President Obama sits at the beginning of the first working session of the… (Michael Gottschalk / EPA )
Kofi Annan, the United Nations' special envoy for Syria, believes the horrific massacre by suspected pro-government militias of more than 100 people, mostly women and children, in the township of Houla will serve as a "tipping point." But toward what action should that atrocity "tip" the international community or the "Friends of Syria," an association of sympathetic nations? Should the United States arm rebel forces, as GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney proposes, or engage in airstrikes against President Bashar Assad's forces, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) advocates? Or should it stay out of the conflict between Assad and his opponents altogether and let events take their course?
We continue to oppose a potentially costly U.S. militaryinvolvement in Syria, which is a vastly better-defended country than Libya and an ally of Iran. Though less extreme than direct intervention, providing weapons to the Free Syrian Army is also problematic. The political agenda of the rebels is still unfocused, and an infusion of arms would escalate the violence without guaranteeing an early overthrow of the Assad regime.
It is easy for Romney to accuse the administration of a "policy of paralysis" on Syria. But the U.S. and its allies have been active on several fronts, both substantive (economic sanctions) and symbolic (the expulsion of Syrian diplomats). The principal problem they have encountered is a refusal by Russia and China to join in a condemnation of the Assad regime by the U.N. Security Council. Even after the Houla massacre, Russia's deputy foreign minister said it was premature for the Security Council to consider "any new measures."
Yet there are also signs that even Russia is losing patience with Assad, who has repeatedly reneged on commitments to stop military attacks on his opponents, release political prisoners and engage in political dialogue. On Sunday, Russia joined in a Security Council statement criticizing Syria for the artillery and tank bombardment of Houla, and it may be receptive to a request by the Obama administration that it restrict its economic dealings with Assad.
Painstaking pressure on Syria is not as dramatic as the chest-thumping actions proposed by Romney and McCain. But its goal is to isolate Assad without involving the United States in another intervention in the Middle East. Recent experience suggests that such engagements don't always accomplish their goals and that they often drag on much longer than intended. If the events in Houla create a tipping point that accelerates international opposition to Assad without requiring a new international war, so much the better.