How much longer can the world stand by while Syrian dictator Bashar Assad murders his own people by the thousands and the streets of Syria's cities and towns run red with the blood of his victims?
If there were any remaining doubt as to whether Mr. Assad might see reason and accept the peace proposals put forward by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan, last week's massacre in the village of Houla, near Homs, where 108 civilians — more than half of them women and children — were methodically gunned down by pro-government thugs shows the dictator has no intention of stopping the killing. He knows there is no way out for him other than maintaining his iron grip on power. Likewise, after Houla, the international community is nearing consensus that his crimes have surpassed what a civilized world can stomach.
Mr. Annan's peace initiative, a well-intentioned but ineffectual last-ditch effort to keep Syria's crisis from spiraling out of control, is dead in all but name. On Tuesday, the former U.N. secretary general met with Mr. Assad to deliver the blunt message that the time for diplomacy has run out and that unless he agrees to abide by the cease-fire he promised to honor in April, his government faced the prospect of international military intervention. That same day, the U.S. joined Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Bulgaria and Canada in expelling Syrian diplomats to emphasize the regime's isolation.
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A spokesman for Mr. Annan declined to answer questions about Mr. Assad's response to the Annan ultimatum, but given his repeated lies in the past — and after the massacre at Houla — it's doubtful anyone, including his chief remaining backers, Russia and China, can accept anything he says as credible. Both countries signed on to the tough resolution condemning Mr. Assad's butchery that the U.N. Security Council passed this week, suggesting even their patience is wearing thin. Iran may now be the only country in the world that hopes Mr. Assad can hang on.
In hindsight, it's clear that Mr. Annan's peace mission was probably doomed from the start. It never could have worked to restrain the type of leader Mr. Assad has proved himself to be — a criminal madman and mass murderer who by the U.N.'s estimate has slaughtered more than 10,000 of his citizens in the 15 months since they rose against his rule. In that, he is following in the footsteps of his father, former Syrian President Hafez Assad, who killed some 30,000 Syrians during the 1980s to put down an uprising. The younger Mr. Assad's brutality will not end until he is driven from power, and the sooner the better.
Americans are understandably wary of getting involved in another Mideast war, as are their counterparts in Europe, and they certainly don't want to have to bankroll another expenditure of lives and treasure unilaterally. Mr. Assad is obviously betting the U.S. and its allies won't even have the will to intervene on the model of Libya, where Western air power helped tilt the balance of forces in favor of the rebels. He is probably right that the U.S. won't intervene on its own, but last week's comment to Fox News by U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey that he has prepared military options for the president was a signal that the U.S. is not prepared to stand by indefinitely now that diplomacy has seemingly run its course.
General Dempsey conceded that the outcome of military confrontation was unpredictable and that it should be reserved as a last resort. We know even less about the Syrian opposition than we did about the forces that opposed Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, and there may be groups in the Syrian opposition that includeal-Qaida elements.
But it's also become abundantly clear that talks with Mr. Assad are worse than useless; they only give the tyrant more time to round up, torture and murder his political opponents, who apparently include small children still in their mothers' arms. War is a terrible and unpredictable option, but by his defiance of international norms and murderous intent, the Butcher of Homs seems to be doing everything he can to make it all but inevitable.