Were Syrian rebels behind Houla massacre?

One of the pitfalls of writing anything about Syria is that no one - not even the brave and resourceful Local Coordinating Committees who have been smuggling video of Assad's atrocities out of the country for months - knows what's really going on.

In the case of the Houla massacre, where 116 citizens were executed, including 49 children and 34 women, the fog of war has descended over the incident and questions have now been raised regarding who was responsible.

John Rosenthal at NRO:

[A]ccording to a new report in Germany's leading daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the Houla massacre was in fact committed by anti-Assad Sunni militants, and the bulk of the victims were member of the Alawi and Shia minorities, which have been largely supportive of Assad. For its account of the massacre, the report cites opponents of Assad, who, however, declined to have their names appear in print out of fear of reprisals from armed opposition groups.

According to the article's sources, the massacre occurred after rebel forces attacked three army-controlled roadblocks outside of Houla. The roadblocks had been set up to protect nearby Alawi majority villages from attacks by Sunni militias. The rebel attacks provoked a call for reinforcements by the besieged army units. Syrian army and rebel forces are reported to have engaged in battle for some 90 minutes, during which time "dozens of soldiers and rebels" were killed.

Left out of this account is the documented attack by security forces on peaceful demonstrators that same day. This is what precipitated the rebel attack on the checkpoints. What happened next is what is now a matter of dispute.

Rosenthal translates the German report from FAZ:

the massacre occurred during this time. Those killed were almost exclusively from families belonging to Houla's Alawi and Shia minorities. Over 90% of Houla's population are Sunnis. Several dozen members of a family were slaughtered, which had converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. Members of the Shomaliya, an Alawi family, were also killed, as was the family of a Sunni member of the Syrian parliament who is regarded as a collaborator. Immediately following the massacre, the perpetrators are supposed to have filmed their victims and then presented them as Sunni victims in videos posted on the internet.

I don't think Assad's forces differentiate between sects. If you're anti-Assad, you get shot. It doesn't matter if you're Shia, Alawite, or Sunni. There have been incidents of Alawites demonstrating against Assad so identifying the rebels as perpetrators of the massacre based on the religious sect of the dead is not credible. A little more proof is needed.

This is not to say that the Sunni extremists who apparently joined the FSA couldn't carry out atrocities, as Rosenthal documents:

The FAZ report echoes eyewitness accounts collected from refugees from the Houla region by members of the Monastery of St. James in Qara, Syria. According to monastery sources cited by the Dutch Middle East expert Martin Janssen, armed rebels murdered "entire Alawi families" in the village of Taldo in the Houla region.

Already at the beginning of April, Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix of the St. James Monastery warned of rebel atrocities' being repackaged in both Arab and Western media accounts as regime atrocities. She cited the case of a massacre in the Khalidiya neighborhood in Homs. According to an account published in French on the monastery's website, rebels gathered Christian and Alawi hostages in a building in Khalidiya and blew up the building with dynamite. They then attributed the crime to the regular Syrian army. "Even though this act has been attributed to regular army forces . . . the evidence and testimony are irrefutable: It was an operation undertaken by armed groups affiliated with the opposition," Mother Agnès-Mariam wrote.

There are lessons to be learned; don't jump to conclusions and view every report with a skeptical eye. That's usually good advice under normal circumstances, but in a war zone it would seem to be particularly relevant. This is especially true when it is so easy (and lazy) to point the finger at a tyrant like Assad for every atrocity. Certainly I've been guilty of this and will endeavor to dig a little deeper before laying the blame on one side or another.