If Syria were simply a case of a despotic personality-cult regime confronting a popular rebellion, Bashar al-Assad might be dispatched the way of Saleh, or Gaddafi, or Mubarak. But if, as is increasingly apparent, Syria is already in the throes of a sectarian civil war, then the challenge becomes considerably more complex. Persuading a violent dictator to stand down requires isolating him from his core constituencies and then offering him safe passage to a comfortable exile. But once the violence has taken on a sectarian form, ending it may require guarantees not only for the leaders who instigated it, but for the communities that have engaged in and been victims of it.
In the case of Bosnia, that involved ethnic partition and 40,000 NATO boots on the ground. Neither option is currently in the cards in Syria. Given the scale of the atrocities committed at the local level, finding a formula to stop the violence will be challenging to say the least. Lack of clarity over a plausible end game reinforces Western governments’ reluctance to take on a new nation-building challenge.
The massacre in Houla, and the slaughter of many thousands more Syrians, raises pressure in the West for action, yet the dark warnings of Western and U.N. officials about the danger of civil war—which on the ground may already be an established reality—gives them pause. Horrors like the one at Houla highlight not only an imperative to take action, but also hint at the enormity of the challenge of putting Syria back together.