Debate over Syria shows our moral decline

By Ben Cohen,

By Ben Cohen

“Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon/The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave/They buried us without shroud or coffin/And in August the barley grew up out of our grave.”

These lines are from the poem “Requiem for the Croppies,” by the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who died last week. They were pointed out to me by a dear friend of mine, also an Irishman, who instructively observed how Heaney’s verse—which commemorated the merciless British crushing of an Irish uprising in 1798—eerily conjures up the terrible reality of Syria in our own time.

Let’s recall a few basic facts. Firstly, by the time the Western powers began to seriously consider intervention in Syria, more than 120,000 people had already been killed. Secondly, the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime at the end of August was decidedly not the first time these had been deployed. Back in June, as I and others reported, the French government declared it had “no doubt” that “the regime and its accomplices”—which include the Islamist terrorist organization Hezbollah—had engaged in chemical attacks against civilian centers. Thirdly—and this is what I want to focus on here—when presented with devastating and credible evidence of chemical weapons use, the response of many Western politicians has been to equivocate and demand further evidence, as though obtaining such proof in Syria’s killing fields is a mere walk in the park.


The insistence upon further evidence has been accompanied by other rationalizations for not getting involved, all of them constructed from myth rather than fact. To begin with, there’s the view pushed by both left-wing and right-wing isolationists that Syria’s warring groups are all as bad as each other, and that the end of the Assad regime will usher in an Al-Qaeda one. That view was comprehensively debunked in recent days by the journalist Elizabeth O’Bagy, one of the few foreign correspondents to have spent lengthy periods of time in Syria, who provided an eyewitness account of politically moderate Syrian rebels defending Christian and Alawi villages from both the regime and from Islamist extremists. As little as a month ago, O’Bagy said, she saw “daily protests by thousands of citizens” against Islamists in the north of the country. Her conclusion?

“Moderate opposition forces—a collection of groups known as the Free Syrian Army— continue to lead the fight against the Syrian regime.”  

Then there’s the slippery slope argument—the idea that we are going to get dragged into a ground war in Syria, just as we did in Afghanistan and Iraq. Given that the operation being discussed is an extremely limited one that will be prosecuted from the air—so limited in fact, that it may not have the desired effect of “degrading,” as the Obama Administration puts it, Assad’s military capacity—this objection is plainly misleading and a deliberate falsehood.

Why are we so determined to remain indifferent in the face of men, women and children convulsing to death from Sarin gas? I have no satisfactory answer, but during this period of the High Holy Days, we are obliged, in my view, to confront this question as we reflect on our moral health. After all, we Jews have spent the last seven decades asking whether more could have been done to avert the Holocaust. Could we not have bombed the railway lines to the concentration camps? Could we not have smuggled more weapons to resistance fighters, both Jewish and non-Jewish? Well, yes, we could have done much more, but we also could have done a lot less. Imagine if the current crop of politicians currently dominating the Syrian debate, from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to the leader of the British Labor Party, Ed Miliband, had been in office instead of Roosevelt and Churchill. (On second thought, don’t.)

Next week, all eyes will be on the U.S. Congress as it considers the White House’s request to strike at specific military targets controlled by the Syrian regime. Already, this is shaping up to be a depressing story of weak leadership and moral failure. President Barack Obama didn’t have to refer the matter to Congress, just as British Prime Minister David Cameron wasn’t obliged to take the matter to parliament, but both have been overwhelmed by the isolationist mood in their respective legislatures. Now, sadly, there are reasons to expect that the vote in Washington will falter along similar lines as the vote in London. As the Washington Post pointed out, both House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are portraying the vote as one based upon “conscience.” And when it comes to Syria, there is precious little conscience around these days.

I began this article by quoting an Irish writer, and I’d like to end by quoting a Jewish one. In his searing poem “Shema,” Primo Levi, the literary titan who survived Auschwitz, addressed “You who live secure/In your warm houses”:

I commend these words to you.

Engrave them on your hearts

When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,

When you go to bed, when you rise.

Repeat them to your children.

Or may your house crumble,

Disease render you powerless,

Your offspring avert their faces from you.

Shana Tovah.