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The Syrian Holocaust: What Happened to “Never Again”?

Joshua Forrest
November 25, 2016

by Joshua B. Forrest

IT IS DIFFICULT to imagine a scenario that more closely approximates the intended post-Holocaust meaning of “never again” than the imperative to take decisive action to counter the horrific mass murders of Syrian civilians by the regime of President Hafez Assad and his Russian allies. By conservative estimates, nearly half a million people have been brutally massacred since 2011, and the onslaught continues. Some 12 million Syrians -- about half the country -- have fled, mostly to neighboring states (Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey), the remainder to Europe and elsewhere. Those who remain (often because they are too enfeebled to relocate), in parts of the country not yet under Assad’s control, are subject to death via mass execution from helicopter and warplane bombs that are purposefully dropped on urban neighborhoods. Children, the ill, women and the elderly are being obliterated by the dozens, and sometimes by the hundreds, on a near-daily basis.

The U.N. has already condemned these mass murders as “war crimes,” but I would suggest that this should be more accurately described as a premeditated, years-long human eradication campaign. The death mechanisms -- barrel bombs from Syrian helicopter gunships and Russian military planes targeting hospitals, schools, markets, homes and apartments -- are as gruesome as they are commonplace. The barrel bombs, which are filled with enormous quantities of shrapnel and other materials that cause devastation on impact, are effectively functioning as large-scale killing machines.

I do not use the term “Holocaust” lightly, and in a number of respects the comparison is inexact. The Nazis killed far greater numbers; they were mainly targeting a single ethnic group (the Jews); and the concentration camps and mass-killing operations represent a cauldron of genocidal evil that remains unsurpassed in human history. Also, in Syria, a wide political spectrum of anti-Assad rebel groups are based in civilian areas and have access to relatively advanced weaponry (machine guns, a few tanks and some shoulder fired missiles), whereas the victims of the Nazis did not have any possibility of obtaining such weapons.

Still, some comparative historical insight here is warranted. As the elimination of European Jewry progressed in earnest as of 1942, nations with the ability to bomb the train tracks leading to the Auschwitz death camps passed on their window of opportunity to do so. The world stood by -– again –- in 1994 when Rwandans suffered their own massive genocidal violence (approximately one million massacred). In both of these cases, the lack of intervention proved to be a grievous mistake (regarding Rwanda, President Bill Clinton has referred to his inaction as his worst foreign policy misjudgment).

Syria represents a chance to intervene in a contemporary Holocaust-in-progress. This can be done largely by creating enforceable no-fly zones, without conducting major ground force operations. It is still -- at this moment -- possible to save the approximately 250,000 people currently alive in eastern Aleppo and the several million Syrians who are barely managing to survive (and who are at great peril) elsewhere in the country.

WE SHOULD CALL upon not only the U.S. -- which has by far the greatest air force in the world -- to establish no-fly zones, but also the other civilized nations capable of wielding impressive air power. European leaders in particular (most notably French President Hollande) have been strongly vocal in condemning Assad -- but have pretended to lack the military resources to actually take meaningful action. In truth, they lead nations with imposing military capabilities: France possesses the sixth most powerful air force in the world; Britain’s is ranked fourth; Germany’s, eighth; and (to reach for a coalition that stretches beyond Europe) it bears mentioning that Australia’s air force is ranked ninth; Japan’s tenth.

How about a collective show of force -- in the air -- over eastern Aleppo? And a second no-fly zone within northern Syria for internal civilian refugees? Given such a multi-country mobilization in the air, the Assad-Putin death planes would almost certainly cease bombing operations within the protected areas.

Yes, I am only too well aware that President-elect Trump, President Obama, President Hollande, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and other leaders have made clear their disinterest in establishing no-fly zones in part because of the considerable risks to the political and economic stability of the global world order. To be sure, enforcing no-fly zones would be strategically challenging and militarily dangerous, including a real potential for serious counter-moves by the Russians -- in other parts of Syria or possibly in eastern Europe -- and/or by the Iranian allies of Assad elsewhere in the greater Middle East. And the fact that many of the anti-Assad rebel groups are based in civilian areas -- with some of those groups linked to Al-Queda and other terrorist movements -- renders exceedingly complex any effort to provide air cover for those civilian zones.

But plenty of compelling considerations were also cited in the decisions not to bomb the Polish train tracks in the early 1940s, and not to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. Leaders of the most powerful, civilized nations believed, in both of those cases, that the military risks and political complexities rendered the arguments favoring meaningful action unpersuasive. In hindsight, the consequences of these errors in judgment were unspeakably horrific.

Today, the moral imperative to make good on the meaning of “never again” is apparent. Something must be done to stop the slaughter of Syrian children.Those of us in technologically advanced nations with an up-close-and-personal understanding of the horrors and lessons of the European Holocaust must take the initiative and press for the creation of multinationally enforced no-fly zones in Syria, beginning with eastern Aleppo. The time to fend off the rain of mass-murderous barrel bombs is right now.

Joshua B. Forrest chairs the Department of History & Political Science, La Roche College, McCandless, PA. The opinions expressed above are his own. He is also a member of the Pittsburgh Secular Jewish Community (PSJC), the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO), and is a lifetime subscriber to Jewish Currents.