Here is the brutal truth about Syria: no one knows what to do. Six months after Barack Obama said bluntly that Bashar al-Assad should go, and with the Arab League calling for him to resign, there is no sign that the country's President is willing to listen. Two days ago, on the 30th anniversary of the massacre carried out by his father Hafez al-Assad in the city of Hama, the younger Assad ordered the Syrian army to bombard residential areas of the country's third largest city, Homs. Shocking TV pictures showed buildings ablaze against the night sky, the wounded rushed to makeshift casualty stations inside mosques.
Even these horrors were not enough to dissuade Russia and China yesterday from vetoing a draft UN Security Council resolution endorsing the Arab League's plan for Assad to go. The Syrian President can also rely on the region's chief mischief-maker, Iran, whose leaders' terrible human rights record shows that they are unlikely to worry about his regime massacring its own people. There's little point in appealing to Assad's finer instincts: the dynasty is founded on torture and repression. What's happening on the streets is simply an extension of what has gone in Syria's political prisons for many years.
A decade ago, the Blair government feted Bashar al-Assad during a visit to London, hoping it could come to a modus vivendi with the Syrian tyrant as it was trying to do with Libya's Colonel Gaddafi. Both regimes welcomed overtures from democratic nations, reading them (as we now know) as a carte blanche to continue doing whatever they liked to their own people. Gaddafi is dead, lynched by a militia group, but Assad is a harder nut to crack. Calls for international intervention remain muted because it would carry the risk of an escalation involving Iran and Hezbollah, further destabilising Lebanon and turning the crisis into a regional conflict.
With a stalemate developing and neither government forces nor the opposition able to achieve a decisive victory, the international community has regrettably few options. Yet the images coming out of Syria become more shocking by the day; unlike in 1982, when Hafez al-Assad bombed Hama and the details of the massacre were to take years to emerge, modern technology means that atrocities are reported as they happen. "My city is bleeding," a young man tweeted from Homs in the early hours yesterday. "We're being attacked since 8pm. 5 hours, 230 dead, 800 injured." Last night there was confusion about the likely death toll.
Savage repression of the uprising is likely to drive Assad's opponents into more desperate tactics, while increasing the likelihood of sectarian conflict between Syria's majority Sunni population and its Alawite (Shia) ruling elite. Already, Alawite families are said to be leaving Damascus and returning to their home villages, while families and businesses in the capital are having to cope with power cuts and steep rises in fuel prices. Economic sanctions are biting but it's clear that Assad is prepared to do anything to stay in power.
As the extent of Friday's massacre in Homs becomes clear, the international community must work out how to support, train and organise the opposition. In Libya, with the Nato bombardment of Gaddafi's military installations went a less-publicised project to instil discipline into the militias which had sprung up to oppose the regime. In Syria, a mixture of recklessly brave civilians and army defectors faces well-armed forces whose leaders remain loyal to the Assads. It's unlikely they can overthrow the dictator on their own. The moral and practical case for giving them the assistance they need is becoming unanswerable.