"Humanity compels us to retaliate against murderers," the man wrote, "but politics forces us to remain unmoving spectators. Our poorly considered humanity would be more gruesome than our well-considered inhumanity." These words, which sound like a more elegant version of the Western nations' tepid statements of solidarity with the Syrian insurgents, were penned 221 years ago by Jean Baptiste Cloots, a baron who had emigrated from the Lower Rhine region to France to join the revolution.
All the same, Cloots' words are depressingly contemporary. In 1791, it was the residents of Liège who revolted against their regime and looked to France for support, albeit in vain.
Today it is the entire world that looks on helplessly as the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad wages a brutal campaign against its own people, seemingly unable to prevent it from massacring a rebellious population in city after city, attacking residential neighborhoods for days at a time with rockets, shrapnel grenades, snipers and, as it did in Homs, even with knives and hatchets.
The victims' only crime is that they have been protesting peacefully since March of 2011, first for reforms and freedom, and then for the overthrow of a dictatorship in power since 1970, legitimized by nothing more than a coup and its ability to keep the population in a constant state of fear.
It almost seems as if the world community had exhausted its ability to express empathy with its intervention in Libya, and as if the "responsibility to protect" people against genocide and crimes against humanity resolved by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 were nothing but a flag fluttering in the wind of changing interests.
The West Masks Its Own Helplessness
The watered-down draft of a resolution against Syria, which Russia and China rejected in the Security Council on Feb. 4, had already been stripped of anything that could have put the Syrian regime in check. It called for neither sanctions nor a freeze on arms shipments to Syria, and it made no mention of a Libyan-style military intervention.
What could such a resolution have achieved, in the presence of a military so determined to crush the rebellion that it murders its fellow Syrians and rapes children in the presence of their fathers? A military whose supreme commander cheerfully tells the United Nations Human Rights Council that the government is merely fighting terrorists and armed outlaws? A regime whose intelligence services fire on government troops who refuse to participate in the killing of civilians, stage fake attacks and fire on their own people in order to pin the blame on the "terrorists?"
The regime feels so confident that it began its major offensive against Homs and other cities on the evening before the vote in the UN Security Council. And while tank shells and missiles rained down on the insurgents the next day, the state news agency Sana tweeted, in its "event calendar" for Feb. 4: "Happy Hour 2 for 1 drinks at Mood Lounge, #Damascus."
It's happy hour for Bashar Assad. But he isn't the only one who can be feeling grateful to Russia and China these days. Germany, the United States and other Western countries were quick to express their disgust and consternation over Russia's nyet , describing the complicity between the cynics in Moscow and Damascus as intolerable. Nevertheless, it also provides the West with a scapegoat, and thus the ability to mask its own helplessness with its condemnation of the Russians.
The Arab League, which had previously sent a team of observers to Syria, didn't stand a chance. Without their own vehicles, not to mention helicopters, which the UN inspectors once had in Iraq, the 165 observers in their orange signal vests were dependent on the Syrian military -- and on being chauffeured around by the very thugs they were supposed to be there to stop.
The European External Action Service, which was intended to serve as Europe's joint foreign policy task force, will "take years to become capable of taking action," says one of its diplomats. The funds are available, but the service still lacks a mission statement describing what exactly its positions are.
In an off-the-record conversation, a senior German politician reflexively emphasizes the need to address the refugee question. But the Syrians don't want to leave their country. They want to bring down the dictatorship and live in freedom. Around 20,000 people have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, leaving behind hundreds of thousands who continue to risk their lives in Syria.
'We Don't Know How Much Longer We Can Last'
"I am speaking from Bab Amr," a man says. It is difficult to understand what he is saying, amid the surrounding explosions last Friday, as he speaks on the last functioning Skype connection from the neighborhood in Homs that has been in the hands of the insurgents since the late fall. "We are the last people still in contact with the outside world," says Omar Shakir, a spokesman for the neighborhood, dressed warmly against the cold. He says that the last of the diesel fuel is being used to run a generator used to keep their satellite connection alive.
"For seven days now, we have had no electricity and no water, and all phone lines are dead. We don't know how much longer we can last." He says that tanks positioned on the city's outskirts have been bombarding the neighborhood nonstop. "We have enough bread left for two days, but no medications, no bandages, nothing to treat the wounded." The most important underground hospital was destroyed in a targeted bombing last Wednesday, he says, and the wounded are now being taken to the mosques to die.
After days of silence, an email was received from the Khalidiya neighborhood in the northern part of Homs, where SPIEGEL reporters were accompanied in August and December by an engineering student who had used the name "Omar Astalavista" and kept news agencies updated on the situation there. The message read: "Omar is dead. He was filming when he was hit by a grenade. I'm his friend. We had agreed that if one of us died, the other one would take over."
