Our Shameful Inaction in Syria
The destruction of Aleppo in Syria and the wanton murder of its citizens has once again been dominating the news. This ancient city is purportedly one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth. Aleppo has witnessed many wars, and been a part of many empires. For millennia, it lay at the heart of the “silk road” — the famous trade route connecting China with the Mediterranean Sea.
In 2012, the city began its descent into what can only be described as a living hell, occupied by Islamic extremist rebel forces opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, and subjected to a stranglehold siege and ruthless bombardment by his army, assisted by their Russian and Iranian allies. The indiscriminate killing of civilians has led to more than 30,000 deaths in four years. This week, it was reported that the Syrian Army was shooting civilians, including women and children, in cold blood.
The world at large stayed silent as the Aleppo atrocities escalated. Despite widespread revulsion, the lack of affinity with either of the warring sides left Western democracies in the kind of dilemma that has become ever-more frequent with localized wars in the early 21st century: Whom do you support to win, when you prefer both sides to lose?
Over the past couple of weeks, there have at least been rhetorical attempts to address the Aleppo disaster. At a meeting this week of the UN Security Council — which ultimately failed to adopt any resolution to end the suffering — US Permanent Representative Samantha Power delivered an impassioned statement, declaring that Aleppo would “join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil and stain our conscience decades later.”
“Are you truly incapable of shame?” she asked the Syrian regime, together with its Russian and Iranian allies. “Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”
Although these words strike an emotional chord for all champions of freedom and human rights, it is all empty grandiloquence — because President Obama has deliberately avoided taking any kind of proactive role in the Syrian maelstrom. As the world’s most powerful nation, the United States has the responsibility and duty, but over the past eight years, American power has all but disappeared from view. American leadership has taken a back seat approach to international affairs, which has allowed violent turbulence to escalate and vicious despots to prosper.
Thinking over these events, I was struck by an interesting insight into Jacob’s attitude towards his dilemma at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. After more than 30 years away from Canaan, and from the brother who had vowed to kill him, Jacob had finally returned home with his large family and the great wealth he had amassed abroad, and was imminently going to face his nemesis, Esau.
The Torah informs us that Jacob was very anxious about the meeting. The commentaries struggle with this statement. After all, God had promised Jacob even before he left that he would be protected when he returned. So why the fear? The 19th century Hasidic leader, Rabbi Isaac Meir of Gur, offers a compelling answer. Rather than his fear and distress being passive, he suggests that Jacob caused himself to be afraid, and to be proactive in his defense.
The greatest threat to peace and goodness is not war; it is hubris. Jacob could certainly have relied on God’s personal assurance that he would be protected from any harm. But the stakes were too high. It was not just about his own personal safety. His confrontation with Esau amounted to nothing less than assuring the future of mankind. Brutality and evil would have to be subdued if the message of God was to prevail and thrive. Jacob urgently felt the need to actively defend his mission, so that monotheism would triumph over the dictatorship of malevolent God-denial represented by Esau. This assignment filled him with trepidation.
The Western world has the responsibility of ensuring the survival of a free and humane society. Russia, Syria and Iran have given us proof that evil can prevail. Unless there is a drastic change of attitude in the West, the future of mankind truly hangs in the balance.