The moral imperative in Syria

The Assad regime in Damascus has gone on a killing spree against pro-democracy protesters, especially in the city of Hama, bringing moral outrage by world leaders. What can be done to stop it?

For many world leaders, a moral tipping point may have finally been reached this week in the violent crackdown on Syria’s democratic uprising.

On Sunday, the regime occupied Syria’s third-largest city, Hama, using tanks and snipers to kill innocent people in what is coming close to being genocide.

The Syrian Army, controlled by the minority Alewite sect of President Bashar al-Assad, now appears to be going from one rebellious city to another in this mainly Sunni country, crushing any opposition with brutal violence. It is being helped by Iran, a Shiite-run theocracy that gunned down its own pro-democracy protests in 2009.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Mr. Assad had “lost all sense of humanity.” In Turkey, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the Hama attack “is an atrocity.” President Obama said the assault on civilians was “horrifying.”

On Monday, Europe beefed up sanctions against the regime while the normally timid UN Security Council may – and should – condemn this escalation of violence in a resolution.

“Syria has turned into a great funeral whose coffins extend from the north to the south, and from the coast to the last position on its southern border,” wrote chief editor Abdel Bari Atwan in the Palestinian-owned Al-Quds al-Arabi daily.

The global community feels largely helpless to act, especially with the UN-approved NATO action in Libya dragging on with no resolution. And protesters in Syria are desperate for outside help. The theme of last Friday’s demonstrations was “Your silence is killing us.”

Moral condemnation and more sanctions are certainly needed, but the UN and the West must find other ways to tighten the pressure on the Assad regime before it kills more people. Since the uprising began in March, more than 1,700 have been murdered by the regime, with thousands more detained or in prison.

The risk of genocide is high. In 1982 the current leader’s father, Hafez al-Assad, killed an estimated 10,000-20,000 people in Hama in trying to crush an opposition Islamist group there.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said military action against Syria is “not a remote possibility.” But before such a step is contemplated, other nations can do more to investigate and expose the violence, and those behind it. The International Criminal Court needs to be involved.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with the US-based Syrian democracy activists on Tuesday, a diplomatic gesture that essentially signals that Assad is no longer legitimate in Washington’s eyes.

Moral imperatives to prevent mass killing aren’t always easy to put into action, as the world found out during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. But for the majority of Syrians seeking freedom, doing what can be done is essential to maintaining the world’s own moral balance.

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