December 14, 2011

ADEEPLY DISTURBING report about the situation in Syria was delivered Monday to the U.N. Security Council by Navi Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights. Her account was stark: The regime of Bashar al-Assad continues to murder unarmed civilians, including children, in large numbers. Some 200 have died since Dec. 2, Ms. Pillay said; she estimated that more than 5,000 have been killed overall, including more than 300 children. Military and security forces have “received orders to shoot unarmed protesters without warning,” she said, according to a draft text of her closed-door briefing obtained by The Post’s Colum Lynch.

“I am appalled by these grave violations,” Ms. Pillay said. “I am concerned that this continued ruthless repression may soon plunge Syria into civil war.”

That may already have happened. Reports from Syria — fragmentary because of the regime’s refusal to admit international observers or journalists — say that armed clashes between regime forces and defectors have spread across the country, from Israa in the south to Idlib in the north. Scores are being killed every day; more than 40 deaths were reported Tuesday alone. Ms. Pillay echoed reports that the army may be preparing a major offensive against the city of Homs, where several neighborhoods are reportedly held by opposition forces. Tanks and artillery have been seen heading to the city; trenches have been dug around it, checkpoints set up and electricity cut in some areas.

Ms. Pillay made one other key point: “Inaction by the international community” is emboldening the regime and encouraging it to continue the slaughter. The Security Council has yet to pass a resolution about Syria, thanks to resistance from Russia and China; the Arab League, which suspended Syria last month and threatened tough sanctions, is now prevaricating, repeatedly offering Mr. Assad more time to meet conditions he will never accept. The Obama administration and European governments have adopted strong economic sanctions but continue to rule out intervention.

If Western military action is off the table for now, it is time for the administration and its allies to consider other steps. While the administration rightly has urged the Syrian opposition to remain peaceful, if civil war is inevitable, it is in the United States’ interest for that war to end as quickly as possible with the defeat of Mr. Assad. Prolonged fighting could draw in neighbors and spread to Lebanon and Iraq; a victory by Mr. Assad would be a disaster for the region as well as for his people.

If it is not doing so already, the administration should be quietly working with Arab allies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as with Turkey, to provide greater support to the opposition — including its armed components. The sooner Syrian commanders and the regime’s remaining supporters can be convinced that Mr. Assad cannot survive by force of arms, the more lives can be saved.