The Houla massacre

The situation in Syria continues to worsen. While accurate information is difficult to acquire, all indications are that the country hovers on the brink of a civil war. The most recent atrocity is a massacre in the town of Houla that left at least 108 people dead. On Saturday, 89 deaths were reported in various parts of Syria. The bloodshed must stop.

The battle for Syria has raged for over a year. If rebels took hope from the tidal wave of change that swept Northern Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring, the government of President Bashar Assad was equally determined to spare no effort to crush the rebellion against its rule. The result has been a bloody battle with one outrage and atrocity piled atop another. It is estimated that at least 9,000 civilians have been killed, while the government claims that thousands of its soldiers have lost their lives as well.

The most recent savagery was an attack on the town of Houla, which left at least 108 people dead, including 49 children and 34 women. The Damascus government’s tight control over the media has made reporting difficult; information is sporadic and often unverifiable. United Nations observes have confirmed the body count; examination of the bodies shows that some were killed by shell fire, while the majority were either shot or stabbed at close range.

It is not clear who is responsible. Antigovernment groups and human rights activists blame the government; the government denies the charges, claiming that its soldiers were attacked and that armed terrorists committed the killings. Mr. Assad told Syria’s parliament Sunday that his government had nothing to do with the Houla massacre and that not even “monsters” would commit such a crime. Both sides may be correct. Many of the bloodiest episodes in the uprising have been perpetrated by the “shabiha” — the word means “ghosts” — an armed civilian militia that supports the government. This use of proxies allows the government to maintain the fiction that its hands are clean. Eyewitnesses and U.N. monitors reportedly agree that the attack began with army shelling of the town which was followed by armed groups going house to house killing people. Syrian officials deny that security forces entered the village.

The United Nations has condemned the “indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force,” even as the head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria acknowledged that “the circumstances that led to these tragic killings are still unclear.” The U.N. Security Council issued a statement saying that “such outrageous use of force against civilian population constitutes a violation of applicable international law,” and monitors continue their efforts to get to the truth surrounding what the Security Council calls an “appalling and brutal crime.”

Mr. Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary general who served as the international envoy tasked with resolving this crisis, worries that Syria is at “tipping point.” Unfortunately, options to deal with this horrific situation are limited. Appalling as events are, Western governments have neither the will nor the mandate to act. The United States remains fatigued by its previous misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and President Barack Obama has no stomach to take on another intervention, especially in an election year. Other European nations are equally loath to step forward. No one has any certainty about whether intervening would succeed, much less the consequences for the wider region. The prospect was not even discussed at the NATO summit that was held last month in Chicago.

Moreover, while the U.N. is prepared to condemn the atrocities, that institution is not prepared to go further. Russia and China, feeling that their previous agreement to act in Libya was abused, are unwilling to make a similar “mistake” in Syria. Moscow’s relations with Damascus are close: Russia sells Syria billions of dollars of weapons and the country hosts Russia’s only warm-water naval port outside its territory. Russia insists that both sides in the conflict must be treated equally and it refuses to pressure its partner in Damascus.

Western governments are increasing diplomatic pressure. Sanctions have been imposed on the Damascus government and Syrian diplomats have been expelled from countries around the world. Additional options are limited. Some call for arming the rebels, a move that Western governments have thus far declined, arguing that they have little information about who they would be giving weapons to; there is concern that some rebel groups have links to al-Qaeda. Moreover, Syria is riven by religious and ethnic rivalries and a flood of arms could provide the chance to settle old scores. The prospect of violence spilling over into Lebanon or further is equally sobering.

Other regional governments may not be so hesitant. Damascus gets support from Iran and other Middle Eastern governments are prepared to back a proxy war with Tehran.

The prospect of a more evenly matched opposition gladdens the hearts of democrats. But it ensures that the violence will spread and yet more blood will be spilled. That is likely no matter what; the scale is all that remains unknown.

At this moment, Russia is likely to be the key player, even though Moscow cannot dictate outcomes either. But the government in Damascus must know that it is going to be isolated if it continues on its current path. It must not be allowed to believe that it can slaughter its own citizens with impunity.