Who murdered more than 100 people, mostly women and children, in the Syrian township of Houla?
The May 25-26 massacre outraged the world and galvanized international opposition against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Many victims were executed in their homes, shot and, in some cases, stabbed. Video of the bloody aftermath soon made its way onto YouTube. Some called the atrocity a turning point in the more than yearlong uprising against Assad.
A preliminary United Nations inquiry, based on statements to U.N. observers who arrived in Houla hours after the killings, indicated that pro-government paramilitary men known as shabiha were responsible for the atrocity. The implication was that the people were killed for sectarian reasons or because of perceived sympathy for the rebellion.
But Syrian authorities disputed the findings and conducted their own investigation. Initial findings blamed the killings on “terrorists” -- the government’s standard characterization of armed rebels -- who allegedly targeted pro-government residents, including the extended family of a parliament member in Damascus.
The U.N. promised a more extensive inquiry. And now the results are in. They're inconclusive.
A special commission of inquiry reported Wednesday to the U.N. Human Rights Council that it could not rule out either side as the potential perpetrators of the crimes. Nor could it eliminate a third possibility: that the killers were “foreign groups with unknown affiliation.”
The U.N.-commissioned inquiry was exhaustive, but it suffered a major shortcoming: Investigators were not allowed to enter Syria, much less visit Houla. Instead, they relied on interviews conducted via telephone or Skype; some face-to-face interviews with people who had left the country; and sundry documentation, including photos and video of the scene and satellite images from before and after the killings.
The U.N. inquiry, like the government report and several other accounts, found that most of those killed were from two area families, with the surnames Abdulrazzak and al-Sayed. They lived in Taldou, one of several towns that make up Houla township. The area is mostly Sunni Muslim, but there are villages nearby that are home to the Shiite and Alawite sects. The U.N. inquiry was unable to determine whether the targeted families “had loyalties one way or another.”
The inquiry examined the reported positions of rebel and army forces at the time of the massacre, seeking to find out who had the most direct access to the doomed families’ homes. It was a complex and inexact process, exacerbated by the lack of access to the scene.
No definitive answers were forthcoming, though the investigation did conclude that government forces “may have been responsible for many of the deaths.”
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: A youth holds a doll bearing the words "The children of Houla" during a protest this month against the May massacre in Syria. Credit: Ahmad Gharabliahmad / AFP/Getty Images