A Veteran Israeli Soldier’s Take on Syria, as Told Over Cigarettes

On Thursday night my family had dinner at my Israeli cousin’s house. She’s a young mother, with three adorable children (aged 2 months to about 5 years) and a fascinating, iconoclastic husband. This man is full of opinions, and when he, my dad, and myself stepped outside for what was for all intents and purposes a men’s circle, he decided to entertain me with his Syria position. It was fascinating–a take on middle-eastern warfare that would never appear in any American media.

First I’ll dig up his assumptions, and then I’ll review his analysis.

Assumption-wise, he seemed to accept and even somewhat admire the militant urge; he seemed to feel that violent conflict was (at least from an international affairs perspective) a perfectly valid form of resolving conflict. Not that he would encourage or admired violence himself, but rather he felt that some groups in the world will prefer violent means to achieving their goals, and that unless the international community was willing to become a sort of “world police,” then it had better accept that some groups will simply choose conflict, and that attempting to force these groups to a western-mediated negotiating table will accomplish nothing. In short, let Assad and the rebels fight it out.

That said, he also felt that a martial solution required a set of martial ethics. Namely, the rules of war. He described his time in the Israeli army, when he was fighting in some region (I didn’t catch which), part of a unit tasked with fighting insurgents. He described how

…you go door-to-door, knocking on doors and looking for the tough guys. If you find them, you drag them out and ask them if they really want to fight.

with the point being to “take the fight” out of the other side and allow the Israeli army to secure its objective easily and less violently. He made it clear that, even though they were fighting, there were ways of dealing with the other side. Chemical weapons, he felt, were not one of those ways.

He described the madness that must torment the minds of those who ordered such strikes. He takes a drag.

Willing to do that–to your own people! Can you imagine? Do you know what that says?

He described the meaning of chemical strikes, of striking against women and children:

You strike at their soft belly. You take away their reason for fighting. Think about it–if you take away a man’s wife and family, what is he fighting for? You destroy a whole generation. Then that same man becomes wild, trying to destroy as much as possible.

He went on to talk about the role of the United States (this is his analysis):

So this guy [Assad] is going too far. He’s striking at the soft belly of his enemies, and we need to send a message that that isn’t alright. Nothing awful–not killing them or really hurting them [Assad and his supporters]. Just knocking out their power grid for a week or two, shoot down some communications towers. Get it through their heads using their language of choice–violence. Let them sit around with no power for a while and realize that they’re completely outmatched, and that they need to do what we say.

And we say no chemical weapons. If you want to fight, then you’ll fight all you want. But stay within the lines. That’s what the United States needs to say.

And there is his justification. This people is fighting a war with itself; a war we, the west, cannot stop. One side has lost its mind and started destroying its enemy, rather than engaging with it. The west has an obligation as an upholder of human rights to step in and reassert the boundaries of war and human behavior, while leaving the Syrians to resolve their issues however they see fit within those boundaries.

Powerful stuff. I’m not saying this is the best interpretation, or even that it’s a decent one. But it has a certain epic logic to it that can be quite stirring, at least to people familiar with classical thought.

Anyway, I try to stay attentive to the boundaries of appropriateness and controversy, so I’ll tie this one off for now.

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