There is a certain intractable feel to the situation in Syria, one that makes even trying to think clearly about the right course forward for our country and for the world—and, of course, for Syria itself—difficult to think about clearly or even all that rationally. I have come to think, though, that the decisions our government makes in the next few weeks—if not the next few days—have the capacity to alter the face of things in the Middle East permanently…or at least decisively.
On the one hand, the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is clearly a tyrant at war with his own people. Nor does it help the man’s image to judge him by the company he keeps: the Syrian president’s chief external allies in the struggle to prevent the Arab Spring (if we can still call it that) from reaching his country are Iran, which has provided the Assad regime both with arms and Revolutionary Guard combat troops; Hezbollah, the terrorist state-within-a-state organization that has held Lebanon hostage now for decades; and, at least tacitly, Russia, whose only military bases outside the former Soviet Union are in Syria and which currently supplies the Assad regime with tanks and missiles, as well as with the technological support necessary to keep the Russian-built Syrian air defense system working properly.
On the other hand, the rebels themselves aren’t such good guys either. The Free Syrian Army, it is true, is mostly about bringing down the Assad regime. But it has the support of groups that have entirely different goals in mind. The Syrian Islamic Front and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, for example, are radical islamist groups. The Al-Tawhid Brigade apparently has ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and shares their ideology. And it seems now clear that the opposition is benefiting from the support of al-Qaeda itself, as Rania Abouzeid reported in Time Magazine as early as last May—you can access the whole article, entitled, “Is al-Qaeda Intervening in the Conflict?”, by clicking here—and as others have subsequently corroborated.
Seeing how things are, many have adopted the “a plague on both their houses” approach. Just this week, for example, the Times published a detailed argument by Edward N. Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan Washington think tank originally associated with Georgetown University. In his essay, Luttwak argues that the most cogent course forward for the United States and its allies would be to work towards creating a stalemate in Syria, one in which the struggle continues but neither side actually ever wins. Indeed, he writes that “it would be disastrous if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to emerge victorious after fully suppressing the rebellion and restoring its control over the entire country. Iranian money, weapons and operatives and Hezbollah troops have become key factors in the fighting, and Mr. Assad’s triumph would dramatically affirm the power and prestige of Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based proxy—posing a direct threat both to the Sunni Arab states and to Israel.” But working for a total defeat of the Assad regime would “also be extremely dangerous for the United States and for many of its allies in Europe and the Middle East. That’s because extremist groups, some identified with Al Qaeda, have become the most effective fighting force in Syria. If those rebel groups manage to win, they would almost certainly try to form a government hostile to the United States. Moreover, Israel could not expect tranquility on its northern border if the jihadis were to triumph in Syria.” That’s not exactly what Shakespeare meant when he has Mercutio pronounce a plague on both the Capulets and the Montagues, but it’s close enough.
That all seems clear enough…at least on paper. But the revelations this week regarding the use of chemical weaponry—and particularly the use of poison gas against civilians—make the situation even murkier and less simple to unravel, for me and, I suspect, for most Jews trying to decide how they feel about the possibility of American intervention in Syria.
On the one hand, no Jewish citizen can think through these latest revelations other than by filtering them through our own national trauma regarding tyrants who have no compunction about murdering innocents for political ends. The situations aren’t exactly analogous—Hitler turned to genocide in the context of a poisonous brew of anti-Semitism and unbridled hatred for the “other,” not because he was facing a popular uprising and simply didn’t care who died as long as he himself ended up winning—but the willingness to use poison gas on innocents to achieve a political or military goal is just too close to the reality through which our people lived for years for any of us simply to turn away in precisely the way we never tire of indicting the world for having done when it was our people who were being arbitrarily singled out for asphyxiation and murder. Nor is it especially important that the numbers are not on the same scale. On June 13, the United States government announced that it had definitive proof that the Assad regime had used chemical gas against rebel forces, killing somewhere between 100 and 150 people. On August 5, video tape of a chemical assault in the suburbs of Damascus was released with the activists who released the video claiming that about 400 people had been killed or hurt by the gas. On August 21, it was reported that at least 635 people had been killed in a nerve gas attack in the eastern part of the country. The Shoah numbers are much, much higher, obviously. But the archfiend didn’t begin with six million victims, just with the ninety-one killed and thirty thousand arrested on Kristallnacht in 1938. Auschwitz hadn’t been built in 1938. Neither had Treblinka or Sobibor. It didn’t start with millions in Europe, nor has it in Syria. But it is not impossible to imagine thousands or even millions dying in Syria if the war is allowed to continue and the civilian population is deemed fair game and the asphyxiation of innocents is considered an internal Syrian matter for other countries to deplore but not actually to prevent.
