April 4, 2012
Two years ago, before our very eyes, a liberation movement of great courage and hope began to unfold halfway around the world. Blood ran like water in the streets of distant capitals, and still people fought, flesh against tanks, citizens against infantry, poets against police.
How could we not see the parallels to the Passover narrative, how could we not embrace their calls for liberation as our own?
Oh yeah, because they’re Arabs.
Because those uprisings have taken place in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria, the collective Jewish response has been more teeth-gnashing than hand-clapping. Yes, we want people to be free — that, at face value, is our central communal narrative, the one we’re about to gather and read this weekend at our seder tables. But … but … but what about Israel?
Our worries over how these sweeping changes will affect Israel dull our reflexes and dampen our humanitarian impulses. Sure, freedom is good, but what about the Muslim Brotherhood? We’re all for an end to torture, but what about the peace treaties? We applaud nonviolent resistance, but what if it sweeps into the West Bank?
Tunisia and Libya are one thing, but Egypt and Syria are something else. The closer the Arab Spring blooms to Israel, the greater our allergic reaction.
The great shame in all this is that American Jews, with their power, their voices and their skills can do much, much more to come to the aid of the Syrian rebels and help bring about the end of the Bashir Assad regime.
The most immediate thing we can do is tell our good friends Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to step up and act boldly. I don’t mean Iraq III. I mean something closer to Kosovo II.
The parallel to Syria, as Fouad Ajami pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, is Bosnia. There another Clinton hesitated to use military action to thwart the murderous march of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair steeled the American spine, and Clinton ordered a NATO air campaign against Serbia. Congress supported it — as I’m sure it would a concerted, well-planned action against Assad — and the paper tiger crumbled and ran away.
“We could, with some moral clarity,” writes Ajami, “recognize the Syrian National Council as the country’s legitimate government, impose a no-fly zone in the many besieged areas, help train and equip the Free Syrian Army, prompt Turkey to give greater support to defectors from Syrian units, and rally the wealthy Arab states to finance the effort.”
With some moral clarity. That’s the operative phrase here. Passover is a time of moral clarity. The Children of Israel were freed with “an outstretched hand,” the story goes, but with no guarantees of what happens next.
The realists among us warn that Syria, smack in the middle of every ethnic and religious tension in the Middle East, is better left to stew in its own juices. Israel doesn’t need the headache of another unstable nation on its border, with the possibility of an extremist Muslim takeover.
But Syria is already unstable, and some of its most radical elements, like Hamas, given shelter by the Assad regime, have wisely departed, before being run out.
The truth is, if we don’t help now, we may forfeit the ability to influence the direction of the coming crack-up.
“If the international community doesn’t arm them [the Syrian rebels] and provide logistical support, ‘everything’ the world fears from the fall of Assad will come to pass,” a Syrian rebel leader told Foreign Policy magazine.
“The people will get weapons, one way or another, so help us,” the leader said. “If you give us weapons, we can control them. We want the fall of the regime, not the fall of the state. If the international community helps us, we’ll help them. If it doesn’t, our people offer no guarantees.”
It sounds like a threat, but it’s really desperation. Nothing in the history of the Assad regime, father or son, can lead one to believe Syria will honor commitments to the current U.N. ceasefire efforts, or to the longer-term interests of its people. We who come together each year to celebrate the gift of freedom, the miracle of liberation, should know that better than anyone. Pharoahs can’t be persuaded. Pharoahs can only be beaten.
“There are risks to be run, no doubt,” concludes Ajami, “But at present we have only the shame of averting our eyes from Syrian massacres. If we act now, President Obama, when he pens his memoirs, could still claim vindication, or at least that he gave Homs and Hama and Deraa his best.”
The Syrian people have decided to outstretch their own hand — the question is whether we will reach out to grab it.
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