Seeing Syria Reflected in the Wannsee

Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs. He is a national correspondent for the Atlantic, the author of "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror" and a winner of the National Magazine Award for reporting. He has also covered the Middle East as a staff writer for the New Yorker.
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There is a quotation on the wall of Wannsee House -- the grand mansion on the outskirts of Berlin that was the location, in January 1942, of perhaps the most sinister meeting in the history of the Third Reich -- that has helped me to clarify my thinking on Syria, if only just a bit.

It was at Wannsee that Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann, along with 13 other Nazi functionaries, formalized plans for the Final Solution.

Today, Wannsee is a museum and a memorial (all of Berlin -- to Germany's credit -- can feel like a museum and a memorial), and while there yesterday (an incongruously gorgeous day on the shore of the Greater Wannsee), I came upon this quotation from "Mein Kampf":

"If at the beginning of the war, and during the war, twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas, as happened to hundreds of thousands of our very best German workers in the field, the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain. On the contrary: twelve thousand scoundrels eliminated in time might have saved the lives of a million real Germans, valuable for the future."

How does this relate to Syria? I've been opposed to the limited missile strike that President Barack Obama appears to be contemplating, in large part because it is almost wholly symbolic. The only way to guarantee that Bashar al-Assad's regime no longer uses poison gas on Syrian citizens (or uses other, more "acceptable" methods of slaughter) is to bring about the end of the Assad regime. I've written in this space that the message of any upcoming strike, by contrast, is going to be, "If you desist from using chemical weapons, we will leave you alone," and that this is woefully inadequate.

And yet: the Assad regime seems to recognize, as Hitler surely did, the practical terrorizing power of poison gas. Hitler understood gas to be a crucially important weapon not in the cause of battlefield victory, but in the larger struggle to send his enemies a message.

The removal of the Assad regime, which violates all known norms of international behavior, is the reasonable and moral goal of millions of Syrians, and their friends around the world. But it would not be meaningless to teach the regime a lesson about the consequences of using poison gas -- if in fact it is proved that gas was used. This U.S. message to Assad, understood this way, would be: We don't yet have a plan, or the will, to help the Syrian people bring you to justice, but in the meantime, we can make you pay a price for deploying some of the most terrible weapons known to man.

I would much prefer to see the U.S. not bomb Syria, and instead commit itself, with its allies, to rebuilding and training an effective, non-jihadi opposition (yes, a very difficult task, though less dramatic than an air attack), but there is a small chance that Assad and his regime might learn, through airstrikes, that though the use of poison gas advances their goals, its use also comes with a price.

P.S. I am not violating Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies in this post because I think it is fair, and not hyperbolic, to bind together those few regimes, including Hitler's, that used chemical weapons to advance their goals.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com