Last Friday, at least 108 civilians were reportedly killed in Houla, a group of Syrian villages. The dead included 49 children and 34 women, according to a United Nations count.
Today, UN observers said they had discovered 13 bound corpses in eastern Syria, many of them apparently shot execution-style.
The shocking killings, particularly the slaughtering of families and children, have heightened the talk of foreign military intervention. But such action would be a road to more death and ruin for Syria, and damaging regional fallout.
The United Nations Security Council on Monday unanimously condemned the Houla massacre. It did not assign blame for the killings. However it censured the Syrian government for using heavy artillery against civilians, calling it a violation of international law. It demanded that the Syrian government immediately stop using heavy weapons and pull its troops out of cities and towns.
Most countries and observers across the political spectrum condemn Syria's Assad regime for using heavy artillery in densely populated areas, and for suppressing peaceful protests. We strongly agree.
However the situation on the ground in Syria is often unclear. A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said Tuesday that fewer than 20 of the victims in Houla were killed by tank and artillery fire. "Most of the rest of the victims were summarily executed," the spokesman, Rupert Colville, told reporters. He stressed the difficulty of determining exactly what happened at Houla. "At this point it looks like entire families were shot in their houses."
Local witnesses interviewed by the UN said most of the killing was conducted by pro-government militia gunmen, known as the shabiha.
The Syrian government has denied responsibility for the massacre. Instead it blamed terrorists.
"Deaths from heavy artillery can be pinned on government military forces with relative certainty" because opposition fighters do not have such weapons, the New York Times notes. "But responsibility for deaths at close quarters is harder to determine in a country where reporters have been prevented from moving about freely."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday that recent car bomb attacks in Syria may have been the work of "established terrorist groups." He urged other countries not to supply arms to either the government or rebel forces.
"Those who may contemplate supporting any side with weapons, military training or other military assistance, must reconsider such options to enable a sustained cessation of violence," he told the Security Council in a letter.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is back in Syria, trying get both sides to implement his six-point peace plan. According to many reports both sides have violated the agreed-upon ceasefire. Annan said with the renewed upsurge in violence the country was at "a tipping point."
But leading Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, accuse President Obama of not doing enough to help the Syrian opposition. Romney said the U.S. should be arming the opposition.
Republican Sens John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have called for airstrikes on Syria.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said continued atrocities may lead to military intervention in Syria if the White House orders it.
At the same time, he told Fox News, "that military option should always be wielded carefully. Because one thing we've learned about war, I have learned personally about war, is that it has a dynamic all its own - it takes on a life of its own."
Along those lines, France's foreign minister ruled out any ground intervention in Syria, saying it would carry the risk of a "regional extension" of the conflict.
China said it "opposes military intervention and does not support forced regime change."
Russia too opposes foreign intervention, although it sharply criticized the Assad regime over Houla and other civilian deaths.
But tensions are ratcheting up. The U.S. Britain, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Turkey and Japan this week expelled Syrian diplomats. Russia criticized this action, saying ousting diplomats closes "important channels" to influence Syria.
Unfortunately, contrary to Ban Ki-Moon's urging, the U.S. has already started working with two of the most reactionary regimes in the Middle East - Saudi Arabia and Qatar - to arm elements of the divided Syrian opposition. Huge sums of money, and weapons, are flowing into Syria - it's not clear to whom - undoubtedly fueling the very violence we supposedly abhor.
Foreign imposition of "humanitarian corridors" and "no fly zones" involves airstrikes and other military actions. As the Libyan NATO intervention showed, airstrikes produce civilian casualties - the New York Times cites an "unspoken civilian toll" in Libya.
Rather than undermining the Annan peace efforts, the U.S. should be doing everything it can to bolster them. This includes keeping diplomatic channels open, not shutting them down. It includes stopping any involvement in cash and arms supplies to any forces within Syria. And it certainly means no U.S. or other military intervention of any kind.
As in Libya, and in Iraq before that, progressive sections of the Syrian population oppose foreign intervention. Syrians themselves are the only ones who can build a democratic and just society there. The best solidarity the world can show the Syrian people is to oppose foreign military intervention.
Photo: Nicolas Mirguet // CC 2.0