My ears perked up during the 2nd presidential debate the other evening when Martha Radditz, one of the moderators, read out a question submitted by an individual from Pennsylvania identified only as Diana who wished to ask both candidates about the American response to the agony of Aleppo. That the candidates were asked about Syria was hardly a surprise, but the end of the question was the part that caught my attention: “Isn’t it,” Diana asked, “a lot like the Holocaust when the U.S. waited too long before we helped?”
What exactly we were supposed to understand as the antecedent of “it” in her question is clear enough: she was clearly referencing the American disinclination to do anything too truly decisive to thwart the Russian effort to support President Bashar al Assad by bombing the rebels fighting against the Assad regime who have embedded themselves in civilian neighborhoods in Aleppo without regard to the inevitable civilian casualties that their presence there will inevitably cause.
Like most of you, I suspect, I find the situation in Aleppo to be very confusing. The basic principle is that the eastern part of the city is in rebel hands, while the western part of Aleppo—with a population about five times the eastern half—is controlled by forces loyal to the Assad government. At the end of June, the Syrian army began an offensive against the rebel-held part of the city that involved primarily cutting off the sole supply route of food and goods leading to the rebel-held part of the city, the now-famous Castello Highway. By midsummer, the highway was closed. That would likely have been the end of the rebels—who are actually not a unified group at all, but a loose confederation of many different groups, each with a different agenda and a different vision of the future of Syria—but the rebels then launched a major counteroffensive. Non-stop fighting followed until, finally, a ceasefire, jointly brokered by the U.S. and Russia, came into effect. That lasted for about a week, at which point the Syrian regime unilaterally declared it to be over, whereupon the Russians, unabashedly supportive of the Assad regime, commenced bombing rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo from the air and assisting the government in its use of artillery to bomb out the rebels using ground-based launchers. And making the situation even murkier is the fact that the same region of Syria in which all of this is going on is also where the U.S.-led coalition is attempting to defeat ISIS.
The numbers are shocking. Almost 2 million people in both halves of the city are without fresh water. More than a quarter of a million are caught in rebel-held areas and are being bombed daily from the air by the Syrian government and by the Russians. (This last weekend alone, more than 200 people were killed.) Every Western power, including the U.S., has issued strong statements of disapproval and are strongly discouraging the continuation of the bombing campaign, yet the Russians remain adamant in their support of the Assad regime. The U.N., behaving impotently even by their own standards, has reduced itself to the status of handwringing outside observer. Plus, of course, this current bombing campaign is only part of a much larger picture: something like half a million civilians have died in the Syrian civil war since 2011, of whom about 50,000 were children. So that’s the background to Diana’s question when she asked, almost simply, whether Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton considered “it”— the American disinclination to do whatever it might take to save the lives of innocents dying daily—to be unsettlingly similar to what happened during Second World War, when America, in Diana’s opinion, waited “too long” before intervening on behalf of the innocent.
Good question, Diana, even though neither candidate actually answered it!
Obviously, the candidates both have positions on Syria. Mrs. Clinton opposes sending ground troops to Syria, but not the use of American special forces to aid the rebels on the ground. She favors arming the rebels too, and also establishing a no-fly zone over Syria (which would put the U.S. into direct conflict with Russia), and an expanded effort to defeat ISIS on Syrian soil. Mr. Trump is prepared to commit “tens of thousands” of American troops on the ground to the war against ISIS, but seems prepared to allow the Russians to pursue their pro-Assad policy without American opposition regardless of whatever collateral damage their bombing raids bring about. As far as I can see, neither candidate has proposed a cogent plan for saving the civilians of Aleppo while continuing the war against ISIS and not confronting Russia directly regarding its military support for the Assad regime.
