The List

The Five Worst Atrocities of the Syrian Uprising

Time and again, the Syrian regime has shocked the world. But those hoping the international community would be spurred into action have been just as frequently disappointed.

The Syrian government's crackdown on protesters and armed rebels has produced a seemingly endless stream of grim and grisly days, with more than 9,000 civilians perishing in the violence since March 2011, according to U.N. estimates. Yet some incidents have garnered more international attention than others, either due to the scale of the bloodshed or the savagery of the attack.

The slaughter of more than 100 people on Friday in Houla, a series of villages near the Syrian city of Homs, is proving to be one of these incidents. The U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned the killings, U.N. envoy Kofi Annan hurriedly organized a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an effort to salvage his peace plan, and governments around the world expelled Syrian ambassadors and diplomats. Der Spiegel is calling the massacre "Syria's My Lai," while Reuters has described it as "an atrocity that shook world opinion out of growing indifference." But a look at the incidents that have played this role most prominently during the 14-month-old uprising suggests that the outrage will fade away once the headlines do.


Last May, gruesome images of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib's mutilated body stunned the international community. Here's how the New York Times described the footage at the time:

Video posted online shows his battered, purple face. His skin is scrawled with cuts, gashes, deep burns and bullet wounds that would probably have injured but not killed. His jaw and kneecaps are shattered, according to an unidentified narrator, and his penis chopped off.

"These are the reforms of the treacherous Bashar," the narrator says. "Where are human rights? Where are the international criminal tribunals?"

Human rights activists claimed that the boy had been arrested at a protest in southern Syria, tortured to death, and handed over to his family in return for their silence. Syria's state-run media, for its part, contended that Hamza died from gunshot wounds during an attack by armed groups on Syrian forces, and that Bashar al-Assad met with the boy's family to express his condolences as soon as authorities were able to identify the corpse.

Hamza's death inspired a popular Facebook page and mass anti-government demonstrations across Syria. "Arab revolutions -- and associated social and international media -- seem to thrive on icons," the BBC's Jim Muir wrote at the time, "and the Syrian revolt appears to have found one."



As Ramadan approached last July, activists wondered whether the Muslim holy month would breathe new life into their movement, since people would have an easier time organizing protests while gathering in mosques for evening prayers after each day's fast. But on the eve of Ramadan, the Syrian military stormed Hama, which had become a protest hub as soon as government forces withdrew from the area in late June (the flashpoint city had previously been the scene of a chilling massacre in 1982 under Bashar al-Assad's father). Activists feverishly uploaded videos of the violence, which left as many as 300 people dead in six days, according to opposition activists.

In response, U.S. President Barack Obama and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued their strongest critiques of the Assad regime yet, and regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia turned heads by sharply escalating their criticism. Turkish President Abdullah Gul called the bloodshed "unacceptable" while Saudi King Abdullah urged Damascus to "stop the killing machine" and recalled his ambassador to Syria. Nevertheless, a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violence never got off the ground.



In December 2011, as Arab League officials prepared to travel to Syria to monitor a peace plan, activists reported that Syrian forces had surrounded villagers in a valley in the northern Jabal al-Zawiya region of Idlib province, killing more than 100 people with an onslaught of rockets, tank shells, and bombs in an effort to root out army defectors -- particularly ahead of the Arab League mission. Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called the attack "an organized massacre" and the "bloodiest day of the Syrian revolution" up to that point,  while the Syrian government did not comment on the claims.

In the aftermath of the assault, the opposition Syrian National Council called for the U.N. Security Council and Arab League to hold emergency meetings and develop plans to protect Syrian civilians. But the incident mainly elicited tough words from Western leaders and the Arab League peace initiative ultimately failed.

Ricardo Garcia Vilanova/AFP/Getty Images


In early February, Syrian forces began a month-long siege of the Baba Amr district of Homs that eventually forced the rebel Free Syrian Army to withdraw from its stronghold. As photos and video attest, the relentless bombardment reduced the neighborhood to rubble. While there has not been an overall estimate of the death toll in Baba Amr, Reuters noted at the time that residents who fled to Lebanon spoke of "a martyr if not more" in every house and "the smell of decomposed bodies, sewage, and destruction" hanging in the air. The American reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were among those who died in the shelling.

