When news of the Houla Massacre first appeared, the usual radical skepticism reserved only for the Syrian revolution ensued. Many claimed they wanted to wait to ‘wait for the facts’, because, as you know, they frequently accuse the Syrian opposition of ‘faking’ massacres to garner public sympathy. As news kept pouring out, we finally learned that the UN observers arrived to the scene in Houla, and confirmed that a massacre had taken place. The news was confirmed by activists on the ground, foreign news outlets, and the UN observers, and we were all waiting on the regime’s information outlets to see what they would have to say about the matter. When the regime news outlets finally did say something about the massacre, they reported it with what they said was another massacre in al-Shumariyeh, which many pro-regimers were describing as a ‘counter-massacre’. Yet, when the news of the Houla Massacre was finally confirmed by all sides, we entered the second stage of radical skepticism: who did it? The regime reported it as ‘armed terrorist gangs’, and the opposition reported it as being committed by agents of the regime.
Since then, an increasingly prevalent argument in an attempt to claim the regime is innocent is the functionalist argument. The functionalist argument, exemplified by this post, argues that the regime could not have perpetrated the massacre in Houla because states usually operate according to their interests, and the Assad regime did not benefit at all from the Houla Massacre, and thus, could not have perpetrated this massacre.
First of all, to make this argument in the first place, one has to completely close their eyes to the thousands of Syrians already killed by the regime. Was it, then, in the regime’s interest to open fire at protesters? To imprison thousands? Was it in the regime’s interest to arrest and deport Salameh Kaileh (which many, even people who normally defend the Syrian regime, decried)? Was it in the regime’s interest to destroy Baba Amr? In order to make the functionalist argument in regards to Houla in the first place, one has to act like that the Syrian regime has been innocent up until this stage, as if this is a new development. After all in order to ask, “Why would the Assad regime massacre people?” one has to have had their eyes closed for over a year. They also have to be ignorant of the Hama Massacre in 1982. How did the regime benefit from that massacre? Well, it put down an uprising for one. This time they were trying to do the same thing, except they messed up because people actually found out about it.
Second of all, the functionalist argument is correct in stating that states usually operate according to their own interests. However, to make this argument about the Syrian state specifically shows a lack of knowledge as to what comprises the Syrian state. The Syrian state has two components: one is formal, the other informal. The formal component is the “official” state apparatus. It is made up of the normal institutions of the state, that is, the military, the police force etc. The informal component of the Syrian state is the “shabiha state.” Shabiha are groups of thugs and mercenaries who are loyal to the regime but who do not fall under the official state apparatus. Why have shabiha in the first place? Because, unlike the official state apparatus, which is (at least, in theory) guided by state logic, rationality, and have self-defined goals (for example, put down the protest movement), shabiha represent the irrational, brutal, vengeful, regressive, and tribal component of the Assad regime. It resembles a mafia more than a state apparatus, and that is why it is an informal part of the state.
The fact that the shabiha do not operate according to state logic is exemplified in this article by Syrian dissident Yassin Al Haj Saleh. In the article, Saleh tells an anecdote from the 1980s that gives us insight into how the Syrian shabiha operate:
“By the 1980s the shabiha were untouchable and operated with impunity in the coastal city of Latakia. The late respected Syrian intellectual Elias Marcos, once recalled that he had been sitting in a cafe in Latakia when shabiha members entered and amused themselves by forcing patrons to lie on the floor beneath their tables. They killed a young man who objected to their insults; they used threats to obtain property and possessions for reduced prices or for free; their leaders raped attractive young women; and they offered to resolve disputes in exchange for a hefty commission from both sides, ensuring victory for the party that paid the most.”
What interest does the Syrian state have specifically in the shabiha committing any of the actions mentioned above? If we zoom in on each specific incident, it has none. How does forcing everyone in a cafe to lie on the floor benefit the Syrian state? It doesn’t, in the short-term. But if we look at the bigger picture, incidents like this invoke fear of the shabiha, who know that at the end of the day, they have the state backing them. The state has no interest in these specific incidents, but it has an interest in maintaining fear of shabiha, which in turn translates to fear of the state.
Now, back to Houla. Shabiha are mercenaries who are not guided by usual state logic. Their goal is to invoke maximum fear, with no fear of consequences. The story is that the army shelled the residential neighborhoods of Houla, and the armed shabiha went in and perpetrated the massacre. Perhaps the regime did not directly order their shabiha to massacre children in Houla. Perhaps it ordered an attack and sent its troops and shabiha to commit it, not knowing exactly how far their shabiha would go. But shabiha do not operate according to regime survival logic, but primal logic. They do not have calculated goals. Their goal is to invoke the maximum amount of fear. This is why the regime has shabiha in the first place, because its level of brutality invokes terror in the general population. Given the shabiha’s irrational use of force to scare its enemies, or any potential enemies, the argument that the regime couldn’t have perpetrated the Houla massacre because it had no interest in doing so is defunct. And even if the regime did not directly order the Houla massacre, it bears full responsibility for the actions of its shabiha in Houla. The regime uses its shabiha because it knows that they can be excessively brutal and chaotic with their violence. Thus, sending shabiha into a residential neighborhood was a recipe for disaster, even if the regime did not intend it to be. Let no one say that the regime could not have committed the massacre because it had no interest in doing so. A shabiha state operates with impunity and no fear of consequences. Just because there were consequences this time(for once) in the form of international outrage, does not mean that the regime was incapable of committing it.