League, or is called Annan Plan one or two, " she said.
"In the end, there are always deadly actions against anonymous civilians, so I do not think we can put too much stock in a political solution to this conflict," Jouejati said.
Author: Kersten Knipp / sgb
Editor: Gregg Benzow