Reports are coming in of yet another episode in which Syrian security forces have opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protestors. Which raises the question: What will it take to move Western democracies to respond to the serial slaughters of civilians by the regime of Bashar al Assad?
The latest bloodshed took place Tuesday morning, this time in the city of Homs, where thousands of people had occupied a central square Monday night, pitched tents and vowed to remain until their demands for political change were met.
This was an act of extraordinary courage, since at least a dozen people had been killed Sunday in the city of 700,000 by the security forces. And it appears to have prompted another massacre.
Information is fragmentary, because Syria has prohibited foreign journalists from entering the country and done its best to censor the Internet. But reports from residents gathered by the BBC and a video posted on YouTube indicate that security forces stormed the square in the early morning hours, firing on the crowd with automatic weapons.
"Listen to the shooting," once caller told the BBC. "Can you hear it? It's hammering on us like rain.” The death toll was uncertain, though one BBC correspondent was told eight had died.
Mass shootings of civilians by security forces are becoming a near daily event in Syria. In the southern town of Daraa, where the protest movement began last month, there have been multiple massacres, including one on April 8 in which gunmen opened up on a crowd marching with olive branches, killing 27. There have been similar episodes in the city of Banias and in several nearby villages. And these are just the ones that human rights groups have been able to document.
All together, considerably more than 200 people have been killed by the regime. The government mixes its repression with empty promises of change: Hours after the latest shootings Tuesday it announced that it was lifting a decades-old emergency law. But opening fire on crowds was not permitted even under emergency rule. There is no indication that it will stop now--unless the regime is toppled, or comes under severe international pressure.
In nearly every instance where state-sponsored murder on this scale has taken place in recent years, the United States and other democracies have reacted strongly. Uzbekistan’s massacre of protestors in the city of Andijon in 2005 led to a rupture of relations with Washington and the European Union. And NATO has intervened in Libya to protect civilians from Moammar Gaddafi.
Yet the response to Assad’s bloodshed has been limited to rhetoric. President Obama called the shootings in Daraa “abhorrent” and a White House statement said last week’s attack on Banias was “outrageous.” But the administration has refrained from taking even diplomatic measures to express its dissatisfaction, such as withdrawing the U.S. ambassador in Damascus. It has failed to bring Syria’s case before the UN Human Rights Council--not to speak of the UN Security Council.
Syria, mind you, is not a friend of the United States. It is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, and a sponsor of the Hezbollah and Hamas militias. For years it provided a transit route for suicide bombers headed to Iraq in order to kill American soldiers. It tried to secretly build a nuclear reactor with the help of North Korea.
Yet even when faced with extraordinary human rights crimes--the repeated gunning down of unarmed protestors--the Obama administration remains passive. At first this response was puzzling. Then it looked badly misguided. Now it has become simply unconscionable.