Wanted — credible threat of force on Syria

Kofi Annan, the international envoy for Syria, is shocked by the latest massacre in Syria, which bears all the hallmarks of a war crime. Shocked!

So what can we expect now from the international community after the U.N. Security Council condemned the horrific execution of more than 100 civilians, including women and children, in the Syrian town of Houla by government forces and allied militias last Friday and Saturday?

Unfortunately, I doubt that the killings will provide the “tipping point” invoked by Annan after he met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad yesterday in Damascus.

The coordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats from Western capitals was rightly described by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as “disgraceful.”

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But what are the options? The Obama administration, with an eye on the elections in six months’ time, is still pinning hopes on political pressure and economic sanctions. Washington and its allies say that there is “still time for a diplomatic solution.” But that approach simply gives Assad more time to kill.

It is time for the international community to recognize that the Annan plan is dead. But what is lacking is a credible threat of force. There are few alternatives that do not require U.N. authorization for the use of force, and Assad knows it.

The French president, Francois Hollande, said that he would not rule out military action, but that it would have to comply with international law and therefore need a U.N. mandate. But Russia made it clear yet again today that it will withhold support at the U.N. Security Council for armed intervention. The Russian deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, said Russia is opposed for fear of destabilizing the region as a whole. China is also against an intervention aimed at toppling Assad. So after Libya, the Russians and Chinese won’t be fooled again.

There is the Iraqi model, under which the United States and Britain acted alone without a U.N. mandate. But shock and awe is clearly not appropriate in the Syrian civil war.

Then there is the Kosovo option, under which NATO could bypass a Russian veto at the U.N. on humanitarian grounds, as it did in the late 1990s in support of the ethnic Albanian Kosovars persecuted by Slobodan Milosevic.

This bears more consideration, but armed intervention alone will never succeed, particularly in a country where a proxy war involving Iran is already under way. The Syrian opposition must come up with a clear plan.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said on Monday that there is “always a military option.” That’s the only thing that will force Assad to change course. But to be effective, the military option needs to be credible.