The terrible massacre of civilians in the village of Houla near the restive city of Homs marks a watershed for the Syrian revolution.
Despite Bashar al-Assad’s regime blaming the atrocity on rebels and “Al Qaida terrorists” it is clear that responsibility for the carnage lay at the feet of his security forces and his sectarian Shabiha militia.
It appears that the tragedy unfolded when troops fired on a protest that began after Friday prayers. There are scores of such demonstrations every Friday in Syria, and they attract many children and young people who join in the singing of revolution songs.
In response, armed rebels attacked regime positions on the edge of the village—triggering a deadly round of artillery bombardment that killed dozens of demonstrators.
That day the Shabiha militia targeted the edge of the Houla, murdering at least 62 people. Women and children were stabbed or shot at close range as they sought refuge in their homes.
The massacre in Houla marks a point of no return for the revolution and the regime. Revolutionaries in towns across Syria attempted to raid arms depots as news of the atrocity filtered out. Protesters are increasingly calling for arming the revolution.
Assad gambled that a combination of mass arrests, executions and a military assault on Homs would break the will of the revolution. This strategy has clearly failed.
On Friday the regime deployed its tanks in Aleppo, Syria’s industrial heartland, for the first time. Tens of thousands took to the streets in the biggest show of mass defiance in the city to date.
The revolution is now travelling on two tracks. In many rural areas, as well as cities such as Homs, Hama and Idlib, there is a growing armed insurgency. In Aleppo and the capital Damascus, street demonstrations still dominate.
The massacre is widely seen as a sectarian attack, but there is evidence of sympathy for the revolution growing in Alawi Muslim areas.
Many leading members of the regime and its security apparatus are drawn from the Alawi minority and the regime assumed the Alawis would remain loyal.
Assad’s move towards deepening the sectarian tensions is designed to break the momentum of the revolution by turning neighbour on neighbour. There is as yet little evidence of any mass revenge attacks on Alawis, but this is now a serious danger.
Many of those who started this revolution have now drawn the conclusion that only an armed rebellion can break the impasse.
More weapons are falling into the hands of rebels, including heavier anti-tank weapons, but it is impossible to get an accurate picture of this. But the call for arms opens the door to outside forces who would like to hijack the revolution.
As the regime turns to even bloodier tactics in its desperate attempts to cling to power, the twin dangers of sectarianism and foreign intervention remain strong. But as the continuing mass protests show, this is far from inevitable.
Following news from Houla the leadership inside the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) called for a day of “mourning” strikes. These strikes appear to have had a big impact, with large areas of the country shut down.
The revolution committees still enjoy mass support, and many Syrians have heeded its uncompromising stance against sectarian provocations.
The strike call by the LCC, and the growing street movements in key cities, show that many in Syria still believe there is an alternative to a purely armed struggle against the regime.