‘If the world had acted morally, 50,000 Syrians could have been saved’
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Interview'We were supposed to be the light unto the nations. We should have spoken out'

‘If the world had acted morally, 50,000 Syrians could have been saved’

Asa Kasher, an Israeli authority on ethics and warfare, says the international community has consistently failed to confront genocide since World War II. And Israel, he argues, should be leading the outcry

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

The international community has failed the people of Syria by waiting more than two years to take an effective stance against the Assad regime’s mass killings, Asa Kasher, the co-author of the IDF’s Code of Conduct and an authority on the moral doctrines that shape military actions, said in an interview this week with The Times of Israel.

“One hundred thousand have apparently been killed, mostly by the regime’s actions. And the world didn’t even shout,” Kasher said. If a credible threat of military action had been issued earlier, he said, the diplomatic process would have started more quickly, “and maybe 50,000 or 60,000 people might still be alive.”

However, Kasher said President Barack Obama’s decision not to intervene militarily in Syria once a diplomatic avenue opened up was the correct and indeed necessary move, since war could only be the last resort. And he did not believe that what critics have read as the presidential hesitation or change of heart might lead Iran to conclude that the US need not be taken at its word in vowing to thwart Tehran’s nuclear weapons drive. If diplomacy failed in Syria, and Obama did not then utilize the last-resort military option, that would be cause for concern, said Kasher.

Kasher, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University, also said Israel had failed to uphold its vision of serving as a light unto the nations by choosing not to stand at the forefront of international outrage over the decades, as genocide was carried out in Rwanda, Darfur, and Yugoslavia. Given what happened to the Jews in World War II, he said, Israel “could have been a special voice, taking it on our shoulders that when something terrible is happening in the world, we speak out and call for action.”

Professor Asa Kasher Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Professor Asa Kasher Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

The winner of the 2000 Israel Prize for philosophy, Kasher spoke to The Times of Israel on Monday. Excerpts:

The Times of Israel: What do you make of the international community’s response to Syria? Is it Pollyanna-ish to have expected a faster, moral, firmer response to try to stop the killing long ago?

Asa Kasher: All the post-war conventions are being exposed as too weak. [When you look at the] UN and the international community, from the perspective of World War II and the notion of “never again,” what we see is non-ethical politics. We thought mass killing was impossible and certainly that genocide was, after what Germany did to us, the Jews, in World War II.

The world writes nice documents against genocide. But it doesn’t want to use the “G” word so that it doesn’t have to act. Rwanda, Darfur, Yugoslavia, as it collapsed — those were genocides and the world did either nothing or too little too late.

And now we see it in Syria. One hundred thousand have apparently been killed, mostly by the regime’s actions. And the world didn’t even shout. It didn’t declare, “This is intolerable.” The transition to chemical weapons did do something to the international community, but it shouldn’t have required that for the world to shout out.

What should have happened?

The UN Security Council can go to war to protect the peace of the world. [But] any action against Syria via the UN Security Council would have to avoid a veto. And since Syria is a client of Russia, the Security Council will always veto action.

[Another avenue for action] under international law is self-defense. A state can take war action for self-defense if it is attacked or about to be attacked; in Israel’s case, 1973 would represent being attacked and 1967 about to be attacked.

In recent years, a third avenue, the “R to P” — Responsibility to Protect — has gained ground. This is humanitarian intervention, not via the UN Security Council, and not via self-defense, but out of the sense that, “We can’t stand aside, we have to protect people who are being massively attacked and are defenseless.” The idea is not to destroy sovereign authority, but rather that some states, like Syria, cannot be relied upon, and so there is a global responsibility to protect the people of Syria. “R to P” is not for use to uphold political rights. Not to turn China into a democracy. But for war crimes or genocide. There is a responsibility to intervene, even if not via the UN Security Council or self-defense.

Syrian citizens trying to identify dead bodies, after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces, according to activists in Syria, Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Local Committee of Arbeen)
Syrian citizens trying to identify dead bodies, after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces, according to activists in Syria, Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Local Committee of Arbeen)

The US threat against Syria, and maybe to intervene in Iran, is from that family. Obama said he’d refer the question [of military intervention in Syria] to Congress, not to the UN Security Council. I welcome that. I welcome that he accepts the responsibility.

Practically, what should be done now?

The military threat is on the table for Syria and Iran, and it catalyzes the diplomatic efforts. But [the international community’s response these past two years] is still disappointing to me, because the idea of intervention doesn’t begin with Tomahawk missiles and Marines. It starts with breaking the silence and saying, “This is intolerable.”

We’re bitter about the fact that the Pope during World War II was silent. The Pope is expected to take moral positions, but he was silent as genocide was carried out. We expected him to speak out, not because he had the power to take action, but because his voice is an expression of moral values. Now, too, there is an excess of silence.