While China and Russia blocked aggressive action against Syria at the U.N. Security Council, they did join other world powers in demanding that U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos be granted access to Baba Amr. When Syrian officials eventually acquiesced, Amos was devastated by what she saw. "That part of Homs is completely destroyed," she explained, "and I am concerned to know what has happened to the people who live in that part of the city."



On May 25, 2012, 108 people -- including 49 children and 34 women -- were murdered in Houla, according to the United Nations, with entire families gunned down in their homes and most of the victims summarily executed. The Syrian regime blamed the violence in the largely Sunni area, which the Syrian military had been shelling in possible retaliation for a rebel assault on an Alawite village, on "armed terrorist groups," while witnesses and survivors told U.N. investigators that pro-government militias were responsible for the bloodshed. A couple days later, opposition activists reported a bloody government assault on nearby Hama.

Repeated violations of Kofi Annan's peace plan had made a mockery of the ceasefire for some time before the slaughter in Houla. But the news threw the international community's failure to resolve the crisis in Syria into sharp relief. The U.N. Security Council condemned the Syrian government's use of heavy weapons in Houla in a rare display of solidarity, though the non-binding statement did not assign blame for the executions and Russia, which has long vetoed more robust Security Council action on Syria, later argued that Syrian rebels -- and perhaps a mysterious "third force" -- were partly to blame for the massacre. Still, the New York Times claims that the Security Council's move armed Annan with a "new mandate" for his peace plan as he met with Assad in Damascus, and the coordinated decision by Western countries to expel Syrian diplomats has left the Assad regime more isolated than ever before.

To be sure, the Syrian government isn't the only party that has been accused of atrocities. Last June, for example, the Syrian authorities blamed armed gangs for killing more than 120 security forces in the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour, though opposition activists denied the allegations. And U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggested earlier this month that al Qaeda militants orchestrated twin suicide car bombings in Damascus that killed 55 people.

But beyond the confusion about who is behind the atrocities is the question of whether these high-profile massacres have meaningfully altered the trajectory of the Syrian conflict. Even in the wake of the Houla killings, there's little appetite among world powers for military intervention, and engineering a Yemen-style transfer of power in Syria at this juncture could be incredibly difficult. As Reuters noted on Tuesday, Russia does not appear to see Houla as a "game-changer" when it comes to supporting tougher action against Syria at the Security Council.

When this week's frenzied but largely symbolic diplomatic activity subsides, in other words, the international community may be no closer to devising a solution to the intractable crisis in Syria than it was before this weekend's horrific violence.


The List

The Name Is Bond. Eurobond.

Europe's debt crisis gets a new potential hero, with Germany once again cast in the role of villain.

The word on the lips of many of the 17 leaders of the eurozone following this week's meeting of heads of state -- the 18th summit, for those who are counting -- is Eurobonds. The ideas behind them, though, are out of sync. "Europe can have Eurobonds soon," Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti insisted. "[The] taboo surrounding Eurobonds has been lifted," a European Commission official declared. Not so fast, German Central Bank chief Jens Weidmann chimed in, "It is an illusion to think Eurobonds will solve the current crisis."

So, what exactly is a Eurobond? Briefly put, it is a tool intended to collectivize debt across all eurozone countries. Right now, to raise funds, eurozone members have only one option: selling national bonds. The market determines the value of these bonds based on each country's fiscal and economic health. The problem is that as some European countries were roiled by a national asset bubble (Ireland) or experienced a decade of lackluster economic growth while racking up unsustainable levels of debt (Greece and Portugal), they became unable to tap private markets, and their existing debt became prohibitively expensive to pay back. To service their debt, these countries had to receive funds from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. But with the crisis deepening and spreading to Italy and Spain, it looks like another solution is required: the Eurobond.

In theory, Eurobonds would allow debt-ridden countries like Greece to borrow at more affordable interest rates. For instance, according to the Guardian newspaper, if Eurobonds were adopted, Portugal would see its annual debt repayments fall by as much as $18 billion or 9 percent of GDP. Other struggling European countries, such as Italy, Spain, or even France, would likely see similar savings.

But even as Eurobonds relieved the crisis in the periphery, they would increase the borrowing costs of countries in better financial health. For example, according to the same article, if Eurobonds were introduced, Germany's borrowing costs would rise above the current eurozone average, costing Berlin an extra $62 billion, or 2 percent of GDP, per year to service its debt.

