To Syria, on Yom Kippur: ‘We have sinned’
We all know the three most important things when assessing real estate: location, location, location. As the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo suffers through the brutality of Russia and Bashar Assad, we should recall that when it comes to American foreign policy, the three most important words are: tradeoffs, tradeoffs, tradeoffs.
At no time of the year should this focus our mind more sharply than at Yom Kippur. We repent and promise — mostly sincerely — to sin no more (even if we know we cannot keep this promise). But what should we do in world politics, where no matter what we do, we will cause — either by commission or omission — suffering and death, perhaps to our loved ones?
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told the United Nations Security Council, “What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism.” She is correct. The Washington Post editorial board has slammed Power’s boss, President Obama, for doing nothing about it but “hemming and hawing.” But what should we do? Unsurprisingly, the Post said nothing. Because that is where real, and hard, moral choices begin.
Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine and some Republicans such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham have proposed a no-fly zone. That sounds good, but once it begins, then American pilots will fight against Russian MiGs, and try to evade Syrian anti-aircraft weaponry. That would risk war with a nuclear power and having our pilots shot down. If they get shot down, then of course we must rescue them. That would mean ground troops: perhaps thousands of Americans would be killed. Of course Russia might escalate, which would mean that we would have to escalate as well. That means more troops. They might not, but would you risk it? Is it worth it? If you think so, would you go? Would you tell your children to go?
Perhaps someone else with a greater interest can provide ground troops. But that immediately gets us into trouble as well, for America lacks a strong, sturdy ally to do the fighting for us.
The strongest resistance armies are Sunni jihadists closely aligned with al-Qaida. Those who currently attack President Obama for fecklessness usually point to Potemkin groups like the Free Syrian Army, which never was a real army to begin with, and is merely a collection of dozens of militias, many of them as jihadist as ISIS. Distributing American weapons to shadowy resistance groups usually winds up getting Americans killed, as was revealed a few months ago. We had sent arms to the Syrian resistance through our best Arab ally, Jordan; they wound up on the black market, were used to murder Americans, Jordanian intelligence officials padded their bank accounts. Much of ISIS’ arsenal comprises U.S. weaponry captured from Syrian rebels.
More recently, we found a brighter possibility in the Syrian Democratic Forces, an army of Syrian Kurds, which has fought well. But it has nowhere near the strength to topple Assad, and in any event, there is a bigger problem: Our ostensible NATO ally, Turkey, sees the SDF as its sworn enemy because it is associated with Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Nothing would be more satisfying from a moral perspective than to tell Turkish President Recyyip Tarep Erdogan to perform an unnatural act on himself, but Turkey is a NATO member, and it provides us access to air bases in the fight against ISIS. Are we prepared to sacrifice part of the fight against ISIS to take on Assad?
Perhaps we can only try to rescue more Syrian refugees, saving those who can get out. But the Republican Congress has voted to block all Syrian refugees, attacking the president for the paltry number of 10,000. Hillary Clinton has proposed 65,000 — still a drop in the bucket — and has been lambasted for it by nativist xenophobe Donald Trump. We would need to do far more to make a real difference, and this is my personal choice — but here, too, there are terrible risks. The United States screens potential refugees much better than Germany, but we can hardly rule out the possibility that some potential jihadists will get through our screening process, especially as we increase numbers.
Of course we could simply revert to the old policy expressed by our greatest Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, who warned that America must not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” But then we are back where we started, hemming and hawing as we witness a Syrian holocaust.
President John Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Sounds great. But really? Any price? Any burden? Any hardship? It was nonsense when JFK said it, and in light of our disasters in Vietnam and Iraq, now little more than absurd.
Tradeoffs, tradeoffs, tradeoffs. We can: 1)intervene militarily and risk a wider war with thousands of American casualties; 2) support inadequate Sunni opposition forces and risk not only abject failure but lethal arms falling into ISIS hands and the strengthening of new jihadist forces; 3) support Kurdish opposition forces and risk the fight against ISIS; 4) welcome more refugees but raise a risk — minuscule, but real — of a handful of jihadists getting into the United States; or 5) do nothing and face the cruel judgment of history. (At this time of accounting for our souls, we face the terrifying prospect of making this choice.)
We can, at least, acknowledge that it is a terrible choice, that there are no easy answers. Such moral maturity marks a good way to observe Yom Kippur. But what is your choice? What risks will you take, as a Jew, as a citizen, as someone who aches to live according to the highest ideals of our people and our country? Against these questions, the pieties of the Unetaneh Tokef and the Ashamnu seem serene and cozy by comparison.
Jonathan Zasloff is Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law and a student in the ALEPH ordination programs.