Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaking with the media at the Capitol building, Jan. 31, 2017. Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images.

Schumer says US should back independent Kurdish state


Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer has called on the Trump administration to recognize the Kurdish bid for independence — a position embraced among nations virtually only by Israel.

“Monday’s historic vote in Iraqi Kurdistan should be recognized and respected by the world, and the Kurdish people of northern Iraq have my utmost support,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement Wednesday, referring to the referendum in which 92 percent of 3 million voters said they favored Kurdish independence. “I believe the Kurds should have an independent state as soon as possible and that the position of the United States government should be to support a political process that addresses the aspirations of the Kurds for an independent state.”

No other power in the region except for Israel favored the referendum, with Iraq’s government threatening military action and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatening to suspend normalization talks with Israel because of its backing.

Kurds for decades have functioned as a U.S. ally in the region and for even longer have had ties — at times open — with Israel, facilitated by the substantial Kurdish Jewish community in Israel. In northern Iraq, Kurds have been semi-autonomous since the late 1990s, when the United States and Britain helped push the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of the region. His regime was responsible for the mass murder of Kurds.

The Trump administration opposed the vote, fearing it could damage the regional alliance combating the Islamic State terrorist group.

Turkey blames Kurdish militants for Ankara bomb; vows reprisals


Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed a Syrian Kurdish militia fighter working with Kurdish militants inside Turkey for a suicide car bombing that killed 28 people in the capital Ankara, and he vowed retaliation in both Syria and Iraq.

A car laden with explosives detonated next to military buses as they waited at traffic lights near Turkey's armed forces' headquarters, parliament and government buildings in the administrative heart of Ankara late on Wednesday.

Davutoglu said the attack was clear evidence that the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia that has been supported by the United States in the fight against Islamic State in northern Syria, was a terrorist organization and that Turkey, a NATO member, expected cooperation from its allies in combating the group.

Within hours, Turkish warplanes bombed bases in northern Iraq of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state and which Davutoglu accused of collaborating in the car bombing.

Turkey's armed forces also shelled YPG positions in northern Syria on Thursday, a security source said. Davutoglu said the artillery fire would continue and promised that those responsible for the Ankara attack would “pay the price”.

“Yesterday's attack was directly targeting Turkey and the perpetrator is the YPG and the divisive terrorist organization PKK. All necessary measures will be taken against them,” Davutoglu said in a televised speech.

President Tayyip Erdogan also said initial findings suggested the Syrian Kurdish militia and the PKK were behind the bombing and said that 14 people had been detained. 

The political arm of the YPG, denied involvement in the bombing, while a senior member of the PKK said he did not know who was responsible.

The attack was the latest in a series of bombings in the past year mostly blamed on Islamic State militants.

Turkey is getting dragged ever deeper into the war in neighboring Syria and is trying to contain some of the fiercest violence in decades in its predominantly Kurdish southeast.

The YPG militia, regarded by Ankara as a hostile insurgent force deeply linked to the PKK, has taken advantage in recent weeks of a major Syrian army offensive around the northern city of Aleppo, backed by Russian air strikes, to seize ground from Syrian rebels near the Turkish border.

That has alarmed Turkey, which fears the advances will stoke Kurdish separatist ambitions at home. It has been bombarding YPG positions in an effort to stop them taking the town of Azaz, the last stronghold of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels north of Aleppo before the Turkish frontier.

Hundreds of Syrian rebels with weapons and vehicles have re-entered Syria from Turkey over the last week to reinforce insurgents fending off the Kurdish-led assault on Azaz, rebel sources said on Thursday.

TENSIONS WITH WASHINGTON

The co-leader of the YPG's political wing denied that the affiliated YPG perpetrated the Ankara bombing and said Turkey was using the attack to justify an escalation in fighting in northern Syria.

“We are completely refuting that. …Davutoglu is preparing for something else because they are shelling us as you know for the past week,” Saleh Muslim told Reuters by telephone.

Washington's support of the YPG – it views the group as a useful ally in the fight against Islamic State – has strained relations with Turkey. Both Erdogan and Davutoglu have called on the United States to cut ties with the insurgents.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Washington was not in a position to either confirm or deny Turkey's charge the YPG was behind the attack. He also called on Turkey to stop shelling the YPG.

Turkey has said its shelling of YPG positions is a response, within its rules of engagement, to hostile fire coming across the border into Turkey, something Saleh Muslim also denied.

“I can assure you not even one bullet is fired by the YPG into Turkey … They don't consider Turkey an enemy,” he said.

