The Spectator

The virtue of restraint

As Britain prepares for a week of peaceful celebration, Syria will be bracing itself for more bloodshed. The Assad regime, perhaps emboldened by the knowledge that the west has no appetite to intervene in Syria, is becoming ever more brutal in its repression. The massacre in villages around Houla, where 108 were slain, most of them women and children, has shocked the world. The images of tiny bodies being prepared for burial pose an uncomfortable question for Britain. Is David Cameron prepared to intervene to stop the bloodshed as he did in Libya?

For more than a year now, the West has mulled over its options. During that time Assad’s soldiers have killed more than 10,000 Syrians, and 20,000 are now in exile. The death toll and the accelerating exodus is focusing minds in Turkey. The Turkish government has now prepared a plan (backed by France) to create humanitarian corridors through which civilians can escape. They could also double as military corridors, sheltering the rebels between raids. In Washington, Senator John McCain has called the failure to act ‘an abdication of everything America stands for’. Britain’s UN ambassador has been quoted as saying that the murder of children is ‘a game-changer’.

But war is never that simple. It is easy to say we ought not to ‘tolerate’ violence, and we have the technology to depose many bloodthirsty dictators. The question is whether the regime that would follow would be any better, or whether it would impose a different type of repression on a new group of victims. In Syria, we ought to consider another factor: the thickness of the fog of war. It is perfectly clear that children were executed at point-blank range, but less clear on whose orders. The Assad regime vehemently denies responsibility for the massacre at Houla, suggesting it may have been a hideous incident in what has become a civil war.

Syria is a tinderbox of religious groups, ethnicities and tribes.

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