The continuing massacres in Syria -- summary executions of women and children, the total destruction of entire towns -- present a horrid picture far more disturbing than we saw in Bosnia during the 1990s, before NATO intervened.
With cell-phone cameras, social media, Skype and other new communication devices, we can now see the crimes against humanity soon after they are committed -- something not available in Bosnia, Rwanda or Cambodia before that.
Bashar al-Assad, the genocidal Syrian leader -- all except Russia, China and Iran. And now, the United Nations' cease-fire plan, directed by Kofi Annan, has collapsed -- suspended indefinitely because the violence is only increasing, and the peacekeepers' lives are imperiled, the head of the mission said.
A few days before that, France's new foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, called for swift U.N. approval of a resolution authorizing military action. Alain Juppe, Fabius' predecessor in the Sarkozy government, had issued a similar suggestion in April.
Of course, there's no chance at all that Russia or China will agree to any punitive Security Council resolution. So it's time to leave the United Nations behind. In fact, last weekend, two senior advisors to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement urging just that.
The international community should now assume the "responsibility to protect," they said. That's a doctrine urging U.N. member states to protect people who are being subjected to genocide or other mass crimes. Without stating it explicitly, the doctrine allows for military action when needed.
Syrian forces killed at least 132 more people in the first three days after the U.N. pulled back. Syrian artillery again rained down on Homs and other cities. More than 12,000 people have been killed since the revolt began 16 months ago, often with heedless, wanton brutality.
Yes, Western nations are weary of conflict in the Middle East after the Iraq war, more than 10 years in Afghanistan and the Libya campaign last year. But it's time to stop making angry, bellicose statements that carry no weight, as world leaders have been doing for more than a year. Actually those empty threats have ended up reassuring Assad that he can do whatever he wants without any real consequence.
Still, the Syrian regime is walking on a tightrope. It would not take much to push it off. So here's an idea:
NATO could send guided-missile cruisers, or submarines, into the Mediterranean armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, used to great effect in Iraq and Libya. Fire them at Syrian army bases, air force runways, helicopter pads, tank depots and other military sites. Attack only the very people who are killing all of those women and children, committing the crimes against humanity. Cruise missiles are self-guided and extremely accurate.
This would accomplish several things. Over the last year, hundreds of Syrian soldiers, officers and enlisted men, have deserted and joined the rebels. With their bases under attack, certainly many more would flee. Those who remain would be less confident they could commit their murderous crimes without reprisal.
This would require no troops on the ground, and the NATO vessels would not have to be vulnerable to attack -- even though Russia's chief arms exporter told the New York Times last week that his company was shipping advanced anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles to Syria.
"This is not a threat, but whoever is planning an attack should think about this," he warned. Well, if NATO officers are concerned about that "non-threat," they can fire the missiles off the northern Israeli coast and reach most any point in Syria. (Israel would almost certainly give permission.)
Russia also said it is sending troops to reinforce the Syrian port it uses. And at about the same time the U.S. military said attack plans for Syria are complete and ready for presentation to the president at his request, CNN reported. Both sides are blustering.
If, for that reason or another, that plan is not a workable, another is needed. The West does have the "responsibility to protect." Consider how Amnesty International, in a report just published, describes the state of affairs in Syria right now:
"Syrian government armed forces and militias are rampaging through towns and villages, systematically dragging men from their homes and summarily executing them. They are burning homes and property and sometimes the bodies of those they have killed in cold blood. They are recklessly shelling and shooting into residential areas, killing and injuring men, women and children.
"They are routinely torturing detainees, sometimes to death."
(Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.)