How Bad Was It? It doesn't get any worse. This is about as appalling as the human mind and deed can sink. Who could do this? More people than you think possible.
Bashar al-Assad will get away with it. He got away with Deraa. He got away with Homs. And he'll get away with Houla. So will the armed opposition to the regime, along with al-Qa'ida and any other outfits joining in Syria's tragedy. Yes, this may be the critical moment, the "tipping point" of horror, when Baathist collapse becomes inevitable rather than probable. And dear Mr Hague may be "absolutely" appalled. The UN, too. We all are.
But the Middle East is littered with a hundred Houlas, their dead children piled among the statistics, with knives and ropes as well as guns among the murder weapons. And what if Assad's soldiers let their Alawite militia do their dirty work? Didn't the Algerian FLN regime use "home guard" units to murder its opponents in the 1990s? Didn't Gaddafi have his loyalist militias last year, and Mubarak his jailbird drugged-up ex-cops, the baltagi, to bash opponents of his regime? Didn't Israel use its Lebanese Phalangist proxies to intimidate and kill its opponents in Lebanon? Wasn't this, too, "rule by murder"? And come to think of it, wasn't it Bashar al-Assad's uncle Rifaat's Special Forces who massacred the insurgents of Hama in 1982 – speak this not too loudly, for Rifaat lives now between Paris and London – and so who thinks Bashar can't get away with Houla? The Algerian parallel is a frightening one. The FLN's corrupt leadership wanted a "democracy", even held elections. But once it was clear that the Islamist opposition – the luckless Islamic Salvation Front – would win, the government declared war on the "terrorists" trying to destroy Algeria. Villages were besieged, towns were shelled – all in the name of fighting "terror" – until the opposition took to slaughtering civilians around Blida, thousands of them, babies with their throats cut, women raped. And then it turned out the Algerian army was also involved in massacres. For Houla, read Bentalha, a place we have all forgotten; as we will forget Houla.
And we Westerners, we huffed and puffed, and called upon both sides in Algeria to exercise "restraint", but wanted stability in France's former colony – and let's not forget that Syria is a former French "mandate" territory – and were very worried about al-Qa'ida-style insurgents taking over Algeria and, in the end, the US supported the Algerian military just as the Russians are supporting Syria's military today. And the FLN got away with it, after 200,000 dead – compared to the mere 10,000 killed so far in Syria's war.
And it's worth remembering that, faced with their 1990s insurrection, the Algerians cast around desperately for countries from which they could take advice. They chose Hafez al-Assad's Syria and sent a military delegation to Damascus to learn how the regime destroyed Hama in 1982. Now the Americans – who six months ago were characteristically casting Bashar as a "dead man walking" – prefer a Yemen-type ending to the Syrian war, as if Yemen's crisis wasn't bloody enough. But replacing Assad with a thug from the same patch (the Sanaa "solution") is not what the Syrians will settle for.
Yes, it's a civil war. And yes, Houla may be the turning point. And yes, now the UN are witnesses. But the Baath party has roots that go deeper than blood – ask any Lebanese – and we in the West will soon forget Houla when another YouTube image of death flicks on to our screens from the Syrian countryside. Or from Yemen. Or from the next revolution.
Guns for hire: Assad's 'shabiha'
The Egyptian revolution had to contend with Hosni Mubarak's thugs, or baltagi. The Syrian opposition faces what it calls the shabiha. The name comes from the Arabic word for ghost and describes the armed supporters of Bashar al-Assad, pictured, who have worked alongside the army to crush protests. The opposition has accused the gangs, recruited primarily from the President's Alawite sect, of a campaign of intimidation that has included executions. Some in the international community have accused the Assad regime of "outsourcing repression". Richard Hall