Homs is only the beginning. Tank battalions are on their way to Idlib in the north. Assad's troops have withdrawn from the center of the southern city of Daraa, which is exactly what happened in Homs before the shelling began. This is apparently part of a comprehensive plan to enable the generals to bring their troops to safety first.
None of this is happening in secret. Syria is the first YouTube war in history. Thousands of blurred clips from countless cities and villages have documented the escalation of the rebellion since last spring. The videos taken in recent weeks show people with severed limbs as they lay dying, the bodies of others run over by tanks and piles of corpses, many of which were so gruesome that YouTube restricted access to registered users only.
But everything is available. Anyone who is interested can find daily videos depicting the situation in almost every major city, and with the exception of an old torture video from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, there has been little reason to doubt the authenticity of the images.
The only problem is that few people want to watch the videos in the first place.
Human Rights Groups Estimate 6,000 Dead
Meanwhile, the situation is even worse than it looks. Last week the United Nations, Amnesty International and other organizations that keep track of the dead estimated the current death toll at about 6,000. This number is derived from the names of those whose deaths were confirmed by relatives, doctors or the imams organizing their funerals. But even an international diplomat concedes: "The death toll is presumably much higher; it's just that we don't know about it." The Syrians with the "local coordination committees," the backbone of the resistance in city neighborhoods and villages, are also sticking to their rule of listing as dead only those whose bodies have been found.
But there is also a rapidly growing number of people known as the "mafqudin," who, in many cases, have been missing for months. A second-class society exists within the horrors of Syrian prisons: those who, since March 2011, have been arrested, tortured and released again, or at least whose whereabouts are unknown. There are also the people who simply disappeared after mass arrests. Activists from various cities report that despite all of their efforts to gain information about the mafqudin, neither informants within the system nor released prisoners have been able to help them. They also say that the intelligence services have made no ransom demands in return for signs of life or the release of the missing. "They're all dead," the insurgents assume, "it's just that we can't prove it." They estimate the number of the mafqudin at several tens of thousands. Even last November's restrained UN human rights report on Syria mentions that the number of people who have disappeared without a trace runs "into the thousands."
Fears of Civil War
The insurgents, whose numbers are still growing despite the obvious risks, are caught in a murderous game of Mikado. As long as the regime in Damascus holds up, which it continues to do, even Assad's opponents fear foreign intervention. Members of the opposition living in exile remain divided over the issue. They don't trust the Americans, fearing that their only objective is to strike at Syria to harm Iran. In Turkey, critics of the regime contend that Ankara, by focusing on its criticism of Syria, has forgotten its criticism of Israel. And everyone fears that Syria's religious and ethnic mix would make a civil war inevitable -- as was once the case in Lebanon and as occurred in Iraq starting in 2004.
What guarantee is there that a peaceful, enlightened democracy would develop after the overthrow of Assad? There is no such guarantee. And with each passing day, the prospects of a peaceful transition following the fall of the dictatorship dwindle.
Assad, his somewhat simpleminded brother and the country's supreme military commander, and the generals don't want to go down alone. Or perhaps they still believe that all it takes is even more brutality to subjugate the Syrian people.
But there is no turning back. The quiet dictatorship that Syria was until March 2011, a place where the lines had been clearly drawn ever since Hafez Assad demonstrated in Hama, in 1982, that he would not hesitate to destroy an entire city, will not return -- no matter how many more cities his son and successor, who always looks slightly disoriented, incinerates. The regime lacks the means to permanently ensure that one-fifth of the country can permanently keep the other four-fifths in check. Former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was able to buy mercenaries from Chad and Niger, but Syria's foreign currency reserves are already dwindling.
Those in power in Damascus claim to be the protectors of minorities, including the Alawites, the Christians (who are currently trying to remain neutral), the Druze and the Ismaelites (who are hesitantly joining the protests). In reality, however, they are stirring up hatred in order to take members of their own faith hostage. Even most Alawites never benefited much from the dictatorship of their fellow Alawite Assad. In their villages in the north, they are still just as poor as their Sunni neighbors, and now they must also fear retribution for Assad's murders.
The "well-considered inhumanity" once cited by Baron Cloots is, in the case of Syria today, an inhumanity stemming from ignorance and hesitancy. The supposedly unstoppable civil war, which is seen as the main reason for the refusal of foreign powers to intervene, is becoming more likely with each day as those same foreign powers continue to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.
Admittedly, supplying the rebels with weapons and creating protective zones near the Turkish border, for example, have the potential to unleash an inferno. But doing nothing will inevitably bring it about.
The author is a SPIEGEL editor who has reported often on the Syrian uprising against Bashar Assad. Revealing the reporters name would make future research impossible and endanger the journalist's contacts.