'Never Again' Means Defending Syrians From Assad's Slaughter

When Adolf Hitler first sent Jews to die, Europeans and Americans agreed that it was not their problem. Israel may be about to make the same mistake about Assad's killings in Syria.

A man carries an injured girl after an airstrike in the rebel held area of old Aleppo, Syria April 22, 2016.
Abdalrhman Ismail, Reuters

When Adolf Hitler first sent Jews to die, Europeans and Americans agreed that it was not their problem.

Throughout the 1930s, Britain and France pursued their now-infamous - but then enjoying popular support - appeasement policy to avoid another great power war, culminating in the Munich Accords that were signed less than two months before Kristallnacht. The U.S. Congress rode public anti-war sentiment to pass a series of isolationist "Neutrality Acts" that kept America out of the war until December 1941, by which point Hitler's Einsatzgruppen (Nazi paramilitary death squads) had already mowed down hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Of course, as we now know, Europe and America were wrong. Hitler's campaign of slaughter against the Jewish people was indeed their problem, both because of the moral implications of inaction and because it presaged a much larger Nazi expansionist campaign. Israel, in addition to many global and regional powers, may be about to make the same mistake in Syria.

The dictator Bashar al-Assad's killing spree against the Syrian people is in no way on the same scale as the Holocaust, but there are disturbing parallels. In August 2013, Assad became only the second world leader since Hitler to massacre his own people with nerve gas. He has killed at least 11,000 Syrians in his prisons, and probably many more, using torture tactics that are reminiscent of the death camps and may have been inspired by them. Assad atrocities are ongoing, with over 470,000 Syrian dead  and counting.

But like the concentration camps and the Einsatzgruppen, the Assad regime's atrocities against the Syrian people mistakenly appear to be no threat to Israel. But they should be better viewed by Israel as fast-moving storm clouds on the horizon.

The most devoted backer of the Assad regime is Israel's regional arch-rival Iran, which has sent thousands of special forces and foreign sectarian fighters into Syria to prop up Assad. Assad and Iran received a major boost last fall when Russia, which has been deepening military ties with Iran since the Iran deal was signed in July 2015, openly intervened to support Assad.

True, the Syrian conflict has depleted the Assad regime’s weapon stores, pitted opponents of Israel against each other, and drawn Iran into a prolonged and costly war. But wars end; weapons stores are rebuilt; and some opponents of Israel are more dangerous than others.

If this war ends in victory for the regime side, Syria will have been transformed from a sovereign member state of the "Axis of Resistance" into a staging ground for Iranian ground troops and Hezbollah-style foreign fighters from around the region.

This process has already begun in the capital Damascus and in Homs Province, near the Lebanese border. In both locations, Iran-backed fighters have displaced local anti-Assad residents and stolen their homes. It is only a matter of time until these fighters turn their guns on Israel, and they will be far more motivated to do so than Assad ever was.

The recent Russian intervention has introduced further dangers. Firstly, Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias stand to gain tactical and technical know-how from Russian involvement. This know-how could later be used to conduct more deadly operations against Israel using advanced military hardware.

Secondly, remarks by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the start of the intervention, as well as recent comments by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, suggest that Russia has begun to restrict Israeli freedom of movement in Syrian skies. Such a development would allow Iran more chances to transport weapons into Syria while evading Israeli airstrikes on its stockpiles.

Israel and its supporters might comfort themselves that Netanyahu and Putin have some sort of "gentleman's agreement" on Iran and Hezbollah. Jordan thought it had such an agreement with Russia regarding operations in southern Syria -- until Russia shredded it by helping Assad capture the town of Sheikh Miskin and the Brigade 82 Base near the Jordanian border.

Iran and Russia are on the cusp of a major joint offensive to capture Syria's largest city of Aleppo in an operation that will surely cause thousands of civilian deaths. Israel and Russia have never carried out such an extensive joint operation. We can expect Israel's "gentleman's agreement" to strain as Iranian-Russian collaboration deepens.

As Israelis and their friends watch the coming massacre in Aleppo unfold, as they hear news of more worshippers killed at prayer and patients massacred at hospitals, I hope they reflect anew on the meaning of "Never Again." At the present moment, global inaction on Syria allows the new Russian-Iranian military alliance to pick up steam and is a threat to Israel.

Defending the Jewish people in the medium to long-term requires defending the Syrian people from Assad's slaughter now. Anything less would be a repeat of the mistakes of the Holocaust.

Shlomo Bolts is a Jew of Syrian ancestry and is the Policy and Advocacy Officer at the Syrian American Council, the largest grassroots Syrian American organization. Views expressed are his own.