August 27, 2012

EVIDENCE IS emerging of yet another horrific massacre by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, this time in the suburbs of Damascus. According to opposition sources, at least 300 people were slaughtered in the town of Daraya late last week. Videos posted on the Internet showed rows of bodies of young men and some children who had been shot in the head, execution-style.

The newest war crime, like those before it, reflects a deliberate strategy. As the Post’s Liz Sly has reported, the Assad regime is seeking to regain control over opposition-held areas by teaching their residents that harboring the rebels will be punished with mass murder. In Daraya, opposition accounts said, government soldiers first drove the forces of the Free Syrian Army from the town with artillery and air attacks, then went house-to-house, rounding up people and shooting them in groups.

It’s no wonder that civilians are fleeing Syria at a greater rate than ever. More than 200,000 have now arrived in neighboring countries, and some 10,000 were reported to be waiting Monday on the border of Turkey, which is already harboring 80,000 refugees. Turkish authorities are scrambling to prepare new refu­gee camps but say they cannot accommodate more than 100,000 — a number that could be reached within days.

The mounting massacres and refugee flows are rendering the Obama administration’s stubborn stance of passivity on Syria unsustainable. As soon as Thursday, the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a member of NATO, may ask the U.N. Security Council to authorize a safe zone for refugees inside Syria. While that is likely to be resisted by Russia, the United States would be foolish to continue standing by while allies such as Turkey and Jordan are swamped, and possibly destabilized, by Syrian refugees. Even more reprehensible is refusing to intervene while a state systematically murders its own citizens.

Mr. Obama has said that that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” In a speech at the Holocaust Museum in April, he said that “we need to be doing everything we can to prevent and respond to these kinds of atrocities — because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people.” Yet now, as atrocity after atrocity is recorded in Syria, he rejects proposals by aides and allies for even limited and humanitarian intervention. Administration officials reportedly have discussed options for a safe zone, but the president has repeatedly sided with those favoring inaction.

Last week President Obama did say that his “calculus” about “military engagement” would change if the regime began using or deploying its stocks of chemical weapons. But as the Syrian blogger Ammar Abdulhamid has written, the drawing of that red line may have emboldened the regime to conclude that anything short of using weapons of mass destruction will be tolerated by Washington.

Mr. Abdulhamid wonders “why slaughter would be deemed tolerable if it happened one way and not another.” It’s a good question — and one for which the administration’s morally bankrupt policy has no answer.