Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why the Syrian regime is killing babies

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 2:20 PM EDT, Thu August 16, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: The Houla massacre caused much of the world to gasp
  • She says the regime is killing civilians, even children, to maintain a balance of terror
  • Syria's regime is choosing to follow path Iran used in crushing Green revolution, she says
  • Ghitis: It's not a surprise that Iranian forces are in Syria, helping the regime

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television."

(CNN) -- When a slow-motion massacre has unfolded over the course of 15 months, it's easy to lose the world's attention. But even the most jaded gasped in horror as news emerged of the latest carnage inflicted on the Syrian people. The images from the town of Houla defied belief.

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad went on a systematic killing spree, murdering at least 108 people. Most shockingly, the killers targeted women and children. A U.N. representative said the victims included 49 children who were younger than 10. The al-Assad regime denied it carried out the atrocities, but U.N. officials said they saw clear evidence that the Syrian government was involved in the attacks.

Why would a regime, even a brutal dictatorship, send its thugs to kill women and children, even babies? Does it make any sense, even by the twisted logic of armed conflict and tyranny?

Syria says regime not to blame for massacre; Rice says 'another blatant lie'

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

In a most perverse, sickening way, it makes perfect sense. And for the logic underlying this most inhuman tactic, one need only look at what has transpired in recent months and years as uprisings have sprung throughout the region, from Iran to Tunisia.

Now that Tehran has -- perhaps accidentally -- revealed that it has sent some of its forces to help al-Assad, the strategy has become even easier to understand.

Who shelled, murdered children in Syria?
Al-Assad denies murdering Houla children
Massacre in Syria
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
Photos: Massacre in Syria Photos: Massacre in Syria

The Syrian dictator is trying to restore a balance of fear, perhaps the most powerful weapon in the hands of tyrants throughout history. Killing children is supposed to intimidate the opposition.

A couple of days after the Houla massacre, a top commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, Ismail Ghani, told a reporter from Iran's Isna news that "before our presence in Syria, too many people were killed by the opposition but with the physical and nonphysical presence of the Islamic republic, big massacres in Syria were prevented." Isna quickly deleted the interview, but the news was out.

Ghani is the deputy commander of the Quds Force, whose mission is "extraterritorial operations," or revolution beyond Iran's borders.

Western diplomats are pushing for a negotiated settlement, but Syria, Iran's only ally in the Arab world, is following what looks very much like an Iranian script, using blunt force to put down anti-government protests.

That's what Iran did in 2009 when the so-called Green Revolution arose after the disputed presidential elections. Tehran used its paramilitary Basij militias to brutally suppress the protests. But that was before the Arab uprisings showed people throughout the Middle East that sometimes revolutions do succeed.

When al-Assad scans the horizon, he sees what happened to other Arab dictators. The presidents of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have lost power. The example of Moammar Gadhafi does not seem to apply to him so far, since opinion in the West until now has leaned against direct military intervention

A reign of terror helped al-Assad's father, the feared Hafez Assad, keep power for three decades, and then hand the country to his son as if it amounted to private property to be inherited by the next generation. When the elder Assad faced an uprising in 1982, he ordered his loyal army to pulverize the opposition. The entire town of Hama was razed to the ground. Estimates of the dead range from 10,000 to 30,000 killed by Assad's troops. That put a quick end to the revolt.

The younger al-Assad is trying to do his father proud. But, despite the mounting death toll, he has lost the weapon of fear. Already 13,000 people are said to have died in the Syrian uprising. Despite that, the protesters are not staying home.

Al-Assad, incidentally, denies any responsibility for the Houla massacre. He blames "terrorists," but nobody's buying his denials. Witnesses say, and the evidence confirms, that government troops started firing tank shells and mortars at protesters during the Friday demonstration that has become a ritual of the anti-dictatorship movement. But the worst was yet to come.

Houla is a Sunni Muslim town, a stronghold of the anti-Assad movement. It is also home to a military college, from where the tank and mortar fire came. U.N. observers found evidence of tank shells, which are not part of the opposition's arsenal.

Before long, paramilitary forces known as the Shabiha -- the Syrian version of Iran's Basij -- joined the fight, assaulting demonstrators with gunfire and knives. By nightfall, the attacks became the worst of nightmares. The Shabiha, gangs of thugs and criminals, mostly belong to the president's Alawite sect. According to the U.N., about 20 people were killed by artillery fire. Most of the others were murdered execution-style in their homes. In some cases, entire families were killed.

In the face of the heart wrenching death toll, the U.S., the West and the rest of the world are feeling renewed pressure to take action. The Syrian opposition and some in the region have called for intervention, but few are inclined to step in.

Some observers, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser, say the U.S. should step back, arguing that as tragic as the situation is, there are many other problems of greater importance.

But the probable presence of Iran in Syria highlights just how important this battle is, and not just for the Syrian people. The U.S. and the rest of the world should care about Syria not only for humanitarian reasons, but because the entire Middle East is now in play.

If al-Assad survives, it will mark a victory for anti-American, anti-democratic forces in the Middle East. It will tilt the balance of power in the region in favor of dictatorship, in favor of the use of force and fear as the instrument of power and in favor of a regime in Tehran whose aim is to export its brand of retrograde, anti-American, anti-women, anti-gay, freedom-suppressing revolution.

If al-Assad falls, it will mark a major defeat for Iran, one that will alter the region in ways that, while not certain to follow American wishes in every respect, has the potential to eventually improve stability.

This is the Syrian people's fight, and there's no need now to put American "boots on the ground." But the U.S. government has a long menu of options to help bring about the end of the despicable al-Assad regime.

No choice is without risk, and no route is assured of success, but it is clear that those seeking to overthrow the al-Assad regime should receive more active help from the West. The riskiest course of action is to stay on the sidelines and let Bashar al-Assad murder his people while we look the other way.

The killing of children by a regime determined to intimidate the opposition made that point abundantly clear.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT