But, with military interventionist pressure from the west growing, isn't the spectre of such massacres precisely what Assad and his regime would more likely seek to avoid?
The latest Guardian editorial asserts that Assad is now using these killings as part of a 'sectarian card' to help keep him secure:
"The more polarised and sectarian the conflict becomes, the harder it will become to keep a popular insurrection afloat. The harder, too, it comes for the opposition to give meaningful guarantees, if they ever could have done, to the minorities who have most to fear from regime change – the Alawites, Christians and Kurds. Once again, Assad's terror is tactically ahead of the game: sectarianism is the tool to dig himself further in."A seeming template strategy: keep religious sectors in a state of conflict/distrust, deflecting challenges to the government. Yet, doesn't this rampant sectarianism also help reveal the deeper causes, identity and motivations of forces engaged in the conflict?
Moreover, why would Assad risk elevating the call for western force in this crisis-intensifying way - particularly just before a key UN Security Council meeting?
Why would he specifically order such brutalities, understanding, full well, how they will likely be used, as with Benghazi in Libya, as the all-important 'moral' pretext for western action?
The word via US intelligence agency Stratfor (in Wikileaks-revealed documents) suggests otherwise:
"There still seems to be a lot of confusion over what a military intervention involving an air campaign would be designed to achieve...They dont [sic] believe air intervention would happen unless there was enough media attention on a massacre, like the Ghadafi move against Benghazi. They think the US would have a high tolerance for killings as long as it doesn't reach that very public stage."So, what purpose is served by Assad raising the ante in this very public way?
Perhaps Assad did order or conspire in shabiha-led murders. But without any available evidence of such, and with other rebel claims now heavily discredited, shouldn't the same level of scrutiny be applied to all sides?
Whatever the actual explanation, journalists and editors might be expected to keep a sceptical eye on the opposition's own slickly-honed PR. Alas, little of this is evident.
Curiously, beneath the BBC's blanket reporting of Assad's villainy, one of its own news editors, Jon Williams, offers this much more cautious reading:
"Some months ago, I reflected on the difficulties of reporting from Syria. The deaths of Marie Colvin and a dozen other journalists in the country so far this year has given us cause to think long and hard about the very real dangers there. But so too does the complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria, and the need to try to separate fact from fiction.
Damascus prides itself on being the oldest, continually inhabited city in the world. It also has the longest history of rumours passing for fact.
I spent three days in Syria earlier this week, talking to all sides involved in the current conflict. Waking up on my first morning, social media was alive with reports that the mobile phone network was down. True enough, I could access the hotel wi-fi but not place a call. On Twitter and Facebook, people claimed the phones had been turned off as the precursor to a major military assault. The truth it seems was more prosaic. It's the high school exam season in Syria - diplomats claimed the real reason was the phone network had been turned off to prevent students cheating. Even in a conflict zone, good grades count for a lot.
In the aftermath of the massacre at Houla last month, initial reports said some of the 49 children and 34 women killed had their throats cut. In Damascus, Western officials told me the subsequent investigation revealed none of those found dead had been killed in such a brutal manner. Moreover, while Syrian forces had shelled the area shortly before the massacre, the details of exactly who carried out the attacks, how and why were still unclear. Whatever the cause, officials fear the attack marks the beginning of the sectarian aspect of the conflict.
In such circumstances, it's more important than ever that we report what we don't know, not merely what we do. In Houla, and now in Qubair, the finger has been pointed at the shabiha, pro-government militia. But tragic death toll aside, the facts are few: it's not clear who ordered the killings - or why.
Given the difficulties of reporting inside Syria, video filed by the opposition on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube may provide some insight into the story on the ground. But stories are never black and white - often shades of grey. Those opposed to President Assad have an agenda. One senior Western official went as far as to describe their YouTube communications strategy as "brilliant". But he also likened it to so-called "psy-ops", brainwashing techniques used by the US and other military to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true.
A healthy scepticism is one of the essential qualities of any journalist - never more so than in reporting conflict. The stakes are high - all may not always be as it seems."In another analysis piece, the BBC's Paul Danahar also raises doubts over standard accounts of the conflict:
"There is a sense in Damascus shared by many diplomats, international officials and those opposed to President Assad that his regime may no longer have complete and direct day-to-day command and control of some of the militia groups being blamed for massacring civilians. The world has looked at the Syrian conflict in very black and white terms over the past 15 months. It now needs to acknowledge the shades of grey that are emerging.
UN observers are hoping to soon investigate the latest reports of killings. Kofi Annan will be updating the UN today on his mission and on the massacre in Houla. Members of the international community in Damascus say that, contrary to initial reports, most of the people in Houla were killed by gunfire spraying the rooms, not by execution-style killings with a gun placed to the back of the head. Also people's throats were not cut, although one person did have an eye gouged out.
What is acknowledged is that, while the UN observer mission has been a success in terms of meeting its brief, the six-point plan has been a failure. And it's clear the Syrian conflict has stopped looking like past Arab revolutions and is instead beginning to look much more like Bosnia when it began the slow slide into sectarian civil war."One can but wonder over the differing takes of these BBC reporters from that of headline BBC coverage.
First-hand evidence from Houla gathered by Channel 4 News correspondent Alex Thomson does appear to affirm the brutal nature of the killings - though, not the savage throat-cutting and close executions originally claimed by rebel activists and reported by the mainstream media. He also confirms that government shelling preceded the attack.
Yet, even by Thomson's own admission, this still tells us little about who, definitively, instructed and carried out the actual executions: "We may never know firmly", he says.
Thomson also refers in his various reports to the conflict as a "civil war", emphasising its sectarian nature, something the opposition are at pains to deny.
Again, contra the Guardian version, this is important because it dispels the preferred opposition/western narrative of a widescale national insurrection against the regime.
And, as this disturbing dispatch from Thomson strongly suggests, the Free Syrian Army are also ready to assist in the killing of foreign journalists for propaganda purposes.
Having been lured into a deadly free-fire situation by rebel media handlers, Thomson concludes:
"I’m quite clear the rebels deliberately set us up to be shot by the Syrian Army. Dead journos are bad for Damascus."None of this cautious assessment is to suggest that atrocities aren't taking place, or to excuse Assad's wider criminality.
Rather, it's to highlight the much more nuanced set of sectarian forces now vying for control, alongside the mercenary involvement of the west, Saudi Arabia and others in the arms-supplying chain using Syria for regional gain and, most vitally, as a proxy war on Iran.
While many uncertainties remain over who, precisely, is doing some of the killing in Syria, there can be little doubt that any further western intervention will only intensify the carnage, proving, as with Libya, even more disastrous for Syrians and the region at large.
In their proclaimed efforts to support a 'popular challenge' to a repressive regime, many liberals/leftists have erred badly in their failure to see both the non-populist, disparate nature of the conflict and the ways in which their calling others 'apologists' for that reading is actually fuelling the case for further western-driven bloodshed.