I took lessons in Arabic language at the Arabic Summer Academy in Boston, and one of my teachers was Syrian. He didn’t like to talk about the Civil War, and generally refused to answer any questions about his politics. One day, in his class, I noticed a poster on the wall with the names of various animals in Arabic, and noticed that the Arabic word for “lion” is “assad”. “Is that why they call him ‘the lion’?” I asked. “Yes,” my teacher said, “but it is a bad name for him. He is not a lion.” The “lion” was a symbol of strength, of courage, and of nobility, but Assad had none of those. He was not strong, nor was he courageous, nor was he noble; he just had nothing to fear during even the worst of crackdowns. There was just no one to stop him.
As Syrian President Assad decides whether or not he will sign on to the new US-Russia agreement, and moreover whether or not he will actually comply with its provisions if he does, he will be watching the Syria debate in the United States very closely. The prospect of direct involvement in yet another Middle East conflict has reminded many Americans, including liberal Zionists, of prolonged and painful fighting in Iraq and has met with intense debate among politicians and academics, and in daily conversation. In particular, liberal support for President Obama’s proposal for Congressional authorization to strike Syria has been spotty at best. As a liberal and as a Zionist, I have come to wholeheartedly support the resolution, after first being convinced of its strategic necessity and then later coming to fully understand its moral implications. Even if the resolution never comes to vote, it is important that Assad and his allies know that Obama is capable of retaliation and see that most of the American government is on his side. Additionally, greater support for the resolution would encourage diplomacy and decrease the need for military intervention and for the vote itself to occur in the first place. Hopefully, the recently introduced deal will be an easy victory, but there is no guarantee that it will be and the chances of diplomatic success are much lower if Assad feels that Obama’s threats are not serious. Thus, the debate over intervention is still as relevant as ever. In this blog post I will present my reasoning regarding the situation in the same way that I was persuaded: by discussing first the practical and then the ethical reasons that Congressional support for Obama’s proposal is critical and should be advocated for by anyone who cares about Israel, identifies as a liberal, or both.
Strategically, one of the most compelling reasons to support the resolution is to uphold US credibility on the world stage. I know that many people have already stated this point, but I still felt that this post would be incomplete without it. If the president is not able to follow through with threats and ultimatums, American credibility may be undermined in other diplomatic rows that America is involved with well into the future, especially regarding Iran. If Assad is able to cross the American president’s “red line” without regretting that decision, Iran will not hesitate to do the same. Furthermore, if the US isn’t threatening enough to negotiate effectively with its enemies, it will find itself needing to flex its military muscle much more often down the road, including, possibly, in Syria. Even if Assad signs the new deal, if he does not feel threatened by America he will not fully carry it out, and it would be all too easy for him to keep secret chemical weapons for later use (they are already dispersed and hidden around the country) if he is not afraid of an American strike. I support Obama’s resolution both as a Zionist who recognizes the need to keep Israel safe from threats like Iran and as a liberal American who favors diplomacy over war.
Morally, I am ashamed that so many of the politicians I support and campaign for have condemned the resolution. I generally like to think of those people as “lions”, but it seems that not all of them are. As I stood in Yom Kippur services on Saturday and said Kaddish for those who were killed in the Holocaust (gassed in much the same way that Assad’s forces gassed Syrian civilians), apologizing for failure to act against wrong and pledging to do more in the future in the name of the six million, I was ashamed. My rabbi began his sermon by mentioning the massacres, and then spent the next twenty minutes talking about the many places in Jewish tradition and culture that stress standing up for the weak, including stories of the Holocaust. His implication was clear: as Jews, we have a responsibility to act. I’ve heard it said that Obama’s reference to the Holocaust in the context of the Syrian Civil War was inappropriate, but I disagree. There’s a reason that every Holocaust memorial is somewhere imbued with the word “remember”, and that we work so hard to keep such a horrible memory alive: so that we will take care not to allow anyone to repeat such a tragedy in the future. We remember the Holocaust specifically for moments like this, so that we are ashamed when our leaders don’t work to prevent history from repeating itself.
I learned about a secular example of failing to act in a history class during my sophomore year of high school. We watched a movie called Hotel Rwanda, directed by Terry George, about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that the United States observed without taking action. The film sent many of us home in tears, wondering how our government could be so cruel as to sit idly by while 800,000 innocent people perished. In fact, Bill Clinton, who was president at the time, has said on multiple occasions that his biggest regret is not acting in Rwanda. Today, Clinton has been a strong voice in advocating for intervention in Syria. He has become a lion.
