The full horror of Houla emerges

How should the west respond to a crime against humanity?

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.

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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Lord Sainsbury pulls funding from Progress and other political causes

The longstanding Labour donor will no longer fund party political causes. 

Centrist Labour MPs face a funding gap for their ideas after the longstanding Labour donor Lord Sainsbury announced he will stop financing party political causes.

Sainsbury, who served as a New Labour minister and also donated to the Liberal Democrats, is instead concentrating on charitable causes. 

Lord Sainsbury funded the centrist organisation Progress, dubbed the “original Blairite pressure group”, which was founded in mid Nineties and provided the intellectual underpinnings of New Labour.

The former supermarket boss is understood to still fund Policy Network, an international thinktank headed by New Labour veteran Peter Mandelson.

He has also funded the Remain campaign group Britain Stronger in Europe. The latter reinvented itself as Open Britain after the Leave vote, and has campaigned for a softer Brexit. Its supporters include former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and Labour's Chuka Umunna, and it now relies on grassroots funding.

Sainsbury said he wished to “hand the baton on to a new generation of donors” who supported progressive politics. 

Progress director Richard Angell said: “Progress is extremely grateful to Lord Sainsbury for the funding he has provided for over two decades. We always knew it would not last forever.”

The organisation has raised a third of its funding target from other donors, but is now appealing for financial support from Labour supporters. Its aims include “stopping a hard-left take over” of the Labour party and “renewing the ideas of the centre-left”. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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