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Published: Tuesday, 7/17/2012

Syria's breaking point

GUEST EDITORIAL

Syria has slipped deeper into the abyss. As many as 220 people were killed last week in a farming town, Tremseh, northwest of the city of Hama, by shelling and shooting from Syrian forces. Reports suggest the town was first attacked from the air and then stormed by militiamen who slaughtered civilians.

As bodies were grimly laid out in mass graves, the opposition called it a massacre, as did Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The assault appears to fit a pattern of ethnic cleansing in which government forces and militias from Alawite villages lay siege to largely Sunni towns.

President Bashar Assad is an Alawite, part of a minority in Syria that is the backbone of his power. He has defied global appeals to stop the violent suppression of the rebellion against his rule.

Russia is shielding Mr. Assad, steadfastly refusing to support stronger measures sought by the United States and others. The United Nations' special envoy, Kofi Annan, laid out a plan for a cease-fire and political transition, but it has been shattered by the worsening violence.

The risks of inaction are more evident every day. The Wall Street Journal reported that military forces are moving part of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons, for reasons that are unclear. Perhaps the regime is nervous and wants to safeguard the deadly nerve and blister agents.

Syria possesses delivery vehicles, including aerial bombs, artillery, and missiles. Would Mr. Assad, in a moment of irrational desperation, use a chemical weapon against his foes? It would be a grave turn of events. So would loss of control of the chemical-weapons stockpile.

Syria is not believed to possess biological weapons, but intelligence assessments have noted that the country has the technical infrastructure to support development of germ warfare agents. Right now, the chemical agents are a known and worrisome danger.

This week, the mandate for the U.N. mission in Syria expires. In the Security Council, the United States has proposed an extension that would invoke stiff sanctions against Syria if a cease-fire does not take hold within 10 days and the Syrian government does not pull back heavy weapons from population centers.

The goal is to squeeze Mr. Assad harder. But Russia and China, with veto power, don't want sanctions. The Obama Administration has conceded to Russian intransigence on Syria in the past.

It's time to stop. Should the sanctions proposal fail, the United States should allow the U.N. mission to expire. That would end the counterproductive charade of diplomacy at the Security Council.

It also would open the way for more effective Western action, such as greater support for the Free Syrian Army and for safe zones for civilians. Moscow should be told that if it wishes to avoid such steps, it must back U.N. sanctions.

-- Washington Post



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