Complicating all these issues is the fact that both relevant international treaties, the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, rely on the United Nations Security Council to enforce them, which basically renders them meaningless in the real world. Nor is it irrelevant that Syria is not a party to either agreement. The one relevant international covenant which Syria did sign, the 1925 Geneva Protocol which bans the use of poison gas in warfare, addresses the use of poison gas in wars between nations, not in the context of one nation’s internal effort to put down a rebellion by its own citizens. These points, and several other very pertinent ones, were brought together in an Op-Ed piece in Wednesday’s Times by Ian Hurd, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, which you can access by clicking here. Nor should we pass quickly by the main point of Hurd’s essay: that acting against Syria would be possibly moral, but almost definitely illegal. And so we come to the crux of our national moral dilemma: shall we hide behind the cloak of legality or step boldly forward outside the framework of international law, ideally together with other nations, to prevent the murder of innocents? Would that be the just path to take forward? Or would we only be wading into someone else’s mud just because we can?
And so we are left with our original conundrum. A nation that has been at war with Israel since 1948 is murdering its own citizens in an attempt to put down a rebellion. Do we care? Should we care? It’s not an easy question to ask, let alone to answer. Edward Luttwak’s argument that we should let the two sides battle each other down to a stalemate in which neither is victorious and neither the abject loser—which plan includes not caring much about the murder of civilians—sounds reasonable and unreasonable at the same time. (Luttwak clearly says in his opening paragraph that, as awful as the mass murder of civilians with poison gas may seem, we would do best to do nothing at all and thus not to intervene even ineffectively, because “a victory for either side would be equally undesirable for the United States.”)
I can’t go along with that. My entire life, as my readers know, has been framed as an elaborate, personal response to the Shoah. I’ve read so many books about the inaction of the Allies to intervene to prevent the annihilation of European Jewry—and particularly about FDR’s almost inexplicable, self-induced deafness to the issue—that I could never even begin to list them all here. But I’ve also read books, and lots of them, about the unwillingness of the Catholic Church forcefully to intervene and about the reticence of Christian churches across Europe to bring the full moral force of their leadership and membership to bear to prevent the slaughter. And I’ve also read endlessly about the willingness, even more inexplicable in my mind, of other countries—and many of them—who were at war with Nazi Germany to become complicit in the murder of their own Jewish citizens. In the end, it comes down to whether it is moral or immoral to excuse the murder of innocents, including children, for any reason at all. Nor should we fall into the pit of moral relativism: I regret, as should we all, that babies died at Hiroshima and that there were children who died during the carpet bombing of Germany. But those incidents were part of an all-out war to defeat the greatest evil the world had ever seen, not part of a despot’s calculated effort to terrorize the citizens of his own country through the use of indiscriminate murder.
In my opinion, the path forward for our country should be to mobilize the nations of the world to act decisively to prevent the use of chemical weaponry against civilians wherever that seems likely to happen, including in Syria. To count on the United Nations for decisive action would be no less pointless than harboring the expectation that the Assad regime might rein itself in at this point. In the end, it will come down to good people refusing to be complicit in the murder of innocents…even if that complicity consists of nothing more than saying nothing, doing nothing, and—because it is, and by far, the path of least resistance—looking the other way and being content to hope for the best.