While it was always commendable that the Arab League had finally stirred from its decades-long torpor in response to the Arab Spring, its mission to Syria must rank as one of the great failures of modern diplomacy. Not merely has the grotesque régime of Bashar al-Assad increased the tempo of its slaughter of protesters and opponents since the League dispatched monitors to the country, but the monitors themselves have been attacked by pro-régime forces.

Meanwhile, al-Assad has played out the same routine we’ve seen time and time again since last January in the Middle East, and appears intent on copying the disastrous strategy of Muammar Gaddafi — initially promising vague reform, then blaming the increasing level of opposition on foreign conspiracies while ever more savagely attacking opponents until he is at war with his own people. An indictment for crimes against humanity must surely be only a matter of time.

The failures of the Arab League necessitate a more aggressive response from the international community, despite the efforts of Russia to stymie any effective action. A total ban on trade is the next step, and measures against financial institutions and other intermediaries that enable the régime to continue trading with those countries prepared to do so. And it must be made clear to the Syrian élite they stand to benefit from the removal of al-Assad and the establishment of a more inclusive and more democratic national government in order to try to split the régime internally.

The alternative is that the human rights and humanitarian catastrophe that is under way in Syria continues, or that it evolves into a political and religious conflagration that will make the Libyan civil war look relatively benign. At that point the international community will have no choice but to act.

Every Thursday, Crikey editor Sophie Black and Crikey‘s Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane will talk the week’s events in the national capital. Visit the podcast page on our website (or via iTunes) at 4pm AEST to download or stream.