‘I could not believe him,” said US justice Felix Frankfurter of his meeting in the summer of 1943 with Jan Karski, the courageous Pole who sneaked into the Belzec death camp, saw the murder machine at work, then sneaked out and sailed west to tell the world that Hitler was exterminating the Jews.
As noted by historian Yehuda Bauer, the free world’s inaction in the face of the Holocaust was underpinned by the refusal, or inability, to believe Karski’s and a few other reports that came from the field concerning the method and scope of Nazi Germany’s industrialized murder.
Is this, then, what is happening now as Karski’s moral successors report that the Syrian regime has been serially hanging and cremating its own citizens in a jail near Damascus? Comparisons to the Holocaust abounded this week following the State Department’s publication of aerial photos of the Saydnaya Prison outside Damascus, where Washington charges that President Bashar Assad’s henchmen have executed and burned thousands so that their traces will vanish.
The American administration thus endorsed and bolstered a previous report, by Amnesty International, that charged Assad’s regime with systematic hangings of its opponents, whether real, perceived or invented. According to that charge sheet, published last winter, serial hangings took place at the installation every week between the autumns of 2011 and 2015.
Now, due to seismic political changes on both sides of the Atlantic, the American report seriously raises the prospect of moral interference in the Syrian civil war, regardless of its complex alignments.
America’s confirmation of Amnesty’s accusation is too potent, and the mention of a crematorium is too dramatic for Assad to get away this time.
Historical analogies are always problematic, and even more so when they involve the Holocaust, which was about much more than Syria’s kind of mass murder, whether in terms of its aims, magnitude, motivation or mechanics.
Moreover, this time around the American government is not the disbelieving listener that Franklin Roosevelt, Frankfurter, and secretary of state Cordell Hull were to Jan Karski. Now the US government is the one exposing the horrors, and its information comes not from a singular hero but from 84 prisoners, guards and other Saydnaya Prison workers whom Amnesty debriefed.
CYNICISM, NEEDLESS to say, abounded this week, as many recalled the free world’s failure to prevent previous postwar genocides, from Cambodia to Rwanda. As long as Russia backs Assad, goes the conventional wisdom, he can pretty much do whatever he pleases. Well, he can’t.
Russia itself understands Assad’s conduct is bad for its business.
It wants to retain the naval and air bases it keeps on Syrian soil, but this it can do with another Syrian leader, should it decide that Assad has become a liability.
Assad is evidently concerned. That is why his government was quick to flatly deny the American report, which it called “a new Hollywood story detached from reality.” Yet Syria, and Assad personally, have already lied to the media about many other atrocities, including last month’s gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Assad already made a grave miscalculation when he launched that attack, apparently assuming not much had changed since 2013, when he avoided an American attack by signing the chemical disarmament agreement that he ultimately violated.
Considering America’s response last month – a massive missile attack on the Sharyat Air Force base near Homs – Assad now has reason to fear that the American statement this week, made publicly during a press briefing by Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones, will lead to additional action.
Just what exactly that action will be remains to be seen, but who will deal Assad the blow that he has invited can be predicted, and also who will not: It won’t be Israel.
One unusual statement this week – “it’s time Assad be liquidated” – broke with Israel’s policy to shun the Syrian war’s intra-Arab dynamics.
Delivered by Construction Minister Yoav Gallant while addressing an IDF conference in Latrun, the statement carried some weight, as he is a major general in the reserves and a member of the security cabinet, who previously served as the IDF’s OC Southern Command.
Son of Polish-born Holocaust survivor Fruma, who arrived in British Palestine aboard the fabled Exodus 1947 ship, Gallant is particularly sensitive to the Holocaust’s potential repetition. Then again, Gallant’s statement completely ignored Israel’s hard-earned lesson from the First Lebanon War, which is that the Jewish state is in no position to meddle in the Arab world’s internal affairs.
For Israel to set foot in Syria’s sectarian jungle might prove catastrophic, and for it to try and cleanse that country morally would be the equivalent of expecting Switzerland to attack Auschwitz during World War II. The Jews expected the superpowers to confront Nazi Germany, not the smaller countries.
Israel has been strategically neutral toward the civil war, in which no viable Sunni alternative will be any more accommodating to Israel, or more humane to the Syrian people, than Assad has been.
Gallant’s statement, then, “when we will be done with the snake’s tail [Assad], we will be able to reach its head, which is in Tehran,” is derelict by any yardstick, certainly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s.
For Israel to attack Assad personally, or his regime, would mean not only to intrude in internal Arab affairs, but also to provoke Assad’s Russian patrons, a course of action Netanyahu would never pursue.
From its precarious position, all Israel can do in the face of Assad’s atrocities is offer his victims medical treatment. It may not be a lot, but it is so much more than what others are doing in the face of the Syrian war, beginning with the Arab world itself.
The Jews did not have during the Holocaust any army anywhere that could have done anything about what was happening in Europe. The Sunni Arabs, by contrast, have the well-equipped armies of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, which can level Assad’s gallows in a snap. For them, the Saydnaya Prison’s inmates are not neighbors, as they are for Israel, but brethren; and the Sunni states, unlike Israel, can afford the diplomatic price that their kin’s salvation would entail.
Sadly, chances that the Sunni governments will dive into the Syrian mess in the name of solidarity are not much better than chances that Israel will do so in the name of morality. Perhaps most tragically, Arab intellectuals and literati remain mostly silent in the face of Assad’s assault on his Sunni population.
It follows, that action against Syria’s genocide can be expected only from the West.
PRESIDENT TRUMP, having already attacked Assad’s operation once, and having done so for a cause that was purely moral, is likely to seek a broader assault on the war-crime machine whose serial hangings and mass cremations complemented habitual shelling, gunning and gassing of citizens in their homes.
The US may be joined in this, and even preempted, by Europe, for two reasons: France and Germany.
France is coming under new management. The establishment with which the world has been familiar since de Gaulle’s return to power nearly 60 years ago has just been evicted by a frustrated electorate that crowned a populist president eager to display the kind of vision, conviction and guts his predecessors lacked. Attacking Assad can deliver him all of the above.
For Germany, the Syrian situation is tempting for a different reason: the Holocaust. No, Germany will not take part in any military action – it might take generations before Germany sends its army on the assault again – but Berlin will back Paris wholeheartedly, should it raze the crematorium that this week became the loaded symbol of Assad’s genocide.
While morally driven, a Western assault on Assad will also carry strategic benefits.
The gas attacks were part of Assad’s broader effort to rid western Syria of Sunni populations and replace them with Shi’ites, mainly from Iraq. That ethnic cleansing would serve the Alawite minority’s postwar interests as well as Iran’s quest for an overland corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
While the Syrian part of this formula serves to multiply Western revulsion with Assad’s moral record, the Iranian part is anathema geopolitically.
An Iran that effectively stretches to Europe’s doorstep – Latakia is less than 150 km. from Cyprus – constitutes a strategic threat to the European Union, especially the way its post-communist members view all things Muslim.
Assad, in short, has overplayed his hand. Israel, including Gallant, will not be involved, but the drama the Jewish state will follow from behind the border fence will be as cathartic for millions of Jews as it will be long overdue for millions of Arabs.