Leading article: Russia must act now to halt Assad's slaughter

 

Share
Related Topics

That something utterly appalling happened outside the Syrian city of Houla on Friday is beyond doubt.

As the sickening pictures of murdered children showed – pictures rightly reprinted by several British newspapers, including our sister paper The Independent on Sunday – many victims were children, at least some of whom had had their throats cut. Even as the Syrian authorities denied responsibility, blaming Islamists and terrorists, they conceded that at least 90 people had been killed. Of these more than 30 were children, slaughtered, as the pictures attest, in cold blood. Opposition activists accused pro-regime gunmen of the massacre.

The killings near Houla constitute the worst single incident in 14 months of often violent unrest in Syria. And while the full truth of it has yet to be told, the murderous spree seems to have followed the regime's use of heavy weapons against protesters in the town, which is close to the heart of anti-regime resistance in Homs. Any such action by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad would have been in flagrant violation of the six-week-old ceasefire brokered by the UN and the Arab League.

The massacre that came next, which may be classed as a war crime, could well mark a turning point in the conflict, reinvigorating opposition forces that had appeared to be fragmenting and reminding the world of the new horrors to which the Assad government could resort in its struggle to retain power. The activists who posted the pictures online were clear that they saw them not just as evidence of crimes, but as a rallying cry that could shame international opinion into providing them with not just moral, but military support.

At which point the argument becomes more complicated. For all the expressions of outrage from Western leaders and the calls for something to be done – an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council (Britain), a summons to the Friends of Syria group (France), "intensified pressure on Assad and his cronies" (the US) – direct military intervention, as hoped for by Syria's opposition, is unrealistic.

Syria is not Kosovo, nor is it Libya. It is a big country in a highly volatile neighbourhood and is slipping ever closer to all-out civil war. While there are entrenched areas of resistance, the opposition itself has been plagued by splits and by no means all Syrians are convinced of the need to remove the Assad clan. Any change of power needs to be supported and sustained by Syrians themselves.

This is not to say that foreign governments can, or should, do nothing. One track runs through Moscow. By fortunate chance, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is visiting Russia today and Syria is to be added to the long list of bilateral issues on his agenda. Russia holds the key to tougher international action on Syria. After notoriously rejecting an earlier resolution, it voted for Kofi Annan's mission, and it has at times seemed ready to countenance a Syria without Assad. Still, Syria remains one of its biggest customers for arms; Moscow has not signed up to the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, and Russian officials have avoided condemning the regime in public.

If any one country can wield influence in Syria, it is Russia. But its co-operation is also crucial if the international community is to show a united front, which is essential if anything is to change. In present circumstances, the temptation will be to write off the UN process and Kofi Annan's six-point plan. But it has not been exhausted. While there have been violations of the ceasefire aplenty, of which the Houla massacre is by far the most egregious, the ceasefire did bring some diminution of the violence and might have brought more, had there been more observers than the 260 now there. Massively beefing up this operation should be the priority.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence