Since the massacre of more than 100 people in Houla on May 25, talk of setting up buffer zones on Syria's border has grown louder in western government circles. Reports on June 6 of a similar slaughter of at least 78 villagers near Hama have turned up the volume still more.
Hitherto, all western governments agreed direct military intervention, which would almost certainly have to accompany the creation of those zones, was out of the question. That is changing.
Military planners are now pondering in detail the prerequisites for securing a buffer zone. Officials in Britain, France and the United States have all said military intervention "cannot be ruled out" in due course. Though almost no one thinks it will happen soon, calls for intervention are growing, especially in Washington.
Two main arguments against intervention still prevail. The first is it would require the endorsement of the United Nations Security Council, which Russia and China still show no sign of giving. The second is that Syria, whose 23 million people far exceed Libya's seven million, would be a hard nut to crack militarily -- and the ensuing bloodshed would be on a far bigger scale than now.
On the first score, western governments could conceivably in the end bypass the Security Council, as they did in 1999, when NATO set about bombing Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic to the annoyance of Russia. But it is barely conceivable they could undertake similar attacks against Syria without the close co-operation and public endorsement of both Turkey and the Arab League.
Once those conditions are met, however, a buffer zone could be secured quite fast.
"People exaggerate and overestimate the power of the Syrian army," says Riad Kahwaji, a military analyst based in Dubai. "Syria has a sophisticated anti-aircraft system, but most of its equipment is from the Soviet era and could easily be out-powered."
Any western-cum-Turkish decision to set up a buffer zone would require air raids on Syrian defences.
There are reports of flagging morale in the 300,000-strong Syrian army. Many conscripts have absconded. Rebel attacks by the ragtag Free Syrian Army have been increasing, and in a recent ambush more than 100 Syrian soldiers are said to have been killed. Most soldiers are Sunnis, less loyal to the ruling Assad regime than is the Alawite minority to which the Assads belong.
The army's elite squads -- led by Assad's hawkish brother Maher, now a cult figure among his men -- are still fiercely loyal. The shabiha, drawn mainly from the Alawite community, are carrying out many of the atrocities.
"Assad is ultimately responsible for creating the conditions for these paramilitaries to operate," says Emile Hokayem, another analyst. "But no one thinks he picks up the phone to order every attack. These groups may act on their own initiative too."