The co-leader of the PKK umbrella group, Cemil Bayik, was quoted by the Firat news agency as saying he did not know who was responsible for the Ankara bombing. But the attack, he said, could be an answer to “massacres in Kurdistan”, referring to the Kurdish region spanning parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Turkey has been battling PKK militants in its own southeast, where a 2-1/2 year ceasefire collapsed last July and pitched the region into its worst bloodshed since the 1990s. Six soldiers were killed and one wounded on Thursday when a remote-controlled handmade bomb hit their vehicle, the military said.

WARNING TO RUSSIA

Davutoglu named the suicide bomber as Salih Necar, born in 1992 and from the Hasakah region of northern Syria, and said he was a member of the YPG. 

A senior security official said the alleged bomber had entered Turkey from Syria in July 2014, although he may have crossed the border illegally multiple times before that, and said he had had contact with the PKK and Syrian intelligence.

Davutoglu also accused the Syrian government of a hand in the Ankara bombing and warned Russia, whose air strikes in northern Syria have helped the YPG to advance, against using the Kurdish militant group against Turkey.

“I'd like to warn Russia, which is giving air support to the YPG in its advance on Azaz, not to use this terrorist group against the innocent people of Syria and Turkey,” he said. 

“Russia condemned yesterday's attack, but it is not enough. All those who intend to use terrorist organizations as proxies should know that this game of terror will turn around like a boomerang and hit them first.” 

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told a teleconference with reporters that the Kremlin condemned the bombing “in the strongest possible terms.”

Wide awake: A spiritual response to the collapse of compassion


Four facts:

1. In the last 4½ years, the war in Syria has killed about 240,000 people, including 20,000 children.

2. 11.6 million people have been displaced, 4 million of whom are now refugees.

3. Half of the refugees, vulnerable to starvation, disease, abuse and exploitation, are children.

4. None of these facts matter much to any of us.

In fact, and I say this not to be cruel or needlessly provocative, we have known all of this for the past several years. Aside from the fact that the numbers grow steadily each day, nothing has really changed here – until last week, when everything changed.

Everything changed when a photo came out of three year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on the Turkish shore with his tiny sneakers and his sweet head cocked to the side like my son’s when he sleeps. Except that this boy was not asleep, he was dead. Drowned, along with his 5 year old brother and mother when his desperate father could no longer keep their three heads above the water, having been battered by unrelenting 15 foot waves that their rubber raft simply could not sustain.

This small Kurdish boy tore into our consciousness, a boy who, at three years old, spent his entire life in the crosshairs of a battle between heinous criminality and utter depravity. This boy who pulled our hearts right out of our chests, who never got a chance to kick a soccer ball or lose his first tooth or beg his parents for an ice cream from the guy with the cart in the park. He never went to school, didn’t get to learn to read, never wrestled with a difficult math problem, didn’t get to fall in love or cut class or go on a hike or learn to hate cilantro. I stared at his sweet, tiny body like we all did, wanting nothing more than to be able to hug this boy back to life.

And all of the sudden, we are awake. The world’s shofar blast. What all those numbers, stats, warnings couldn’t do – wake us up – the picture of Aylan did in an instant. Like a knife through the collective heart.

Paul Slovic of University of Oregon told us years ago that numbers don’t affect us. Hearing about the millions of displaced Syrians does nothing to awaken the human heart. In fact, ironically, the greater the numbers, the less likely we are to respond. It’s what he calls psychophysical numbing – in which we make a fateful calculation: I can’t do everything, so I’ll do nothing. But one child, one small boy washed up on the shore crumbles the whole façade. Without warning, we are thrust to the depths of sorrow, consumed by a tragedy that hundreds of thousands of deaths couldn’t awaken us to.

How we have failed you, Aylan. What could we have done to avert the catastrophe that would eventually lead to the end of your too short life? What if we had had the courage, the will to see what was happening in your country years ago – what then would your life have been like?

What if we had demanded a repair to our crippled refugee and asylum system years ago? Instead, we allowed legitimate but vague security concerns to eclipse the human tragedy unfolding before our eyes. Even in our beloved Israel – we watched the leadership shamelessly claim the country lacks the “demographic and geographic depth” to take in refugees, leaving them to die at the border. No room for a thousand children, orphaned by war? One hundred? Have we forgotten so quickly that Jewish refugees – fleeing for their lives – were denied entry by this country and so many others under the very same set of justifications and excuses? A couple of weeks ago, Jon and Wendy brought their new baby up for an aliyah and spoke of how they chose her name. When Jon’s father came to the US from Germany, much of his family stayed behind, including his first cousin, Deiter. Deiter was among those who boarded the SS St. Louis to flee Germany in 1939, along with 900 other Jewish passengers. They made their way across the ocean, only to be denied entry by Cuba, then the United States, then Canada. The ship was sent all the way back to Europe and Dieter, like so many of the passengers of the St. Louis, was deported to a death camp. He was five years old when he died. “When our baby grows a little older,” Jon said, “we’ll tell her that she’s named after a very special little boy who never had a chance in life.” I’m not talking about opening floodgates. I’m talking about making room for children and their parents, running for their lives, who want nothing more than the chance to try to build beyond the ashes of their past.

