Hama, Syria and Benghazi, Libya have virtually the same population, hovering around 700,000. When Barack Obama made the statement that he would join an international effort to intervene in Libya, he specifically made mention of protecting civilians from a massacre in Benghazi, “a city nearly the size of Charlotte.” Well, Hama, also a city nearly the size of Charlotte, is in the midst of a massacre.

The Syrian military forces that rolled into the rebellious city of Hama and occupied its central square have killed more than 100 people over the past 24 hours, according to rights activists in satellite communication with people in the city. The new toll doubled the rough count of civilian dead there to more than 200 since the military’s tanks began shelling Hama over the weekend.

The military’s assault on the city, a linchpin of the five-month-old uprising against the iron-handed government of President Bashar al-Assad, represents one of the fiercest efforts yet to crush the uprising and a signal of Mr. Assad’s defiance in the face of growing international condemnation. Activists say the overall toll from the repression since March is more than 1,700.

With foreign journalists barred from the country and the government silent about most aspects of the rebellions, activists have been the main source of information on the crackdowns and casualties.

I use the Hama versus Benghazi versus Charlotte figures not because I want the US to intervene militarily in Syria, but to show how dangerous the intervention in Libya was to begin with, particularly with the use of the humanitarian frame to protect civilians. There is pretty much no difference between what is happening in Hama and what would have happened in Benghazi. The Muslim world surely knows that. And they see the West pick and choose to intervene in one country with oil resources and not another without them. What are they supposed to think?

I hear that the President plans to get more forceful rhetorically with the Syrian regime, and even call on Bashar al-Assad to step down. It’s difficult to know what options to use in Syria, and far easier to second-guess. But what I do know is that the intervention in Libya, which you may have noticed has not gone smoothly, has pushed the West into an uncomfortable position in the face of these other massacres and repressive activities by authoritarian governments in the Middle East and North Africa.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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