The imminent fall of the Mad Dog of the Middle East, as Ronald Reagan branded Muammar Gaddafi, is important in its own right, but it now allows serious attention to focus on bigger and more dangerous predators.
Another Arab dictator has been employing just as much savagery against his people, and perhaps even more, yet has been largely obscured by the attention and international anger raining down on Gaddafi in Libya.
Bashar al-Assad of Syria has been using armoured columns against peaceful protests, tanks against hospitals, machine guns in mosques, and, reserving a special place for himself in hell, targeting children for torture and murder as a way of intimidating protesters.
The case of 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khatib, whose corpse was returned to his family smashed, burned, bullet-riddled and with his penis torn off, for the crime of having attended a protest march with his father, drew special revulsion in Syria and abroad.
But the people of Syria have shown a bravery and a fierce thirst for liberty that Assad could not have expected. An estimated 2000 people have been killed in the uprising to date. Protesters have started an ad hoc renaming of the streets of Syria's cities, with paper signs giving thoroughfares the names of "martyrs", demonstrators who have been killed by Assad's forces. There are many new street names appearing.
Violent repression is all Assad knows. He pretends to hold office through elections and, indeed, has won two of them with apparently remarkable support rates of 97 per cent of the vote. But he allows no one to run against him. He could never have won a real election. He is a member of the Alawite sect. This is an offshoot of Shia Islam, and a minority that makes up only about 7 per cent of the population. Three quarters of Syrians are Sunni Muslims.
Assad's father seized power in a coup in 1970. He was a ruthless dictator and is estimated to have killed some 20,000 Syrians in a bloodbath in the city of Homs when it resisted his rule. Bashar took over from his father in 2000 and is proving every bit as ruthless. But this time, it is not only one city rising up against the Assad dynasty. It is spreading to every city.
But as long as NATO was preoccupied with Gaddafi, Assad was able to operate with much less international scrutiny and pressure. That is about to change. "Assad has a very narrow window of time," wrote Jacques Neriah, former foreign policy adviser to Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. "This window is more or less equal to the time in which Muammar Gaddafi remains in power. The moment Gaddafi steps down, Syria will experience all the attention of the Western powers, especially if the turmoil and armed suppression persist."
Assad deserves a great deal more attention, and not only because of his criminal brutality. The fall of Assad would be a great strategic prize. Assad's Syria is the only country in the Middle East which is a close ally of Iran. As the power of the US has waned in the Middle East, Iran has risen, a theocratic power with nuclear ambitions and thoughts of regional hegemony.
Syria is crucial to Iran's ambitions. Under Assad, Syria has helped Iran project power. It supports Iran's international militant network, Hezbollah, and has helped it to intimidate and influence Lebanon, which has become a client.
When Lebanon's plucky prime minister Rafiq Hariri stood up to Syrian interference through Syria's proxy, the president, Emile Lahoud, Assad allegedly threatened Hariri: "Lahoud is me. If you want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon." Four months later, a massive car bomb killed Hariri and 21 others in central Beirut.
And Syria under Assad also supports the militant Hamas, whose political wing controls the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip. Like Hezbollah, Hamas also operates a terrorist arm. Syria supplies military training, arms and money.
So even though Syria under Assad's Baath Party is a secular regime, it is nonetheless a linchpin of Shiite Islamist power and aggression throughout the Middle East.
To remove Assad would be to weaken Iran and to crimp its ambitions. It would also undermine its political and terrorist proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas.
This helps explain why Iran has been sending support to Assad, including the Iranian snipers reported to be shooting Syrian demonstrators from rooftops.
And it helps explain why Saudi Arabia, newly emboldened and active, has been sending support to the protesters. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim country, so its sympathies lie naturally with the majority of Syrians against their Shiite minority rulers. Saudi Arabia denounced Assad and withdrew its ambassador to Damascus weeks ago. Turkey, another Sunni majority country, has turned decisively against Assad. The struggle for power in Syria is also a struggle between Shia and Sunni Islam.
The Western world didn't quite wait for Gaddafi to fall before turning its attention to Syria. Western governments have been demanding Assad stop the brutality for months. Australia's Kevin Rudd was the first to call for the UN Security Council to refer Assad to the International Criminal Court.
Last week, the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, phoned Assad and insisted that he stop killing his people immediately. Assad assured Ban that the police and army operations had stopped, the UN reported in a statement.
But Assad's regime has continued killing regardless. This is hardly surprising. A gang of thugs that would torture and butcher children would not have any compunction about lying. The UN Security Council last week had a preliminary discussion about Syria. The US and Britain, France and Germany last week demanded Assad step down and announced sanctions.
But no one is expecting NATO to shift its military cross-hairs onto Assad any time soon. It has taken the Libyan rebels, with NATO support, six months to topple Gaddafi.
Syria is a much more formidable foe. It has a stronger army, an important ally in Iran, the sympathies of the Russians and their veto power on the Security Council, and Russian-made anti-aircraft capabilities. And, unlike Libya, there is no local rebel army for NATO to support. Assad's Syria is a much harder target, but also a much bigger prize. There is no appetite for military action against Assad's regime. But there will now be much more attention to the problem.
Peter Hartcher is the international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald