When a country pulls out tanks against its own people, it is a sign that traditional methods of sanctions and containment are a failure. The result of such a move is as gruesome as it is predictable: 102 unarmed Syrian protestors were killed in Hama in a day, including at least 76 by the tanks. (It is difficult to get a precise number given the media ban in place. These stats came from the human rights group INSAN, but the numbers could be conservative.)
The latest bloodshed ordered by the panicky dictator at Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, elevates the casualty count to1,700 civilian deaths, 3,000 missing and 12,000 prisoners in state prisons since anti-regime protests erupted in mid-March.
We are now entering the same dangerous territory as Bashar's father, Hafez, who attacked Hama in 1982 to stop an Islamist revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood. The elder Assad closed the city and bombed it from above, resulting in the slaughter of about 20,000.
Then as now, the free world is doing next to nothing.
Visions of Darfur or Somalia come to mind as we sit idly by as Bashar's thugs run rampant over his own people. The violence is so severe that Syrians are being forced to bury their dead in secret in parks and gardens out of fear of losing their own lives in funerals – an easy target for Bashar's troops.
True to form, the U.N. does not act. For two months, the Security Council has been trying to pass a resolution urging Assad to end the siege and to implement political reforms. Two of the five permanent members of the Security Council – Russia and China – have dragged their feet, and other member countries (Brazil, India and South Africa) have reservations. They and most other countries will simply content themselves to statements "urging" action and condemning violence. An end-run around the U.N. is likely necessary.
Isolating Assad even further should be a priority. American diplomatic ties with Syria, which – incredibly – remain intact, should be totally severed. Sanctions from holdout countries should, of course, be implemented – but they probably will not do much at this point. If Bashar were to react to outside pressure, he would have done so already.
The European Union on May 17 already imposed travel bans, an arms embargo and assets freezes on Syrian officials. The U.S. has intensified the sanctions in place since 2004, which now include prohibiting American companies from dealing with Syria and personal sanctions against Bashar himself. There is talk of going even farther and trying to hit the Syrian oil sector.
It is terribly unfortunate that the mission in Libya has not succeeded more quickly, which it could have had there been greater coordination from the outset and a commitment to a common-end goal. Troops stationed there could have been transferred to Syria. There are currently 132,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, 90,000 of which are from the US. With the ongoing withdrawals of those troops each month, one option may be to send some of those troops to Syria to deliver food supplies and to protect anti-Assad strongholds.
Other than foreign military intervention in the same mold as Libya, the choices are few. A military campaign would be extremely risky at this time: it is not clear the Syrian people would welcome it, and it would also embolden Syria's protector, Iran, to step up its mischief-making.
Given these circumstances, the best option would be a declaration by the U.S. government that it no longer recognizes Assad as the legitimate leader of Syria. Such a move could lead to other friendly governments (the UK, Canada and others) doing the same thing. This would embolden the opposition to keep up the fight to overthrow this despicable tyrant and set in motion a real transformation that could only be positive for the region.