09/09/2013 12:01 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

Facing the Challenge of Syrian Chemical Weapons

Of all the calamities produced by the so-called "Arab Spring," which would more aptly be called "the Arab winter" or "the long, hot Arab summer," Syria is the worst. According to the UN, the Syrian conflict has claimed over 100,000 lives, a majority of them civilians. Tens of thousands more are unaccounted for or have been thrown into Syrian prisons, where the use of torture and terror is widespread.

The horrendous carnage reached a new level when Syrian military forces unleashed a chemical weapons attack near Damascus two weeks ago killing more than 1,400, including some 400 children. With the Assad regime's responsibility convincingly verified, a strong, but measured response is imperative. As the world should have learned from the Holocaust, if a tyrant's use of poison gas to commit mass murder is tolerated and nations with the power to intervene stand idly by, those who wielded chemical weapons, and those who aspire to obtain them, get a clear message, "There are no boundaries or restraints. The law of the jungle prevails. You may use such weapons without conscience or consequence."

We would rue the day that feckless, reckless message is given. Such crimes must not go unpunished. To fail to follow through after clear warnings would damage America's credibility, irreparably. This is not just about Syria. An empty threat about using weapons of mass destruction in Syria would torpedo emphatic American warnings that we will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons. The Iranians would conclude from our inaction that they are free to develop them with impunity. Israel would discount American assurances and infer that they must act alone. And our other allies in the region and throughout the world - South Korea, for example, would deduce that they face the threat of weapons of mass destruction on their own. That message invites disaster.

The Assad regime, which had seemed doomed, has survived, due, in part, to Assad's unconscionable willingness to slaughter hundreds of thousands of his own people and the readiness of his armed forces to do so, something Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian Army were not prepared to do. But Assad has not survived by the morally depraved use of force alone. Three external actors are propping him up: Russia, and two radical Shi'ite Muslim entities: Hezbollah and Iran. Russia's seeks to protect its only Mediterranean naval base, which is in Syria. For Hezbollah, the Assad's fall would cut off its flow of arms and aid from Iran. Iran, in turn, the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, would lose its weapons and training conduit to Hezbollah, its front line proxy confronting Israel.

Arrayed against the Assad alliance are an assortment of Sunni Muslim groups, the relatively moderate, but disorganized Free Syrian Army, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and a much stronger, better organized, and dominant faction of extremist jihadis, supported by Turkey, the regional Muslim Brotherhood, and Qatar.

Six million Syrians have fled the chaos and are now displaced, some two million to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, to which a million found their way. Jordan lacks the infrastructure, funds, food, and water to house so many unfortunate and uninvited visitors. In terms of magnitude, Jordan's half million is the equivalent of some 25,000,000 refugees fleeing to the United States virtually overnight. There is no end in sight to the conflict or the exodus, which at some point, could jeopardize Jordan's viability as a state.

In Israel, concern about the Syrian situation has increased dramatically since the chemical weapons attack, since Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have threatened to retaliate against Israel for an American attack. While these threats may be bluster, Hezbollah's arsenal has quadrupled to over 100,000 rockets and missiles since 2006. The most advanced can reach any city in Israel. Even if Hezbollah restrains itself for now, its capability will remain, and if Assad's regime survives, will continue to grow.

We face a range of bad outcomes in Syria: a failed state descending into violence, lawlessness, and chaos, its chemical weapons up for grabs; a ruthless mass murderer aligned with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah retaining power; or a state on the border of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, controlled by Islamist terrorist groups. Nothing we do is likely to advance our preferred outcome: a stable, unified Syrian government that is not hostile to its neighbors, the US and the West. We know how well such wishful thinking worked out in Iraq and Egypt. Worse things could happen than having terrorists, thugs, and jihadists who detest us kill each other instead. But Jewish tradition forbids us to rejoice at the death of our enemies, and schadenfreude, while natural and understandable, is neither an ethical stance nor a coherent policy.

A military response to Syria's use of chemical weapons is not risk-free. We should exhaust all realistic alternatives, as we did here, before resorting to force, to avoid needless bloodshed and because of the law of unintended consequences. It is possible, as some argue, that we'll make matters worse. Yet despite the risks of acting, and while reasonable people can differ, I believe those risks are greatly exceeded by the risks of failing to act.

I deeply regret the President's decision to submit the issue to Congress. I worry that, to adversaries and friends alike, it connotes weakness and indecisiveness, and that it will set a dangerous precedent hampering the president's ability to order military action against Iran's nuclear weapons program, should other efforts to stop it fail. I recognize that strong congressional support for a president's decisions as Commander-in-Chief can lend them power and legitimacy. But I doubt that a Congress paralyzed by hyper-partisanship, lurching from one pointless and unnecessary breakdown to the next can rise above political calculation for the sake of our national security, short and long term. We'll know soon. The support of prominent House and Senate Republican leaders gives reason for hope. If Congress fails this fateful test of conscience and statesmanship, I urge the president to exercise his inherent authority, and that of subsequent presidents, nonetheless.

I repeat. This is not just about Syria and it's not just, or even primarily, about Israel. It is about America's national security and our place in the world. By next Spring, Iran will have the capacity to achieve an undetectable nuclear enrichment breakout within two weeks. Imagine that Iran already had nuclear weapons and was shielding Syria beneath its nuclear umbrella. What would America's options be then? Iran's nuclearization would change the entire calculus of US military power in the region and beyond, constituting an intolerable threat to the entire world. That is what's at stake.

While the matter hangs in the balance, I am letting our senators and congressional representatives know what I look for them to do at this critical moment, and I hope you will, too. As President Lincoln reminded us in timeless fashion, our government is "of the people, for the people and by the people." God gave us voices, and our Constitution gives us the right and duty to raise them when issues vital to our nation are at risk.

Fifty years ago, Rabbi Joachim Prinz was the last speaker to address the March on Washington before Martin Luther King. A refugee from Nazi Germany, these were his timeless words, "When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem, is silence." Let us not be silent now.