The reaction to Syria's horrors did nothing to mitigate them. They will continue for decades. It may be useful to review just how throughly and deeply irredeemable is the failure.
To say that there were war crimes and human rights violations is like saying Charles Manson misbehaved. Assad's crimes have been documented in heart-stopping detail, not least by the 'Caesar', who smuggled out prison files and fifty thousand photographs, at great risk of a fate worse than death. His efforts, plus the meticulous work of the individuals and groups who proved that the régime was the culprit in chemical weapons attacks... these efforts too are now, beyond any doubt or hope, in vain.
To say that Assad and company should be brought before an international tribunal is self-deluding sound and fury, signifying nothing. Let's be clear. Assad and company will never be brought to justice. Tribunal verdicts will have no effect at all. All the evidence painstakingly assembled, sometimes at the cost of brave lives, counts for nothing. There will be no reconciliation, and there is no truth to come out, because more than enough is known already. There is no point in making more people aware of that truth, because it's too late. That won't even produce useful sentiments, let along useful non-psychological reactions - sentiments don't stop homicidal rulers. If someone declares, somewhere, that the Syrian repression was a genocide, so what - it's not even true. 'The world', the 'international order', some 'community', don't matter. Assad is far too secure. There is absolutely nothing to be done that any collection of worthy countries or institutions would ever be willing to do, and rightly so, because the only effective response would be a military intervention so massive as to risk, given the Russian presence, nuclear war. It's great to help the refugees, the victims, but that's cleaning up after Assad, not something that could lead to restraining him or his ilk. Indeed most refugees will stay or end up in Syria, left to his tender mercies. As for reconstruction, that of course will make Assad much stronger. It will focus on his supporters, not those most in need.
All that's left, all that might conceivably have some positive effect but won't, is to expose the thinking that encouraged the Syrian betrayal. Try comparing the reaction on Syria to reactions to other horrors.
There are greater and lesser atrocities. Pinochet murdered more than 3000 people, some tortured to death with terrible cruelty. There are people who approve of Pinochet, or brush off his slaughter. They may be condemned, but like Henry Kissinger they continue to be accepted in the mainstream. They shouldn't be, but this indicates that society, the mainstream, is prepared to accept this level of brutality.
Then there are major atrocities: Cambodia, Rwanda are clear cases. Anyone who brushes off those killings would not be considered normal, but treated as a pariah. No one hears from such people. No one suggested helping Pol Pot with reconstruction and reconciliation. No one said that, well, realistically, we need to consider whether we have any vital interest in Rwanda. Not even Kissinger.
The atrocities committed by Assad are very clearly in the second category, not the first. Yet people who obliquely place them in the first group are considered not only mainstream-tolerable, but, quite often, intelligent contrarians. One hears from them a lot.
But that's not the worst of it. Assad apologists fall into three categories. There are Iranians and Russians. Those countries have long-standing alliances with the Assads and might be considered to have some sort of security interest in the régime. Their stance is disgusting but hardly worth highlighting, since no one will do anything about it. Then there are members of Syrian minorities whom Assad has implicated in his crimes. And then there are leftists, stuck in the 70s or so, who don't matter. Obsessing about Assad apologists does no one any good.
Those who do matter aren't the obvious offenders, but respected observers whose attempts or pretense at objectivity or decency betrayed the Syrian people. They obscure Assad's place in the second category, among the very worst of the monsters. These people may condemn the régime in ringing terms, they may say 'doing something' about Assad's atrocities is 'urgent'. But they nonetheless demote the urgency of the matter, because for them, everything is 'urgent'. It is 'urgent' that an imprisoned journalist be released, that a child is reunited with its parents, that minority rights are respected, that 'genders' get the toilets they need, and so on. And perhaps these things are all indeed urgent, but they do not compare in urgency with stopping a man who has murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands.
Human rights organizations are prominent in this morally and politically witless denial of priorities. So are any number of analysts and commentators. They talked about Assad as they would not talk about Rwanda or Pol Pot. They would not, in those cases, have spoken of 'difficult choices', as they did about Assad and the Kurds and 'the jihadis'. They would regard any accommodation with Assad as no more to be contemplated than with the fanatic responsible for so many dead, tortured Cambodians. They would not have insisted the world weigh heavily that some rebels didn't believe in democracy and espoused a repressively conservative social agenda. They would not have relentlessly conflated this social conservatism with, incredibly, some sort of terrorist threat.
These analysts should be treated as moral lepers if their warnings played a role in the West's betrayal of the Syrian revolution. No one warned the world about Vietnam's rescue of the Cambodian people on the grounds that the Vietnamese were naughty communists. No one thought it was a tough choice whether to back the murderers of Rwanda or their victims. No one reduced the description of these régimes to "brutal dictatorship".
It is far too late for this to make any difference to Syrians. Assad has won and he will endure. He will be condemned as a reprehensible leader, but a leader nonetheless. He is protected by powerful allies, UN vetoes, and discreet commitments from 'indignant' Western powers not to challenge his rule. But perhaps it is not too late to prevent this sort of kindler, gentler, 'hard choices' whitewash from recurring. Those who preached caution, scepticism and realpolitik about the Syrian rebels made choices that should never be forgotten or forgiven. It doesn't matter what nice things they now say about refugees. It doesn't matter what righteous outrage they express about Assad. When it counted, they didn't even begin to impart to the situation the moral urgency, even the panic, that it deserved. They were not willing to accept that their worries about extremist and terrorist rebels were as nothing compared to the importance of stopping a monster. That is a poisonous legacy.
Let no one reply that these analysts were realistic. At its limits, morality and even Realpolitik converge. All nations have an interest in keeping barbarism within practical limits. Slaughter and mistreatment may sometimes be genuinely advantageous, but for that very reason it's a good idea to act when slaughter and mistreatment become an open-ended, sadistic orgy, engulfing tens of thousands and exceeding anything plausibly endorsed by rational self-interest. Mad tyrants, as we see, create floods of fugitives, and potentially destabilising wars. They also create militants out to punish the comfortable nations who betrayed the victims. Auden was right:
I and the public know,
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
This is likely the last post I will write on Egypt or Syria. My sole aim has been, however ineffectually and wrong-headedly, to defend their revolutions. Such attempts are pointless now.