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The Assad dynasty is not content with slaughtering its own people in great numbers. It is also destroying Syria's rich archaeological past. Writing last month in the US Weekly Standard, Victoria Coates described the devastation in detail.

The tattered landscape of magnificent ruins, which the desert preserved for centuries is being blown up under a barrage of mortar fire. Crumbling stones are nothing compared to the mangled bodies of Assad's tortured victims, of course. They are a good illustration, though, of the price of our impotence and the hypocrisy of our policies.

In March 2011, it took a mere six weeks of high profile moral outrage to mobilise Nato into a military mission over the Libyan skies which, arguably, accelerated the downfall of Libya's dictator, Colonel Gaddafi, and spared much civilian bloodshed. The Libyan adventure left much to be desired — the strategic value of one outcome over the alternative was marginal, the viability of the new regime is doubtful, the anarchy into which the country descended had troublesome consequences, as Gaddafi's weapons dumps were raided to make their way to sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. But there is no question that Gaddafi was a thug, his people were suffering and letting him slaughter them was unacceptable.

Why, then, when it comes to Assad, is any amount of moral outrage not enough to spur action? The task, in Syria, is admittedly more complex. Its population is three times the size of Libya's. The terrain is more challenging for military action. China's and Russia's opposition will not abate, for fear of losing another precious ally in a contested region where Western influence has always been a thorn in their side. And, most of all, the prospect that the fall of the house of Assad will not necessarily herald the dawn of a better age is dominating the minds of those  in the West advocating caution.

These are all reasonable thoughts. But they miss the point. As with archaeological artefacts, inaction will not help preserve the status quo or avoid deterioration. It will simply deny those who stand by the ability to influence the course of history.

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