Furthermore, failure to act now is contrary to liberal values. Liberals take pride in standing up for the weak, in protecting justice and in caring for our fellow citizens of the world. How can we claim to do those things if we are not willing to help the people of Syria in their moment of need? That is why Obama spoke of our “belief in freedom and dignity for all people” when addressing his “friends on the left” in his recent speech. Economic justice aside, the central idea of liberalism is standing up for “all people”. Liberal heterosexuals stand up for the LGBTQ community. Liberal men stand up for the rights of women. Now liberal Americans must stand up for the lives of Syrians.
Of course, many people present strong arguments against authorizing a strike on Syria, and I will try to address some of the most common ones. Possibly the strongest argument is that the situation looks too much like Iraq and Afghanistan, but there are several key differences, the most significant of which is that American troops would not be taking any ground. American soldiers could not get stuck in Syria the way they did in Iraq and Afghanistan because they would not be occupying any territory to begin with, only hitting targets from the air and water. Also, the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan got so complicated because America found itself struggling to fill power vacuums after wiping out the governments, which is not applicable in Syria because there is already just such a vacuum. The nation is already carved up into territories held by the government, Hezbollah, Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda linked), and other rebel groups (some of which function under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army) that include a range of ideologies from pro-democracy moderates to Islamist extremists. Those divisions will exist for a long time whether or not the US intervenes, so even if Assad falls (which probably and hopefully he will) the situation will not be worse than it already is. Moreover, it was Obama who got American troops out of Iraq, and he is known to be pro-peace and careful not to engage unnecessarily. Liberals should trust him that support for the authorization is necessary and important, because he of all people would not be requesting it otherwise.
Another fear, especially among Zionists, is that there would be retaliation from Assad or his allies against Israel, but this is also not as serious a risk as it at first appears. Iran and Hezbollah are distracted by a more direct threat to Assad from Syrian rebels and do not want to find themselves in an escalating back-and-forth with the Israeli and American militaries, so retaliation would be limited at worst and nonexistent at best, and in any case nothing that today’s weakened Hezbollah could do now can compare with the severity of a potential war with Iran, or worse with the prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, both of which are more likely if America cannot stand its ground in Syria.
Others argue that the rebels are no better, and maybe even worse, than Assad himself, and in some cases that is true. However, many of the rebels are moderate, and the Syrian people as a whole do not hate the West in the way that the majority of some Middle Eastern countries do, so it is certainly possible that gaining some positive influence with certain groups could work to America’s (and therefore Israel’s) advantage in a post-war political struggle. Regardless, even if Syria was taken over by the worst of Sunni Islamists, it would at least break up the smuggling chain that allows Iran to easily supply and work with Hezbollah, and it is better to face a divided enemy than a unified one.
Finally, there is the argument that the proposed actions would not be sufficient to make a difference in the conflict. In fact, Congressional support for military action would make a world of difference, because it would prevent Assad from using chemical weapons out of fear, either by coercing him into signing and following through with the recent deal or by actually striking his forces if he rejects or ignores it. That is enough to make all the difference, showing the world that the US is capable of obtaining its objectives by making credible military threats and preventing further chemical massacres, potentially saving the lives of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.
This discussion remains relevant even with the newly introduced deal, and will continue to remain relevant until Assad’s chemical weapons supply is safely under international control. Relinquishing those weapons is both a strategic sacrifice and a diplomatic humiliation for Assad, and he will not follow through with his commitments unless he believes that America is serious about military action. Congressional support for Obama’s request will help prevent it from coming to vote by strengthening diplomatic efforts, and if those efforts fail it will be critical to America’s ability to maintain face on the world stage and to protect Syrian civilians. If any more innocent Syrians are gassed, it may be said that it would be the fault of America and the American Congress that didn’t coerce Assad into discontinuing use of chemical weapons, and moreover of the American people who didn’t stand up to push our representatives in the right direction. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has recognized that, and has added Syria to their lobbying agenda accordingly, and my own organization, Liberals for Israel, has done so as well (check comments below for more information on getting involved!), but that is only a fraction of American Zionists and the proposal should be supported by a greater chorus of voices from pro-Israel and left-wing groups and individuals. Liberals, Zionists, and especially liberal Zionists should strive to encourage Congressional support for the resolution, so that America can protect its interests and be the “lion” that Syria needs.