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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Software Engineer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Software Engineer i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Inequality in Britain – a defence of the mansion tax

John Rentoul
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada