Israel's Opposition leader: We must defend our values in Syria

As a Jewish state, we must raise our eyes beyond our immediate borders and interests, and recognize the humanitarian and not only strategic dimensions of the Syrian conflict.

REFUGEES FROM Syria sit next to a camp in Jordan. (photo credit: REUTERS)
REFUGEES FROM Syria sit next to a camp in Jordan.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The latest indiscriminate assault by Syrian forces on the eastern Ghouta region adds to the long list of crimes by this most brutal and murderous regime.
President Bashar Assad’s name is already recorded permanently on the list of the most wretched and villainous war criminals of our time.
The inability of the world’s great powers to stop these crimes, nearly 70 years on from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention, is a haunting failure. Even calls from Assad’s ally Russia, for daily truces and humanitarian corridors, appear to have little effect.
Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer taught that the three moral lessons of the Holocaust are not to be a perpetrator, not to be a victim, and not to be a bystander. And yet for too much of the time during this devastating conflict, the world has stood by, while innocent men, women and children have been murdered or starved in their homes with no chance of escape. All this despite the presence of some of the world’s most effective military forces within striking distance, including those of the US – the world’s most powerful country.
From a narrow perspective of Israeli strategic interests, our overwhelming concern is the entrenchment of Iranian forces and proxies close to our border. Having fought to keep Assad in power, Iran is now extending a corridor of Iranian-Shia dominance from its own borders through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah- dominated Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast. This presents Israel with a dangerous and combustible strategic challenge, while also threatening America’s interests, personnel and other allies in the region.
Government and opposition in Israel are united in the commitment to prevent Iran from achieving its goal, and the Trump administration’s affirmation that it will seek to deny Iran its “northern arch” is welcome.
But as a Jewish state, we must raise our eyes beyond our immediate borders and interests, and recognize the humanitarian and not only strategic dimensions of the Syrian conflict.
We must not stand silent while international humanitarian laws formulated in response to the Holocaust are flouted.
At the very outset of this conflict, I called for an international response to Assad’s actions and for international support for the moderate Syrian opposition. The reluctance of the Obama administration to lead at that time was a missed opportunity with grave consequences.
I was also one of the first to urge our government to make a humanitarian contribution to the Syrian people. I was criticized then, but today Israelis across the country are proud that over 5,000 sick and wounded Syrians who reached our borders have been treated in our hospitals, with the greatest care taken to return them without any sign that they were in Israel. Moreover, we have provided food, clothing and fuel to Syrians across the border, and many Israeli civilians have volunteered and donated to international projects assisting Syrian refugees.
Yet as Israelis, our ability to assist is highly constrained. We are vilified by all sides in the Syrian conflict, and we are managing an extremely dangerous strategic situation, facing Iran’s heavily armed proxies on our border.
TO EXTEND broader protection to innocent civilians ultimately requires American leadership. Last April, President Donald Trump displayed such leadership when he responded, against the Syrian Air Force, to Assad’s use of sarin gas with missile strikes.
Yet nearly one year later, Assad and his allies continue to attack civilians with chemical and other weapons in defiance of all international laws and standards.
Americans are understandably resistant to military commitments, with past interventions having drained enormous human and financial resources and failed to achieve their objectives. Many Americans too are understandably wary of being asked, time and again, to shoulder an unfair share of the burden, and the US should not have to act alone.
There are certainly no easy or risk-free options in this complex situation.
But what Syria has taught us is that America must lead. When America steps back, the void is filled by actors that do not hold our shared values or interests.
The Geneva process is being dominated by the Russians, as underlined by the Sochi meeting at the end of January. They are pivotal in Syria through their military engagement.
Russia is therefore indispensable in the process, and the US must work together with Moscow to end this nightmare. But resolving this conflict in a sustainable manner, one that protects civilians and prevents Iran and its dangerous proxies from using Syria as a base, depends on the US and its allies taking a more central role, on the ground and diplomatically.
The need for American leadership is not limited to Syria and the broader Middle East. As Israelis, we cannot be indifferent to the wider question of US leadership in the world. Our strategic and economic welfare is underpinned by American commitment to a rules-based global order.
The commitment of the Trump administration to the State of Israel is unquestionable. The warmth and passion shown during the visits of both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have been a moving illustrations of this.
So I say to my American friends: What Israel needs most from America, is for America to remain committed to its position of global leadership, in the defense of a stable Middle East, the defense of human dignity and human rights, and the defense of a rules-based global political order, in Syria and beyond.
The write is Israel’s Leader of the Opposition and a member of Knesset for the Zionist Union and the Labor Party.