Opinion |

Why Did Israel Do Nothing About Syria?

There is no comparison between the Holocaust and the Syrian war, but history will ask the same questions about our lack of action

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A Syrian child receives treatment following a toxic gas attack, April 4, 2017.
A Syrian child receives treatment following a toxic gas attack, April 4, 2017.Credit: AFP PHOTO / Mohamed al-Bakour
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

If you live in Israel, no matter who you are and what God you do or don’t worship, the nerve agents that killed at least 70 human beings Tuesday morning in northwestern Syria were originally produced to kill you.

Syria’s chemical weapons program is believed to have begun in earnest in the mid-1970s after the Syrians realized following the 1973 Yom Kippur War that their conventional forces were no match for Israel’s army and Israel had more devastating weapons than they could produce. Wide-scale production came after another military defeat at Israel’s hands in the 1982 Lebanon war and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty that deprived Syria of its main military ally.

At its height, Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is estimated to have exceeded 1,000 tons of materials for producing mustard gas and nerve agents (sarin and VX), the largest arsenal of its kind in the world outside the United States and the Soviet Union. As the Syrian economy languished under Hafez Assad, the Syrian president ordered his military to become the world leader in the research and development of chemical weapons. His son Bashar, the doctor Western leaders believed would usher in a new period of openness in Syria, continued his father’s work.

These were the Assad regime’s main weapons of deterrence against Israel. Short-range artillery shells filled with sarin were to be used against Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights in case of war. Bombs dropped from planes and long-range missiles, both carrying the agent, were to be used against Israel’s towns and cities.

Instead, as so often happens with weapons stockpiled by a dictatorship to fight its enemies abroad, Bashar Assad’s sarin has been used against his own country’s civilians. In 2013, over 700 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta were killed from sarin released from artillery shells, while on Tuesday the Syrian air force launched it in bombs from the sky.

As the footage of motionless, suffocated children was beamed Tuesday around the world and politicians, including in Israel, rushed to condemn the regime, other Israelis reminded us that this was still a civil war being waged among our enemies, and we were lucky it wasn’t our own children on the receiving end. This may have been a callous response to the horrific pictures, but it was an honest one. It was also the ultimate answer to the question we will once again be asking in two weeks when Israel commemorates its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. How did the world stand aside in silence?

You can bet that as the politicians get up to speak at the somber events at Yad Vashem and other memorial sites, they will all mention the scenes in Khan Sheikhoun as further proof that the world remains silent when children are gassed to death, just as it did back when Jewish children were being gassed. But how many of our politicians will make the logical leap to the realization that this time around we are the world? And not just any random part of the world – we’re sitting in the front row.

Israel’s intelligence services have the most immediate and accurate information on which chemical weapons are being used against Syrian civilians when, how and where. After all, they’ve been keeping tabs on those weapons for decades because they were supposed to be used against us. Those details Tuesday were known to everyone in the Israeli security and political hierarchy within hours of the attack, and were leaked to the press soon after. We are the world standing by. The world knows. And we’re doing nothing.

Wishing both sides luck

The historical research on why the world did nothing to stop the genocide of Europe’s Jews by the Germans and their collaborators fills dozens of library shelves. More comes out every year. Doubtless, books will be written on the silence about Syria in the decades to come. The following is how the historians of the future will write the chapter on Israel’s response to the Syrian genocide.

On the ideological poles of Israeli society, the similarity in the response by the far right and far left will be striking. Neither side will show pity for the dead children. Your typical historian will quote former Habayit Hayehudi MK Yinon Magal, who this week tweeted “they want to exterminate us, they are human beasts, and I wish them all luck.” Magal was echoing Menachem Begin’s famous quip during the Iran-Iraq War that “we wish both sides success,” though the cabinet secretary at the time, Arye Naor, insisted that Begin made the joke at the very start of the war, before the terrible death tolls were known; he would never have made light of them.

But it’s not just on Israel’s far right where we find such ambivalence. Last December, as a quarter of a million were being besieged in Aleppo by the Assad regime and hundreds slaughtered daily, the secretary-general of the Israeli Communist Party, Adel Amar, wrote an impassioned post on Facebook congratulating President Assad on “the liberation of Aleppo.” Most of his colleagues in the Joint List of Arab parties preferred to keep silent this week. Joint List MK Haneen Zoabi angrily retorted when asked about her comment that Israel only cares about dead Arab children when they’re killed by other Arabs and that both the Assad regime and the Israeli army should be in the dock as war criminals.

Within the more mainstream Israeli society our historian will find a predictable jumble of anguish, bombast, self-serving statements and ruthless pragmatism. Efforts like Syrians on the Fences’ fundraising to help besieged civilians, and doctors treating the war’s casualties in Safed and Nahariya hospitals are all very well, as is the comment by a former chief rabbi and Buchenwald survivor, Yisrael Meir Lau, who said this is “certainly a holocaust.” But the people in charge have more complex considerations.

Former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin has been saying for months that Israel should at the very least take out the Syrian aircraft being used to drop barrel bombs, chlorine and sarin on civilians. He said so again this week. In response, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz muttered under his breath: “I don’t think Yadlin would be saying the same thing if he was still in a decision-making position.”

Those who have to make the decisions are in no rush to act. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview “why do we have to take the chestnuts out of the fire? It’s the responsibility of the international community. I won’t be the dick that all the world is pissing on. Let the world take responsibility and act instead of talking.”

Netanyahu’s clear policy

In other words, we’re not the world, but we’re certainly no better than the world. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the first world leader this week to make a public statement condemning the chemical attack in fierce terms. But there was a very interesting omission in his words. He knew very well that the Assad regime was behind the atrocity, but he didn’t mention it.

Netanyahu has already promised Russian President Vladimir Putin that Israel has no objection to Assad remaining in power in Damascus, as long as his allies Iran and Hezbollah are prevented from establishing permanent strongholds in the Golan Heights and other locations from where they can jeopardize Israel’s strategic interests. Let’s face it, another hundred Syrians killed by gas is but a drip in the ocean of suffering in a war that has claimed the lives of nearly half a million and displaced at least 11 million. One more atrocity isn’t going to change Israel’s strategy.

In this case I find it hard to criticize Netanyahu for sticking to a clear policy. Yes, Israel could have saved lives by taking out a few Syrian aircraft, by opening up a “humanitarian corridor” to its border or even enforcing a no-fly zone 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) beyond, but that would have risked sucking Israel into the Syrian war, with unforeseeable implications.

Why blame Netanyahu or Lieberman for their pragmatism when Barack Obama decided to do nothing in 2013 and Donald Trump is very unlikely to do anything now? Why blame them when it was Ed Miliband, the previous British opposition leader and a son of Holocaust refugees, who foiled in parliament Britain’s plan to retaliate against Assad following Ghouta? But if they are to be absolved of blame, they can’t claim special status for the Jewish state either.

The Holocaust has been accepted as a unique event in human history, so much so that the previous generic terms in English and Hebrew have now been reserved only for it. Justifiably. It’s not just the numbers – though 10 times more Jews were murdered in the six years of World War II than Syrians over a similar period of civil war. Both Stalin and Mao are responsible for more deaths than Hitler, but we can’t draw comparisons because in no other case did one of the most advanced nations in history set up a systematic, scientific and industrialized program to wipe another nation off the face of the earth. There is no comparison to the Holocaust.

But our response today to the worst human tragedy of our generation a tragedy we know far more about in real time than anyone in the West knew about the Holocaust can and should be compared. It’s a tragedy happening just across our border with weapons that were originally pointed at us. History will ask why we stood aside.

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