It was shameful for Russia and China to lend their voices once again to a global pariah by vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution last week that called for a peaceful end to the crisis in Syria. Dictator Bashar Assad's security forces have killed some 5,400 of their own people in an uprising now in its 11th month. Given the feeble peace effort by the feckless Arab League, which predictably failed, a U.N.-brokered deal was the best chance to stop the violence from exploding into all-out civil war. The United States and Europe were right to condemn the vetoes and to plow ahead with measures to further isolate Syria politically and economically.
Washington has no magic wand to halt the fighting, much less to effect a transition of power — peaceful or otherwise — from the Assad dynasty. Syria presents an even more difficult challenge than Libya, where Western forces helped to oust Moammar Gadhafi under a U.N. humanitarian mandate. Russia — still roiled by NATO's actions in Libya, where the allies turned a humanitarian mission into full-throated support of the rebels — opposes any military action. The Arab League is weak. And Assad has proved his willingness to intensify the military crackdown and blast away at his own cities as residents hide in fear. That leaves the United States, Europe and Arab states with mostly political options.
The closing of the U.S. Embassy and the pullout of diplomats by Europe and the Persian Gulf states have isolated Syria internationally. European officials also said this week that the 27-nation European Union would tighten sanctions against the regime, including steps to ban Syrian imports, flights to and from Europe and monetary transactions with the country's central bank. These moves will add pressure to Syria's military and ruling establishment to deal seriously with the opposition. And they will raise the stakes on Russia to forge a political course now that Moscow has killed the broad international push for a cease-fire and national dialogue.
The Obama administration needs to avoid any escalation of the conflict. Syrian civilians are already trapped in their homes, besieged by shelling and snipers. The only course is to sustain the diplomatic front while squeezing Syria's economy and putting the onus on Russia, China and the Arab League.
America's limited options are another example of how the foreign policy extremes of intervention and isolation that the Republican candidates for president are putting forward are no substitute for the nuanced solutions required in flash points across the world. Washington is right to pursue a political course and to ramp up the rhetoric. It should continue to press for a comprehensive agreement that stops the fighting immediately and starts the clock on political reform.