By Uri Friedman
The Syrian government's crackdown on protesters and armed rebels has produced a seemingly endless stream of grim and grisly days, with more than 9,000 civilians perishing in the violence since March 2011, according to U.N. estimates. Some incidents have garnered more international attention than others. But a look at the incidents that have gained notice during the 14-month-old uprising suggests the outrage will fade away once the headlines do.
Murder of Hamza al-Khatib
Last May, gruesome images of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib's mutilated body stunned the international community. Human rights activists claimed the boy had been arrested at a protest in southern Syria, tortured to death and handed over to his family in return for their silence. Syria's state-run media contended that Hamza died from gunshot wounds during an attack by armed groups on Syrian forces, and that Bashar Assad met with the boy's family to express his condolences.
Hamza's death inspired a popular Facebook page and mass anti-government demonstrations across Syria. "Arab revolutions — and associated social and international media — seem to thrive on icons," the BBC's Jim Muir wrote at the time, "and the Syrian revolt appears to have found one."
But on the eve of Ramadan, the Syrian military stormed Hama, which had become a protest hub (the city had previously been the scene of a chilling massacre in 1982 under Bashar Assad's father). Activists feverishly uploaded videos of the violence, which left as many as 300 people dead in six days, according to opposition activists.
President Barack Obama and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued their strongest critiques of the regime, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia turned heads by sharply escalating their criticism. Nevertheless, a U.N. resolution condemning the violence never got off the ground.
Assault on Jamal al-Zawiya
In December, as Arab League officials prepared to travel to Syria to monitor a peace plan, activists reported that Syrian forces had surrounded villagers in a valley in the northern Jabal al-Zawiya region of Idlib province, killing more than 100 people with an onslaught of rockets, tank shells and bombs in an effort to root out army defectors — particularly ahead of the Arab League mission. Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called the attack "an organized massacre" and the "bloodiest day of the Syrian revolution" to that point, while the Syrian government did not comment on the claims.
In the aftermath, the opposition Syrian National Council called for the U.N. Security Council and Arab League to hold emergency meetings and develop plans to protect Syrian civilians. But the incident mainly elicited tough words from Western leaders and the Arab League peace initiative ultimately failed.
Assault on Baba Amr
In early February, Syrian forces began a month-long siege of the Baba Amr district of Homs that eventually forced the rebel Free Syrian Army to withdraw from its stronghold. As photos and video attest, the relentless bombardment reduced the neighborhood to rubble. While there has not been an overall estimate of the death toll in Baba Amr, Reuters noted that residents who fled to Lebanon spoke of "a martyr if not more" in every house and "the smell of decomposed bodies, sewage and destruction" hanging in the air.
The American reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were among those who died in the shelling.
While China and Russia blocked aggressive action against Syria at the U.N. Security Council, they did join other world powers in demanding that U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos be granted access to Baba Amr. When Syrian officials eventually acquiesced, Amos was devastated by what she saw.
On May 25, 108 people — including 49 children and 34 women — were murdered in Houla, according to the United Nations, with entire families gunned down in their homes and most of the victims summarily executed. The Syrian regime blamed the violence in the largely Sunni area, which the Syrian military had been shelling in possible retaliation for a rebel assault on an Alawite village, on "armed terrorist groups," while witnesses and survivors told U.N. investigators that pro-government militias were responsible for the bloodshed. A couple days later, opposition activists reported a bloody government assault on nearby Hama.
The news threw the international community's failure to resolve the crisis into sharp relief. The Security Council condemned the Syrian government's use of heavy weapons in a rare display of solidarity, though the non-binding statement did not assign blame and Russia, which has long vetoed more robust Security Council action on Syria, later argued that Syrian rebels — and perhaps a mysterious "third force" — were partly to blame for the massacre.
To be sure, the Syrian government isn't the only party accused of atrocities. Last June, Syrian authorities blamed armed gangs for killing more than 120 security forces, though opposition activists denied the allegations. And U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggested earlier this month that al-Qaida militants orchestrated twin suicide car bombings in Damascus that killed 55 people.
There's little appetite among world powers for military intervention, and engineering a Yemen-style transfer of power in Syria at this juncture could be incredibly difficult.
As Reuters noted Tuesday, Russia does not appear to see Houla as a "game-changer" when it comes to supporting tougher action against Syria at the Security Council.
In other words, the international community may be no closer to devising a solution to the intractable crisis in Syria.