The executions of more than 100 people in Houla and Deir al-Zour last month confirm what we already knew: Syria’s Sunnis and Alawites are in a civil war. President Bashar al-Assad’s claim that terrorists conducted the slaughter of fellow Sunnis to create an international outcry is laughable. The evidence gleaned by a United Nations effort led by Kofi Annan suggests the Alawite Shabiha militia, working in tandem with the government military, was responsible.
Pressure is rising for the Obama administration and its European, Sunni Arab, and Turkish allies to act. Suggestions range from arming Syria’s opposition (Mitt Romney) to launching Libya-style airstrikes (Republican Senator John McCain) to creating safe zones (Democratic Senator John Kerry). None have explained how they would control the aftermath of a successful intervention that the U.S. and its allies would then own. Nor have they explained what part of the fragmented opposition forces they would arm and coordinate with, or how to avoid widening the conflict to a regional Sunni-Shiite contest.
Yet as frustration and horror at events in Syria grow each day, every remaining step toward isolation of the regime, its military, and its finances should be taken without delay. Indictment for war crimes for all implicated in directing the killings should be threatened—though not yet implemented, leaving open a road to exile for Assad and his henchmen. Prosecution can follow later.
To maximize pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, China, and the Syrian regime, the U.S. administration should order the Pentagon to present options for eventual military action alongside allies such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab nations. In the meantime, the U.S. and others should use all means short of military ones, from jamming broadcast signals to cyberwarfare, to obstruct Syrian forces. The public warning on May 30 from Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the UN, that the U.S. and others may soon circumvent Russia’s veto at the Security Council is welcome additional pressure. Another Libya- or Kosovo-style action by U.S.-led forces is what Russia most wants to prevent in Syria.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, have made clear over the past few days their belief that Russia’s strategic interests in Syria should be safeguarded in a post-Assad world. This will be the cost of Russian cooperation. In his visits to Berlin and Paris over the weekend, Putin showed little sign of bending. He continued to insist on Russia’s neutrality in the dispute (despite its arms shipments to the Syrian government), and on the need for a patient negotiated solution (even though it’s clear that path is closed as long as Assad thinks he can survive militarily).
As he begins his second, less popular tour as Russian president, Putin has to decide whether being cast as defender of a Syrian regime that executes children advances his interests. Russia, after all, invaded its neighbor Georgia for allegedly committing far lesser crimes.