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The full horror of Houla emerges

How should the west respond to a crime against humanity?

Demonstrators protest against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Demonstrators protest in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul on May 27, 2012 against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: Getty Images.

The more we learn about last week's massacre in the Syrian town of Houla, the more horrific it seems. Following UN investigations, we know now there were at least 108 victims, 49 of whom were children and infants, their lives ended with a shot to the head or a knife to the throat. Fewer than 20 of the deaths were the result of the initial bombardment by the Syrian armed forces. Most were summarily executed in their own homes by state-sponsored militias (principally the shabiha). The front page of this morning's Times (see below) powerfully articulates the human revulsion one feels at such an event.

In a leading article (£), the paper calls for military action by Britain and others. Given the apparent futility of diplomacy and the legacy of western inaction in Rwanda and Bosnia, that is an understandable response. But there remain good reasons to doubt the wisdom of military action. Even a limited intervention would risk triggering a full-blown sectarian civil war and proxy interventions by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The west cannot avoid the uncomfortable truth that a significant portion of the Syrian population remains unambiguously loyal to Assad. Moreover, as Tony Blair's former chief of staff Jonathan Powell argued in the New Statesman in February, "our action would be viable only if the rebels wanted us to intervene." For now, they remain divided. The Syrian National Council has called for the imposition of a no-fly zone but the National Co-ordinating Committee, the other main faction, favours a negotiated settlement. In view of the continuing bloodshed in Libya, that is no surprise.

The best hope remains that Russia, Syria's most loyal ally and its largest supplier of arms, can be persuaded to exert genuine diplomatic pressure on Damascus. The US is pushing for a negotiated settlement, modelled on that in Yemen, under which Assad would depart but remnants of his administration would remain in place. Yet even if Vladimir Putin acquiesces in the proposal, it is hard to see Syria's tyrant doing so. The fear remains that, like Macbeth, he is "in blood stepp'd in so far" that retreat is unthinkable. But it is hard to conceive that military intervention would do anything but exacerbate the bloodshed. There are no easy options for the west but diplomacy, not bombs, continues to offer the best chance of stopping the killing.

Tags:Syria