Almost all western media reports of the massacre at Houla on 25 May said that it was carried out by members of the Shabiha militia, irregular forces loyal to the Assad regime. But in two articles for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Rainer Hermann has raised doubts about the reliability of the accepted version of events and offered evidence that rebel forces were responsible.
According to Hermann, who is based in Abu Dhabi, the victims were slaughtered by gangs of Sunni militia while units of the regular Syrian army were fighting other rebels outside the town. This version of events, when put forward by the regime, was viewed with scepticism in the west: Assad’s claims about the ‘criminal activities of foreign militia’ don’t become any more believable when repeated for the fiftieth time.
But Hermann says that the known victims of the massacre were all members of two families, either Alawites or Shiite converts from Sunnism. Their houses, in different parts of town, were all attacked at the same time while neighbouring houses were left untouched. One 11-year-old boy survived, who said that the attackers all had shaved heads and long beards, implying that they were ‘jihadists’ rather than the Shabiha militia. A Syrian army officer who defected after the massacre similarly told the Observer that the attackers were ‘bald and many had beards’, but he also says they were shouting ‘Shabiha forever, for your eyes, Assad,’ as they drove into the town. Hermann dismisses this as propaganda.
A nun from a convent a few kilometres south of Homs told Hermann that the Sunni militia have stepped up their attacks on religious minorities in the area. Alawites and Christians are being driven out of their homes, she said, and their children kidnapped and raped by the rebels. The nuns also told a Dutch reporter that they had seen rebels pile the corpses of regular soldiers and civilians in front of a mosque after an attack on an army control point, and then call in an al-Jazeera camera team which duly reported another massacre by the Syrian army. Many western correspondents gather much of their information from al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, which are owned by the rulers of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and play an important role in propagating the Sunni version of events in Syria.
Hermann points out that even if the Houla massacre was the work of Sunni militia engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Christian and Alawite minorities, that doesn’t exonerate the pro-Assad militia from blame for other war crimes.