For the last week, protestors have been filling American airports from JFK to LAX, demonstrating against President Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban”—the executive order that in fact suspends for 90 days the issuance of visas to seven countries that are either major state sponsors of terror, or failed states without functioning governments where terror groups like ISIS, Al-Qaida, and their various off-shoots are flourishing. But the EO also suspends indefinitely the issuance of visas for Syrian refugees. And the opinion of protesters, as well as much of the press, is that Syrian refugees are like the Jews—fleeing genocide in search of safe shores: How can we have forgotten the past so completely that we deny entry to those whose suffering and want must serve as a reminder of our past failures to protect others, like the Jews that America so coldly turned away in the 1930s and 1940s?
In December, my Tablet colleague James Kirchick warned that “invoking the Holocaust for contemporary political debates is an inherently tricky business.” Nonetheless, it’s become the consensus take in the media, as seen with The Washington Post, Politico, Cokie Roberts on “Morning Joe,” and, of course, The New York Times, including a signature Nicholas Kristof column arguing that “Anne Frank Today Is a Syrian Girl.”
Former President Barack Obama may have been among the first to make the comparison. In a December 2015 address to newly minted American citizens, Obama said: “In the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of World War II.” Obama’s conviction that the suffering of Syrian refugees is directly similar to that of Europe’s Jews is perhaps why he appointed his former top lieutenant Ben Rhodes to the Holocaust Memorial Council, responsible for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Maybe Rhodes will ensure that the Museum commemorates the trials of the Syrian people, a people who suffered, as the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis, at the hands of…
Wait, at whose hands did the Syrian people suffer something like genocide? If they are like European Jews fleeing the Nazis, then who are the Nazis? In the various articles, statements, tweets, Facebook posts making explicit comparisons between Syrian refugees and Jewish refugees, no one, it seems, has bothered to identify the agents responsible for the murder, suffering, and dislocation of so many Syrians. So where are the Nazis? Who are they?
It has to be Trump. Well, it is true that the new president has indefinitely suspended issuing visas to Syrian refugees, but the Nazis didn’t simply turn Jews away, they murdered them—and the analogy was popular well before Trump became President. Trump is rather more like FDR in this scenario, the American president who refused to provide sanctuary for victims of a genocidal regime.
So who has actually been exterminating Syrians—Syrian men, women, children and the elderly—as if they were insects, as the Nazis exterminated Jews?
It is true that ISIS murders Christians and other minorities and has also killed members of its own Sunni sect, but the vast majority of those who have been murdered in Syria are Sunni Arabs. The Sunnis have been the target of a campaign of sectarian cleansing and slaughter since the earliest days of the nearly six-year-long Syrian conflict. The Sunnis therefore also make up the preponderance of those seeking refuge the world over, from Turkey and Lebanon, to Europe and North America.
At first, the Sunnis were fleeing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, but Assad has become a relatively insignificant factor in the war. In this scenario, Assad is rather like Mussolini, a dictator in charge of incompetent and dwindling forces incapable of holding ground. The Alawite sect (around 11 precent of a country with a pre-war population of 22 million) that Assad depended on for his survival was too small to ensure his survival against the country’s Sunni majority, 74 percent of the population, 80 percent of which are Sunni Arab. Hence, Assad needed to mobilize his allies, especially the regime’s chief protector, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran sent in its crack troops, the Quds Force, led by Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ expeditionary unit. Also at Iran’s disposal was a large number of regional organizations, ranging from the elite Lebanese militia Hezbollah to less prestigious fighting outfits, like Iranian-backed paramilitary groups from Iraq, or ragtag bands of Shia fighters recruited from Afghanistan and Pakistan and trained by Iran. It was these groups, later joined by Russia, that hunted Sunni Arabs like animals and slaughtered them or sent them running for their lives. These are the Nazis. That’s who sent the Syrians running for their lives like Jews fleeing Hitler.
It is terrible that Syrian refugees are suffering. It is wrong that the Trump Administration has cruelly shut America’s doors on children who have known nothing in their short lives except to run from the jaws of a machine of death. But America’s shame is much, much worse than that. For in securing his chief foreign policy initiative, Barack Obama made billions of dollars and American diplomatic and military cover available to Iran, which it has used to wage a genocidal war against Syria’s Sunni Arab population.
Not only have we failed so far to protect today’s Jews by stopping today’s Nazis, the 44th president of the United States assisted them in their campaign of mass murder. That’s why when people liken Syrian refugees to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, no one dares to complete the analogy and identify today’s Nazis—it’s Iran.
America’s shame is worse than anything that the protesters at airports imagine. Donald Trump is a latecomer who has arrived mid-way through the final act of a tragedy which has been unfolding for the past five years, and in which the US has been something more than an idle or disinterested bystander. The refugees are real, the genocide they are fleeing is real, and the Nazis are also real. What we have done is unspeakable.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).