"Humanitarian intervention," the historian of human rights Samuel Moyn has observed, has "often exported to foreign lands the savagery it purported to be banishing from them."
He is right, but the massacre of the innocents in the village of Houla last Friday compels us to rethink the use of force to protect civilians in Syria from their own government.
The massacre of Houla, during which 49 children were killed, is also proof, if anyone really needed it, that the regime in Damascus never intended to honor a United Nations-brokered cease-fire and follow special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan.
The killing of civilians has been a constant element of Syria's uprising against the dictator Bashar Assad. Most of these deaths, like those in Houla, have come at the hands of secret police militia and government thugs. But in Houla, like in Homs earlier this year, the Syrian army also unleashed its artillery and shelled entire neighborhoods as it pursued a handful of rebels.
When the international community failed to respond effectively to the shelling of Homs, the government of Syria took it as a green light to use heavy weapons against its own people with impunity. If the international community fails to respond again, the Syrian military will escalate its use of these weapons, particularly in the restive cities near Homs and Hama, and the scale of killing will grow.
International will is just not there for a Libya-style intervention to help rid Syrians of Bashar Assad. Anyway, the Syrian opposition is incapable of running the country were he to go, and the human rights record of the Syrian rebels is as bad as the government they oppose.
At this moment, the point of any humanitarian intervention in Syria should not be regime change. It should be to slow the killing of civilians. While it isn't possible to stop the killing altogether, the Syrian government's capacity to kill large numbers can be stopped. A first step is silencing the heavy weapons that rained down so much death on the people of Houla.
Here the historical precedent isn't Libya, 2011; it's Bosnia, 1995. To end the siege of Sarajevo and following the massacre of thousands in the village of Srebrenica, the United Nations created heavy-weapons exclusion zones to protect civilians. When the Bosnian Serbs failed to comply, NATO forces began a series of airstrikes on the heavy weapons encircling the Bosnian capital. Within 10 days of the start of the air campaign, the Bosnian Serb forces agreed to a cease-fire.
The Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the conflict in Bosnia, was signed a month later. The peace deal reached at Dayton was far from perfect but has held, and the architect of the Srebrenica massacre, Ratko Mladic, sits in a jail cell at The Hague.
The United Nations must make a similar demand of the Syrian government alongside the credible threat of the use of force.
One measure would be to have the Syrians "park" their artillery, tanks and other weapons out in the open. Were they to be moved toward a city, the weapons would be destroyed from the air. A continued lack of compliance would be met with the targeting of Syrian intelligence and military headquarters and telecommunications facilities.
The limited nature of this demand, and the fact that it decouples regime change from the protection of civilians, may give Russia the diplomatic cover it needs to pivot against its ally in Damascus.
Make no mistake. Humanitarian intervention is war by another name and has real costs in terms of lives and material. But the continued loss of life in Syria is intolerable.
Slowing the killing will reduce the loss of life as international sanctions take an increasingly painful toll on the Syrian elite. Without heavy weapons, the Syrian government loses its chief advantage and will be forced toward transition. Otherwise Syria is on track for a full-blown civil war.
We can't stop all of the killing, but we must certainly slow it down.
Keith David Watenpaugh is an associate professor and director of the religious studies program at the University of California, Davis.