And two years ago, we should have spoken out — we, the nation state of the Jewish people. For 65 years, we should have spoken out. [First prime minister David] Ben-Gurion spoke of being a light unto the nations. We could have been a special voice, taking it on our shoulders that when something terrible is happening in the world, we speak out and call for action. We can’t be the world’s policeman. Even the US can’t. But we could be the world’s “prophet of warning.” We didn’t take that role, perhaps because of a lingering diaspora mentality.

Maybe we didn’t feel we had the ethical right?

We do have the ethical right. We do have the right to speak out against genocide in Rwanda and Darfur. We should have become the first to speak out in the world. No matter what international politicians would say, or whether it would make our reality a little more complicated. To sound the alarm over Rwanda and Darfur would not have created political or existential dangers for us.

Those international politicians would say, Look at how you treat the Palestinians.

So? They’d talk. That shouldn’t silence us. And there is no remote comparison with Rwanda or Darfur or Syria.

It might have improved the way we treat the Palestinians if we had taken that role. In the early days of the state we had the right approach on that issue. Our Declaration of Independence said we have the right, “like all other nations,” to a state — indicating that all, including the Palestinians and, say, the Kurds, deserve it. We recognized that the Palestinians deserved a state in our founding document. There’s no Israeli prime minister who doesn’t recognize that obligation to work toward a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel. Even [Ariel] Sharon and even [Benjamin] Netanyahu. We said from the start that they deserve a state. Our prime ministers say it. So at the overall level one can’t come to us to complain.

We still hold the territories? Well, military conquest ends via negotiation. You can’t require the conquering state just to get out. It can choose to withdraw, but it doesn’t have to. It has the right to demand a negotiation. We’ve been demanding negotiations for years, and when there are negotiations and they don’t work, we get terrorism.

Still, all the international accords were created on the assumption that military conquest was temporary — that civilians would carry on with their daily lives and that the law that previously prevailed would still prevail. If it was Jordanian [law that was in force before 1967] before, then Jordanian law remains, because soon I’ll withdraw; there’ll be negotiation, withdrawal, finished. But we’ve been there since 1967. The notion of temporariness is a fiction. So, gradually, we’ve come to behave in a way that is hard to justify, in that we treat the settlers in almost the same way as we do citizens within the pre-’67 lines and we still treat the Palestinians as being under military occupation. That’s two legal levels. It can be justified legally by lawyers. But ethically we had to decide, “either all temporary or all permanent, with more democracy.”

How should the Responsibility to Protect idea have worked better where Syria is concerned?

When we see large-scale killings carried out by a regime, people like the US president, European leaders, Israeli leaders, had to say, every day, that this has to stop. The military threat had to come from the US and the European Union not only when chemical weapons were used, but when the death toll — it’s hard to quantify — but certainly when it reached the tens of thousands.

If that had happened, the diplomatic process could have started much earlier and maybe 50,000 or 60,000 people might still be alive.

EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton, left, speaks with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili during May talks in Baghdad (photo credit: Hadi Mizban/AP)
EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton, left, speaks with Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili during May 2012 talks in Baghdad (photo credit: Hadi Mizban/AP)

What about where Iran is concerned?

Iran has been tackled via the UN Security Council — to maintain the peace of the world. Iran until recently had a president who spoke of eliminating Israel. When a neighbor talks of the wiping out of a neighbor… So there were sanctions via the UN with Security Council approval. But apparently the sanctions have not been strong enough. They are problematic for the people of Iran but do not really stop Iran from closing in on nuclear weapons.

Here, US and Israeli threats, including the rumors of dispute within Israel over the use of a military option, are actually very important. The military threat must not be taken off the table. If sanctions don’t work, there has to be a further threat. And the way we see Iran acting now — and not only [new President Hasan] Rouhani — saying, “We don’t want nuclear weapons,” these are signs of a readiness to change under pressure.

The dangers are still there. The Iranians are getting close to a situation where, if they wish, they can get to the bomb within a certain number of months, so the military threat has to remain. But on Iran, the international community has been better [than it was on Syria]. The US president obligated himself. He said Iran will not get nuclear weapons. He didn’t say I’ll consult Congress.

Is there a danger that Obama’s apparent hesitancy and change of heart on Syria might encourage Iran not to take him at his word?

President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden as he makes a statement about Syria in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden as he makes a statement about Syria in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

I don’t think so. I don’t know what was in his head. The principles of war — in place for 2,000 years — are that war is the last resort. When there’s a problem, you highlight it. You say it’s intolerable. You muster forces. But you go to war only when there is no other choice.

So when a diplomatic opportunity arises on Syira, you must explore it. You mustn’t go to war. It has to be the last resort. So, it’s not hesitation. The threat of military intervention remains. That’s the right approach on Syria.

And if diplomacy fails and all that’s left is war and still Obama doesn’t act, then we should start to worry?

Then we can start to worry.

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