After Houla comes Qubair in Syria's Hama province. Upwards of 70 people, including women and children, have been slaughtered. As with Houla, where more than 100 were killed in similarly barbaric ways, President Bashar al-Assad blames "terrorists"; his enemies blame Assad, and inexorably the pressure mounts for outside intervention. The calls come from Syrian opposition leaders, who equate their cause with that of the anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya. And they come from ordinary people and politicians, distressed by the multiplying massacres of the innocent. The urging is loud and it is impassioned. It should be resisted at all costs.
At every level the picture is deceptive. Even on the smallest, most local scale things are less black and white than they have been made to look. Take Houla. For many proponents of intervention, it will be sufficient that 108 people, including women and children, were killed in cold blood. But initial accounts spoke of young children with cut throats. Not apparently true; all, it is now said, were shot when gunmen sprayed living quarters indiscriminately.
That is bad enough, but it is not quite the same as singling out children and slashing their throats. Nor, strictly speaking, were the victims political opponents of the Assad regime. Local clan rivalries, rather than national politics, are now blamed. Even the assumption that Assad forces were responsible for the carnage is not quite true. In both Houla and now Qubair, it is shabiha militias – from Assad's Alawite clan, but not regular army troops – that are identified as the culprits.
In many ways, these truths force a more pessimistic prognosis than the version initially put out – whether in ignorance or for propaganda purposes – by the anti-Assad opposition. If what began as an uprising is already manifesting itself along clan and religious lines, the enforced departure of Assad will not settle the dispute. It will merely rip the lid off, and allow oxygen into an already seething cauldron of strife, as foreign intervention did in Iraq. Is that something the Americans or the British, with or without the French, should get themselves into? Just as we have ended the painful withdrawal from Iraq and are still trying to extricate ourselves from Afghanistan?
Even those interventions filed away in the "successful" box – Kosovo, Libya – have yet to produce orderly, self-reliant states. Kosovo, while now recognised by most countries as independent, is not viable as such in either economic or security terms, and will not be for a very long time, if ever. The Western military assessment of the Libyan operation is that the whole enterprise came so close to failure at times as to render it useless as a model. While presented as an exclusively aerial intervention, it required far more Special Forces on the ground than has been openly acknowledged, and the victorious opposition still struggles to control the country. Militias, with tanks, shut down Tripoli airport only this week.
Syria is a far more complex proposition. There are far more Syrians than Libyans; the country is more divided in every respect, and Assad himself – still – enjoys stronger support in more of the country than either the opposition or its foreign sympathisers like to admit. Indeed, the more that law and order deteriorates, the more Syrians may look to the regime, or its semi-detached militias, for protection. But the most compelling reason why outsiders should resist the calls for intervention, however emotive the newspaper headlines and television pictures, lies not in Syria itself, but in the neighbourhood.
Russia and China may have ranged themselves against the Western powers over the immediate future of Assad, but this shadow of the Cold War is benign compared with the real flames now licking at the Middle East. A late-arrival at the Arab Spring, Syria is already becoming the battlefield for a proxy war between the Gulf States and the Saudis on the one hand, and Iran on the other; between the Sunni power-holders to the south and the Shia to the east.
While the US and others hesitate to supply weapons to the opposition, they have tacitly encouraged consignments from elsewhere – into a region already awash with arms. Syria's violence is already spilling over into Lebanon, where power and demography – as between Christian and Muslim, Sunni and Shia, Lebanese and Palestinian – are so finely balanced. Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, has seen street fighting in recent weeks. South and west of Syria lie Israel, Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territories.
To the east, Iraq, with its majority Shia population and defeated Sunni minority, remains unstable, with the Kurdish region in the north independent in all but name. Iraq's Kurds now have representations abroad that look increasingly like diplomatic missions. Any hint of pressure from Baghdad, a more aggressive stance from Turkey, or more general regional turmoil, and the demand for full Kurdish independence could become urgent. That would inevitably precipitate a new surge of discontent in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iran and Syria. Kurdish statehood – beyond northern Iraq – has so far been an eventuality almost too sensitive to mention, lest the word fuel demands for the deed.
If the violence in Syria escalates, with or without Assad, and outsiders intervene, it will be almost impossible to confine the turmoil within that country's borders. Even in more self-contained Libya, the overthrow of Gaddafi had unforeseen cross-border fallout – producing a coup and a power vacuum in Mali. With Syria, the risk is already of a region-wide conflagration in which almost every national border and every seat of power could be up for grabs.
For now, it is utterly disingenuous of the US and Britain to call for action in Syria and blame Russia for being obstructive; a compliant Russia would only expose Western impotence. The reality is twofold. The first is that Kofi Annan's UN-backed plan, ailing and ineffectual as even he recognises it to be, is all that separates the region from mayhem. The second is that there are times when durable resolution is only possible when enemies are left, literally, to fight it out. From Europe, the current euro crisis might look like a threat to the world as we know it. But it is nothing, absolutely nothing, compared with what could happen if Syria explodes.