But it was the next part of your question, Diana, the part that raises the Shoah parallel, that I’d like to write about today. Based on the way you phrased yourself, I’m guessing that you are of the opinion that the U.S. waited too long before entering the war to rescue as many of Hitler’s blameless victims as possible. The problem with that supposition is that United States did not actually enter the war to save the Jews or any others marked for extermination. Just to the contrary, we stayed out of the war for as long as we could, then entered after Pearl Harbor made any other course of action unthinkable. Nor did we declare war on Germany in the wake of Pearl Harbor. We actually declared war on Germany four days later, on December 11, 1941, after Germany declared war on us in the wake of our declaration of war against Japan on December 8. So to say that the United States went to war to rescue the millions upon millions of civilians whom the Nazis were already attempting to annihilate seems, to say the very least, exaggerated. (Just for the record, Germany had occupied all of Eastern Europe, home to more than seven and a half million Jews, and were just 200 miles from Moscow on the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and made the question of American involvement in the conflict a non-issue. And even after our nation was fully committed to the war in Europe, we still declined to bomb the tracks along which travelled the trains that took millions to their deaths even long after we were more than capable of undertaking direct, decisive action to save countless otherwise-doomed innocents. In my personal opinion, there should be deep national shame connected with the decision to allow Auschwitz to function until the Germans themselves heard the Red Army in the distance and fled. (If this controversy is unfamiliar to you, Diana, I recommend Jay Winnick’s very interesting and well-researched book, 1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History, published last year by Simon and Schuster, which will provide you with some good, even-handed background.)
That being the case, there is something just a bit naïve about your question whether the American non-involvement on the ground in Aleppo now is “like” the American disinclination to act forcefully on behalf of the Jews of Europe then, and that’s not to mention the quarter of a million mentally and physically handicapped people, the almost two million Polish civilians, the two and a half million Soviet prisoners-of-war, and the thousands of Catholic priests and Jehovah’s Witnesses whom the Germans openly rounded up and shamelessly murdered. Obviously, we and our allies ended the killing by defeating Germany and bringing the war to an end. But we specifically did not intervene to save the innocents or the civilians marked for extermination by official German policy. So, to ask if we risk waiting too long “like in the Holocaust” is somehow insulting and flattering to us at the same time. We didn’t intervene “too late” during the Second World War. We didn’t intervene at all on behalf of the innocents then, except indirectly by defeating their persecutors, and we clearly are also not going to intervene on behalf of the civilians of Aleppo…not if it means confronting the Russians directly, which notion neither candidate supports.
It would also be reasonable, Diana, to approach your question by asking whether the comparison itself between now and then is reasonable at all. Elie Wiesel himself went on record in the 1990s to compare the massacre of innocents by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica and other sites to the Shoah. So that surely legitimizes, at least in the minds of many (including myself), the use of Shoah-based analogies to reference genocide in other contexts. On the other hand, there is no actual effort underway in Syria to exterminate any specific group of people, including not even by ISIS itself: the residents of Aleppo are far more “like” those poor civilians in Gaza in whose civilian neighborhoods (and schools and mosques and community centers) Hamas set up the rocket launchers that were lobbing thousands of missiles against Israeli civilian centers in 2014, except that the people in Aleppo do not have the good fortune to have the IDF as their unwanted guests’ enemies, so there is no advance notice to escape their homes, no non-lethal advance “knocking” on the roofs of building scheduled to be attacked, and no effort at all to save innocents by clearing them from harm’s way. So they are victims in the sense that their lives are deemed expendable by the people dropping bombs on them even though it surely isn’t anyone’s specific plan to murder them other than accidentally. That being the case, it seems more than a bit overstated to use Shoah-based language to describe their fate: this is an instance of extreme insensitivity to the value of human life, not genocide. If you are on the ground hoping not to be killed, the distinction is surely uninteresting. But to label as genocide every instance in which human life is deemed expendable by people who don’t actually care if the innocents do or don’t die…that seems a bit insulting to the victims of actual genocide. Aleppo is hell. But it isn’t Treblinka.
All that being the case, the question I would have liked you to have asked Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump is how, yet again, the world can make itself both unknowing and uncaring as tens of thousands, including thousands of children, are put in harm’s way. The reason to care about Aleppo is because countless innocent lives are about to be lost to a bombing campaign undertaken by an alien power eager to shore up a dictatorial regime that is under siege because its own citizenry rose up against it in open revolt. From the U.N., we obviously expect nothing at all. The Russians seem wholly unwilling to tailor their foreign policy to address the concerns of other nations. So that leaves our nation itself in a quandary. Doing nothing means acquiescing at least tacitly in the deaths of innocents. Not doing nothing means risking an armed confrontation with Russia. I suppose it boils down to how much we are willing to risk to save a child’s life…and whether geopolitical considerations can make it right, or at least politically cogent, to look away. You know, Diana, maybe there was more to your question than I thought.