The international community needs to move quickly to remove Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, with or without help from his enablers in Russia and China, before that country's civil war spirals into a full-blown regional crisis. Assad's decision Wednesday to unleash fighter jets on his own people is but the latest war crime by a pariah regime that has no standing at home or abroad and no sustainable military option. The United Nations should take a fresh look at ways to stop the slaughter, contain the regional fallout and prepare for the post-Assad transition.
The government's bombing of the rebel-held town of Azaz, which killed or injured dozens, including women and children, should dispel any notion that Assad has any moral limits or is willing to negotiate. The attack came as the United Nations accused government and pro-Assad militias of war crimes for the slaughter of more than 100 civilians — nearly half of them children — in the village of Houla in May. The 17-month-old uprising has already killed some 17,000 people, mostly civilians. More than 2 million Syrians are in need of housing, medical and humanitarian aid.
Russia and China, which have blocked three Security Council resolutions aimed at stopping the fighting, have an obligation to finally step in now that Assad is increasingly turning his heavy weapons on both rebels and the civilian population. Backing Assad to retain a presence in the Mediterranean (Russia) or out of spite for NATO's Libya operation (China) are hardly strategic goals advanced by inflaming regional conflicts and standing alongside a crumbling regime. And both countries are losing prestige by alienating and emboldening the rebels to commit atrocities of their own.
But with or without those two countries, the rest of the world must remain engaged. The United Nations took the right tack Thursday by agreeing to end the military observer mission in Syria on Sunday as scheduled and to open a new liaison office. The observers had no purpose in Syria, anyway, given that neither the government nor the rebels showed any commitment to abide by the cease-fire and peace plan put forward by United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who resigned in frustration last month. Removing the observers will deny Assad the platform to complain that foreign forces are behind the civil war, and it will spare the United Nations' credibility for future peacekeeping efforts.
The liaison office can provide eyes and ears on the ground and operate as a face-saving device for the day that Russia and China accept the inevitable. The United States, Europe and the Arab states, though, need to maintain their multilateral pressure on Syria by tightening economic sanctions, which are working, and ramping up the diplomatic campaign to further isolate the regime. Nonlethal aid has the best chance of drawing down the fighting while providing the psychological punch that can encourage more high-profile defections from Assad's dwindling circle.
The diplomatic path has been frustrating, and it has yet to stop human rights abuses on a vast scale. But the international community must be as united as possible to keep the Syrian crisis from worsening tensions in the region, or from creating a power vacuum for a resurgent Iran. A cooperative approach might not be the quickest. But it will keep the heat on Assad, a lid on the rebels, pressure on Russia and China and the world's attention on the humanitarian crisis.