What prevents the wealthier countries, or more specifically Germany, from getting to yes on Eurobonds? In a nutshell, moral hazard: If Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain were allowed to borrow at lower rates, the market pressure to implement deep and difficult structural reforms would disappear.

The path to European redemption, according to German leaders and the European Central Bank, must only come through difficult reforms and fiscal discipline, not the same sort of low-cost borrowing that got the periphery countries into their current difficulties. This moral hazard argument was precisely why Germany demanded a fiscal compact treaty (which maintains strict fiscal debt and deficit limits) in December in return for additional bailout funds.

There are also legal arguments against Eurobonds. At present, EU treaties expressly forbid joint debt liabilities within the monetary union. The introduction of Eurobonds would require several treaty amendments and very likely ratification by eurozone members. Eurobonds are likely also unconstitutional in Germany, and would require at least 10 legal changes, according to the Guardian. Sorting out the legal and political challenges could take years.

The Eurobonds debate also extends to the form and scope of these bonds. Since 2000, there have been at least six different proposals on how to structure a Eurobond. To simplify, we place the Eurobond discussion into three separate categories:

Door No. 1 is the maximalist definition of Eurobonds, requiring that all 17 eurozone countries completely mutualize their current stock of debt and issue common bonds. In other words, they would ensure joint guarantees, meaning that each member state not only pays for itself but also the obligations of any other country -- say, Greece -- unable to meet its liabilities. Germany hates this door, but it would do the most to mitigate market pressures on the periphery.

Door No. 2 seeks to tackle the moral hazard question by creating a mix of national bonds and Eurobonds. The fundamental disagreement is on the degree of the mix. The greater the proportion of Eurobonds, the less market pressure a country faces, thereby discouraging demanding but necessary reforms. Too great a percentage of risky national bonds, and you have defeated the purpose. The most commonly discussed proposal is a 60/40 Eurobond/national bond split so that member states that stay within a ratio of 60 percent debt to GDP (a rule enshrined in the fiscal compact treaty) will receive Eurobonds; anything over that amount and market forces will punish. No one has a clue how to manage this scenario, let alone how long it will take to create the mechanisms to do it.

Door No. 3 is called the European Debt Redemption Fund. This variation would involve joint guarantees by the 17 eurozone countries for any national debt exceeding the 60 percent debt-to-GDP ratio. Each individual country would still be held accountable for the majority of its debt, and the European Commission would take responsibility only for a set period of time, after which member states would be required to reassume their liabilities.

The perfect Eurobonds would be an instrument with a mandate broad enough to halt the crisis but punitive enough to mitigate the risks of moral hazard -- a tall order. To say that you support Eurobonds could mean a variation of the aforementioned options, all fraught with complexity. If European decisionmaking to date tells us anything, it is that the least-common-denominator, minimalist option eventually will be selected, but too little and too late to effect change.

One variation on the Eurobonds idea that has gained traction in recent weeks is something called "project bonds" -- financial instruments backed by the EU budget that can be used to finance infrastructure projects relating to energy, transportation, communication, and information networks. The idea, which the European Parliament has reached agreement on, offers a way to stimulate growth in the peripheral eurozone countries as they continue to implement structural reforms. Promisingly, $293 million of EU capital has been reserved for this effort, with more on the way should it prove successful.

But while project bonds can help attract private-sector investment, they cannot be a substitute for it. It is likely that these project bonds would only support about 10 projects throughout the EU until 2014 -- hardly a panacea.

Moreover, collectivized debt in the form of a Eurobond won't reduce the overall levels of European sovereign debt, solve Europe's structural problems, right trade deficits, improve competitiveness, stimulate long-term growth, or reverse public indebtedness. And that is exactly what countries like Greece and Spain need to do, as painful as it will be.

What Eurobonds can do, given the right formulation, is stall an escalating crisis -- an outcome that would be greeted with a sigh of relief in Washington, Beijing, and other world capitals in the near term. But the crisis will only come back with a greater vengeance, likely consuming Europe's stronger economies with it.

Of course, at the end of the day, the decision on whether or not to introduce Eurobonds rests with the area's strongest economy: Germany. To put it another way, is Germany willing to transfer its wealth, increase its borrowing costs, and increase inflation to save indebted European nations, or isn't it?