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The paralysis on Syria

Warning: Local war crimes don’t stay local

The paralysis on Syria

A rescue worker carries a child following an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

The latest grim scenes from Syria come in a grim month. April marks the anniversary of the Armenian genocide, the ethnic and religious cleansing by the Ottoman Turks beginning in 1915. It saw the killing of 1.5 million Armenians and 250,000 Assyrian Christians, forever changing the complexion of Turkey and neighbors Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Long-timers contend, rightly, Islamic extremism gained ground in that soil as religious and ideological diversity nearly was obliterated.

The genocide launched a diaspora of orphans, widows, and other survivors, fleeing to Europe, the former Soviet republics, and the United States. At least half a million people of Armenian descent live in Southern California today. The world became a different place because of an “isolated” event.

In 1939 Adolf Hitler sent his “death-head formations” into Poland ordering them to kill innocent Poles “mercilessly and without compassion.” Germany needed lebensraum, he said, and “who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” The Armenian genocide, planned and carried out uncontested, begat the Holocaust.

That’s history that touched our communities and families. So our leaders erected government and international structures to short-circuit future evils and mass bloodletting. They knew they were human-driven, so subject to failure. They counted on us to be cleareyed, to watch the road ahead with one eye on the horror in the rearview mirror, not to blunder as though in the dark into catastrophes already rehearsed.

You do not have to be a Nazi with a lab to devise the 21st century’s barbaric eugenics.

Yet here we are in 2018, a seven-year war in Syria spinning out mass atrocities and global catastrophe from a place smaller than Turkey, or South Dakota. In that time nearly 500,000 Syrians have been killed and 11 million, out of a population of 20 million, displaced.

At this writing we do not know who launched the April 7 chemical attack in Douma, but it fits the Assad regime’s pattern. Since 2014 it has cleared rebel fighters by wholesale destruction, using barrel bombs to destroy homes and shops, then schools and hospitals—leaving the civilian population no place to shelter or treat the wounded, only the option of flight.

Men who don’t take their families and leave receive threats: They get text messages saying they will be rounded up as terrorists or conscripted into military service. The final hammer is a gas attack. At least seven attacks have taken place this way since the Assad regime allegedly offloaded its chemical weapons stockpile under a U.S.-Russian arrangement. Confirmed by U.S. and UN authorities, they include the 2013 sarin attack that killed 1,400 people and the 2017 attack in Khan Sheikhoun that killed dozens.

The onlooking world has sat paralyzed three ways. One, Western consensus on evil has crumbled. Serious journalists and thinkers, for example, see climate change driving Syria’s war, or think to fight bloody jihadism constitutes Islamophobia.

Second, our hearts have grown cold. Tiny bodies gray-blue from chlorine gas no longer horrify us. Young women and girls raped and sold by ISIS don’t hold our attention. Can we not see their plan? Kill the men and end the ability of women to conceive and carry on anything approaching their own race. You do not have to be a Nazi with a lab to devise the 21st century’s barbaric eugenics. You do not have to be Hitler to with inattention incite “death-head formations.”

Third, our leaders lack courage to plan and execute successful missions. So voters left and right protest any intervention by conflating it with all-out or ill-conceived intervention.

But are we prepared to live with the consequences of no sustained action? Are we ready to leave our children and grandchildren a world where the Assads gas babies with impunity? Where ISIS leaders rape 9-year-olds in the basement of Iraq’s destroyed churches, and go free?

One of the God-given advantages of the world’s richest country and greatest military power is to take calculated risks. In hindsight, many of us might have supported a no-fly zone over Syria, knowing it would have kept the barrel bombs and gas attacks at bay, kept Russia out of the war, prevented 1 million migrants fleeing to Europe, and brought a throttled regime to the negotiating table. That’s the rearview mirror landscape now, informing the way ahead.