On Tuesday, a Google search for the word Syria resulted in 349,000,000 entries. About one week until Congress returns from its break to dialogue about a potential missile attack against the Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad, for its purported use of chemical weapons, analysts are debating — and citizens are rallying — for or against this rebuttal.
But amid the cries for retaliation, the talk of red lines crossed and uncrossed, there is one point that many experts feel is being lost in the noise: the suffering of the Syrian people (more than 100,000 dead; two million refugees and four million displaced people) and the potentially increasing suffering of those living in Syrian border states.
“At the end of the day, Syrians want freedom, dignity and democracy, just as any other human being on this Earth would want. They want to raise their children in a country whose leaders do not torture, oppress and kill. They deserve a chance to be free,” said Rasha Othman, public relations director of the Syrian Expatriates Organization.
But how to achieve that dream is still unclear. Othman’s organization was out last week protesting in front of the White House, calling on the president to “take action against a ruthless dictator.”
“The only way to deter Assad from killing more civilians is through a military strike against regime targets that will ultimately help remove him from power,” said Othman, noting that Assad has made it clear he is not interested in anything other than demolishing any challenge to his rule and that the leader has enlisted terrorist organizations and states — Iran and Hezbollah — to assist him in staying in power.
Othman is in constant contact with her family and friends in Syria.
“They are terrified,” she said. “A dear friend of mine in Damascus, where the bulk of the [American] missile strikes are expected to take place, told me, ‘Even if the American missiles takes my life with it, I pray they destroy the military complex near me. I don’t mind dying. Just please stop them!’”
But other Syrian American groups feel differently. The Syrian American Forum sent out a news release inviting the community to join it on Sept. 9 to protest against bombing Syria.
“The administration now wants direct bombing of Syria based on foreign intelligence reports. This will lead to the following: More killing of innocent Syrian civilians, further destruction of Syria and its infrastructure, further demolition of Syria’s social fabric and prolonging the war already going on in Syria,” it said in the release.
Like the latter group, recent polls indicate the American people are leery — and weary — of war.
A latest NBC survey found that 50 percent of 700 U.S. respondents said the U.S. should not take “military action” in Syria, while 42 percent said the U.S. should. Asked their opinion about a mission “limited to airstrikes using cruise missiles launched from U.S. Naval ships that were meant to destroy military units and infrastructure that have been used to carry out chemical attacks,” 50 percent said they would support such an action, while 40 percent said they would not. A full 79 percent, meanwhile, said President Barack Obama should be required to gain approval from Congress for any kind of strike against Syria.
As of Aug. 27, a Reuters five-day tracking poll of 2,293 Americans found similar opposition to attacking Syria in response to its suspected use of chemical weapons: 28 percent said the U.S. should intervene, 42 percent said it should not, and 30 percent said they didn’t know.
(Just before Rosh Hashanah, handfuls of Jewish groups came out in favor of an attack. Those ranged from the World Jewish Congress to the National Jewish Democratic Council.)
Over the last week, hundreds of people came out in Baltimore and Fredrick, Md., and in Washington, D.C., to stop Obama from moving forward with a missile strike.
“We believe it will cause more suffering and destruction,” said Sharon Black, one of co-coordinators for the International Action Center for Baltimore and D.C. She told the JT that her organization finds the administration’s argument that a missile strike won’t lead to bloodshed “on our side” to be cynical.
“There may not be direct bloodshed, but every missile launched is a cut back in services to the American people. It costs $1.5 million to launch a missile. With that money you could build 11 schools.”
Black also noted that while the talk may be of a single missile strike, “one thing leads to another, and there is no end to it.”
Some of the hesitation is likely because of the freshness of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, two-thirds of Americans judge these wars to be failures.
“That is a harsh judgment and makes Americans more leery of future military intervention,” she said.
There is also the issue that the American people don’t trust the White House’s conclusions — and that also partly because of the Iraq war. Robert Parry, founder of ConsortiumNews.com, said, “President George W. Bush misled the world on Iraq’s WMD” and called Bush’s case for war “bogus.” He said the Obama administration’s report on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, released last Friday, had, “no direct quotes, no photographic evidence, no named sources, nothing but ‘trust us.’”
Parry said the U.S. should have learned from the Iraq war that it cannot trust defectors or even other countries’ intelligence services at face value — they have their own self interests.
“Unless Obama tells us what he knows and how he knows it, it is hard for the American people to assess what the administration is telling them,” said Parry.
Impact On Israel
Israelis are dealing less with America’s right or need to attack Syria and more with what the impact of such an attack might mean for the Jewish state.
An Israel Democracy Institute poll released late last week showed that 46 percent of Jewish Israelis think that if the U.S. and its allies attack Syria in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Syria will carry out an attack against Israel.
