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The horror in Syria, the cold realities of international action

Syria's civil war is horrific, with most of the crimes committed by the Assad regime and its supporters. This may lead to moral clarity, but not necessarily to international military action.

By Staff writer / May 30, 2012

Jordanians and Syrian refugees take part in a demonstration against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, and to protest against the killing of at least 108 people in the Syrian town of Houla last Friday, outside the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, May 30.

Ali Jarekji/Reuters

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Syria's Houla massacre last week was a war crime. This much is certain. After government shelling of Houla killed about 20 people there, a further 90 residents were hunted down in their homes and shops and then butchered, many of them children. 

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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The massacre has shifted the international picture, with the mass expulsion of Syrian diplomats from Britain, the US, France, and six other countries, slightly tougher talk from the United Nations officials working with special envoy Kofi Annan, and a burst of outrage from politicians around the world. Who was responsible? The activists and their supporters insist it was the Syrian Army itself, but there is not yet any hard evidence, only indications. Analysts who know the region well expect that the murders were carried out by shabiha, pro-government militiamen who work in concert with the military.

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The cui bono reasoning of some on the anti-imperial left, who suggest the massacre was carried out by President Bashar al-Assad's opponents (since it makes his regime look so bad), should be dismissed as the logical contortion that it is. The Assad family has killed and tortured tens of thousands to retain power down the decades.

The slaughter yesterday, and the discovery today, of 13 bound men who were executed near Deir al-Zhour punctuate a reality that has been long apparent: UN special envoy Kofi Annan's "peace plan" for Syria is a failure, with Mr. Assad and his allies determined to hold on to power and survive. Assad emphasized that to Russian television a few weeks ago, complaining of a propaganda war against him, denying massacres of civilians and concluding that "the main thing is to win in real life." 

But what is to be done? This is where all certainty evaporates, and a landscape of imperfect, dangerous choices reveals itself.

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