What will the U.S. response be to Syria's crimes against humanity?

The Syrian government's increasingly brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters is putting the Obama administration's revamped Middle East policy to its first real test. It's one thing to say U.S. policy toward the region should spring from America's core values of democracy, freedom and support for human rights, but it's quite another to put those ideals into practice in the real world.

In his speech last month about the upheaval sweeping Arab countries, Mr. Obama conceded that in the past America's short-term interests in maintaining regional stability had often trumped its commitment to democratic reform. But he said the emergence of the Arab Spring had made the old approach unsustainable and that from now on the U.S. could no longer be seen as propping up autocratic dictators while turning a blind eye to their governments' corruption, incompetence and human rights violations. Instead, Mr. Obama said, America must reach out to the Arab people and embrace their aspirations for peaceful democratic change.

Syrian President Bashar Assad's violent response to protests in his country — his government has killed hundreds of unarmed demonstrators in recent weeks and detained thousand of pro-democracy activists — is likely to test the limits of that policy. Much as the Obama administration may abhor the Assad regime's murderous rampage, there appears to be very little it can do to stop it.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeatedly called on Mr. Assad to allow peaceful demonstrations and open a dialog with opposition leaders — to no avail. Reports this week about a 12-year-old boy whose hideously disfigured body was returned to his family after he was tortured and killed by Syrian security forces indicate the gruesome lengths to which Syria's dictator is prepared to go in order to maintain his grip on power. But the U.S. response to even that blatant barbarity has been oddly muted.

Last month, the administration announced targeted sanctions against President Assad and his top aides, but no one seriously expects those to cause him to change course. Nor is there any expectation that the U.S. or NATO will intervene militarily to protect Syria's civilian population, as they have in the uprising against Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi. Mr. Gadhafi was a pariah even among the corrupt and autocratic Arab rulers of the region, who united with European and American leaders in calling for his ouster. Mr. Assad, by contrast, remains a member in good standing with the region's dictators, who see any prospect of his falling as a threat to their own regimes. Syria is geographically and strategically central in a way that Libya, long an outcast, is not.

Never mind that possibly thousands of lives have been lost so far, even accounting for the uncertainty of what is happening because news organizations have been banned from reporting in the country. Human Rights Watch has documented, at minimum, hundreds of killings by government forces in just one town in southwestern Syria over the past two months, in addition to assaults on unarmed civilians with tanks, artillery and sniper and machine gun fire. The group charged that the regime's "abuses qualify as crimes against humanity." Yet the Obama administration seems paralyzed in the face of such massive violations of human rights, as if it could just wish them away.

No one is eager to see the U.S. embroiled in yet another foreign war in addition to the current conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and, most recently, Libya. But what good does it do to say America is committed to the Arab people's struggle for freedom and democracy if all that means is that the U.S. will stand by as a passive spectator while the brave demonstrators trying to bring that about are mowed down in the streets like animals brought to slaughter?