Parry described Israel’s relationship with the Assad dynasty as complicated. Witte said, “Assad has been no great friend [to Israel]. On the other hand, that border for many years was the quietest border Israel had. … There was a degree of predictability with Hafez and then Bashar. But since March 2011, those days are over. Israel does not face the choice of going back to the status quo.”
David Bedein, who runs Israel Behind the News, put it bluntly: “Any intervention by the U.S. in Syria, even a surgical strike, will cause the Syrians to react with a missile barrage on Israel.”
He said he is opposed to American action.
Karen Furman, formerly from Baltimore who now lives in Karmiel in northern Israel with her husband and five children, expressed similar sentiments. The family picked up its gas masks last winter and has been storing them in a closet. She said for now, “We are going about our daily lives.”
A teacher, Furman said her school held a chemical weapons emergency drill earlier this week. Her 9-year-old daughter’s school did, too. Furman said the Israeli government can’t do much to prepare the people, but she knows that in the event of emergency, instructions for assembling and putting on her mask will come through on the Internet and the radio. She is not afraid — and her daughter, who also spoke with the JT, said she is not scared, either. But she does think the U.S. should “mind its own business. I think the U.S. should let countries deal with their own problems.”
Speaking on Army Radio earlier in the week, President Shimon Peres said, “I have full faith in President Obama’s moral and operational stance. I recommend patience. I am confident that the United States will respond appropriately to Syria.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Net-anyahu had instructed his government ministers to refrain from publically criticizing or praising Obama for his decisions regarding Syria. At the beginning of the week, Israel’s military sent home many of the reservists called up to deal with the threat from Syria, keeping them on “high alert.” The decision came after Obama said he would seek congressional approval before moving forward with a strike.
Most analysts say any move will be more of a political maneuver than a game changer. Witte said the kinds of strikes the administration is considering will not make much of a difference to the balance on the ground in Syria. And, while the strikes discussed are limited, there is a worry that one strike could lead to many.
“[Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin] Dempsey said one of his concerns about getting involved is the fact that once military action is initiated, it is hard to know where it will go and whether it will spin out of control,” said Parry.
But there is an issue of messaging. Obama drew a red line. The red line was allegedly crossed.
“Now, this is not just about Syria. It is about other actors like Iran and terrorist organizations that may be contemplating using weapons of mass destruction — now or in the future,” said Witte. “It is partly about deterring and persuading other actors not ever to go down that path.”
Witte said it is far-fetched to envision Syria directly attacking the U.S., but not inconceivable that Syria could supply terrorist organizations with WMD to use against American targets — in the U.S. or abroad.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman, a Jewish Israeli Modern Orthodox rabbi and educator, penned an essay recently on the question of whether there is a moral obligation for the world to retaliate against the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. He told the JT he wrote the piece while contemplating how difficult it is to play the role of policeman — that the role is “morally problematic, practically problematic, and balance [in this role] is hard to achieve.”
Rabbi Hartman said a leadership role is often not one to which you are appointed, but one for which you stand up. He said taking on a role like the one American has taken on in the world is wrought with responsibility and challenges. He said he fears that leaving Syria to continue in its current path of destruction could result in an ever-more dangerous environment — for the local people and for Israel.
“In the long term, you could have al-Qaeda sitting on Israel’s border. That would make Gaza look like Disneyland!” Rabbi Hartman said. “When you believe all people are created in the image of God, you are not allowed to be indifferent. … We have a moral responsibility to face evil.”
And that is what Parry is saying, too.
Parry said he wants to know “why there isn’t more pressure for peace talks.”
“If we are going to continue with a war of this sort, inevitably civilians will die. … Shouldn’t the U.S. be
focused more on getting those peace talks than on far-off missiles? … The focus has been on whether to fire missiles or not, and it should be on, can this larger civil war be brought to a conclusion?” Parry said.
Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, urged Jews to keep Syrian refugees in their thoughts and prayers this Yom Kippur. He told the JT that currently there are two million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq — “the numbers are unsustainable” — and another four million people who have been displaced in the country.
“This is the most massive refugee crisis since the end of the Cold War,” said Hetfield, who noted that HIAS is helping as much as it can, being a Jewish organization that is often unwanted or unable to be too visible in Arab countries. His group is working with the U.N. to resettle some of the refugees in America. He told the JT that of the two million, one million are children.
“We need to think about and care about and pray about this for sure,” said Hetfield, noting that the Torah commands Jews 36 times to treat the stranger as ourselves. “In doing any attack, any strategy, it is just as important to keep in mind the impact this will have on those already displaced and on future displacements. Intervention is certainly understandable, but intervention needs to be thought out and planned as to what the outcome will be. … The priority needs to be to find a peaceful solution and end the conflict.”
Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief [email protected]