For more than four years, President Bashar Assad’s army – aided by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – has been slaughtering men, women and children in Syria. Some estimates say over 400,000 have been killed by chemical weapons, barrel bombs thrown from helicopters and bombs delivered from fighter planes, mostly directed against civilian targets. And the world stood and watched.
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The Islamic State group then entered the fray, killing or enslaving all who were not Sunni Muslims and decapitating people in front of television cameras. Assad and ISIS were getting away with murder, and the world stood and watched. The European Union busied itself discussing whether goods produced in Judea and Samaria should be labeled in European stores. Commentators debated whether it was better to support Assad or ISIS. Until more than a million refugees fleeing for their lives began reaching the shores of Europe and ISIS terrorists massacred 130 civilians in Paris.
Then the world finally woke up. C’est la guerre, invoked French President François Hollande. If Assad’s murderous rampage had been stopped in time, and if ISIS had been crushed when it began establishing itself in Iraq and Syria, many lives would have been saved and the refugee crisis would have been averted. But in this world, 70 years after World War II, you can still get away with murder – as long as it is being committed in some seemingly far-away place and does not directly affect you.
What accounts for the world’s indifference, if not callousness, to the loss of life someplace else? I suppose it can be blamed, at least in part, on the unfortunate end result of the United States’ intervention in Iraq in 2003. Lives and treasure were invested, and the final result was chaos, internecine strife and the rise of Islamic State.
It was a war launched for the wrong reason – the belief that Iraq was amassing weapons of mass destruction – but, nonetheless, it achieved a praiseworthy result: the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Until then, he too got away with murder. His chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing up to 4,000 people in 1988, went almost unnoticed in the world. It was his annexation of Kuwait – the violation of an internationally recognized border – that roused the world to its first military action against him. It restored Kuwait’s independence but left Hussein in power in Baghdad. Had it not been for the false intelligence regarding his weapons of mass destruction, he might still be in power in Iraq.
“Not again” was the general conclusion in the United States and Europe after the intervention in Iraq. That was a sentiment well understood by Assad, ISIS, Iran and Hezbollah, who concluded that their killing sprees were of little concern to the people of America and Europe. So the killing went on, until masses of refugees began to reach Europe. And while Europe began debating the distribution of refugees to be hosted by the EU countries, ISIS started hitting the capitals of Europe. Now, nearly everyone realized something had to be done. But what?
Aerial attacks but no “boots on the ground” was the knee-jerk reaction. This tactic is familiar to Israel from its dealings with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. But as Israel has learned, aerial attacks inevitably cause civilian casualties and, while causing damage, do not finish the job. And the aerial attacks recently conducted by the Russians, Americans and French are causing civilian casualties in Syria and are far from finishing off ISIS.
Islamic State is not the Wehrmacht. It is a ragtag army of irregulars and does not represent a serious military challenge. But it will take boots on the ground to finish it off. At the moment, the question seems to be who will constitute the alliance that will take on this onerous job. But the potential allies better not forget that Assad and his Iranian allies have so far murdered more people than ISIS. So if avoiding further carnage and stopping the flow of refugees to Europe is the objective, this cannot be accomplished without tackling him as well. Or is he to continue getting away with murder?