But here we are. Awakened too late to the horrors of a crisis fueled by our own indifference.

We’ve been here before. We woke up to the insanity of this country’s gun culture after parents and grandparents had to bury their childrens’ little bodies, stuffed animals and dreams when they were shot down in their classroom in Sandy Hook. It was too awful, too vivid to sleep through. But even then, we were lulled back asleep all too quickly. Again and again we revert to complacent disengagement. We did after Virginia Tech. And Tuscon. Aurora. Oak Creek. Fort Hood. Isla Vista. Charleston.

Asleep, awake, asleep again.

Just like when we all suddenly started talking about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow when Trayvon was killed and the law didn’t blink. Of course we dozed off again until Michael Brown’s lifeless body lay on the streets of Ferguson for four hours. Then Eric Garner died in a strangle-hold for the crime of selling loose cigarettes without a permit, or, more accurately, for the crime of Walking While Black. Again, no indictment. No charges. For a moment, we were outraged, until we fell asleep again. Then Tamir Rice, who was 12 years old when he was shot while holding a toy gun. Walter Scott in N. Charleston, shot like a deer in hunting season after being stopped because his brake light wasn’t functioning properly. Freddie Gray, shoved into a police van with such blunt force and callous disregard that he suffered spinal cord injury and ultimately death.

Asleep. Awake. Asleep.

Just like we cared – but only momentarily – when we learned of the massacre of the Yazidis, and heard that more than 5,000 Yazidi girls and women were kidnapped by ISIS last year, sentenced to life as sex slaves. We then fell back asleep, of course, until their story hit the front page of the New York Times.

It is a cruel and unending cycle: we wake, we sleep, we wake, we sleep. Wouldn’t the world be so much simpler if all we had to worry about was Private vs. Charter, heels vs. wedges, Wildwood vs. Oakwood, 6 vs. 6 Plus. And yet here comes Aylan’s image in my inbox once again – shattering the complacency, forcing me to pause, for just a moment, to remember how fragile it all is.

The blasts of the shofar come this year to save our lives – to pull us from the hell of paralysis. Presumed powerlessness. Meaninglessness. To save us from a life of sleepy disconnect, of privileged detachment from the triumphs and tragedies of the human community. Listen to Rambam:

Uru y’shenim – Wake up, you sleepers, from your sleep! Get up, you slumberers, from your slumber! Look at yourselves – you can do better. Zikhru bora’akhem – Remember Your Creator [or: Where You Came From]! You – you who forget, again and again what truly matters, you spend your years in pursuit of shadows, yearning for vanity and emptiness that will not help anyone nor will it save anyone, including you. Look at your souls! Contemplate deeply your actions – you can do better! Each one of you – abandon your bad behavior and your narrow thinking. It’s no good for you! (MT Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4)

But could Rambam have understood the enormity, the ubiquity of the suffering we encounter now every day? Think of how many news alerts we receive in the course of a morning. Could Rambam have fathomed the spiritual confusion that comes when we carry tiny screens with us everywhere, notifying us in real time to every attack, every violent protest, every shooting? Never before have we had access to so much input. How could we possibly hold it all? A corollary to Slovic’s psychic numbing, there’s talk now of the collapse of compassion. There is a natural human resistance to encountering overwhelming need. As a result, we shut down preemptively so as not to have to deal with our own inability to respond adequately. If I don’t feel your pain, I won’t feel bad about not helping you.

What is the breaking point? At what point do we disengage? It’s not once there are 1000 victims, or even 100. Students in one study were asked if they’d be willing to donate back $5 of their earnings from participating in the study to feed a small starving girl from Mali named Rokia – and they were showed a picture of her sweet face. Nearly everyone agreed to do so. But when asked if participants would be willing to donate the same $5 to feed both Rokia and her brother Moussa, showing their pictures together, the response rate fell by nearly 50%. There is a very low saturation point at which we no longer have the will or capacity to take in more, and all we want to do is shop Nordstrom online or kick back and watch Monday night football. I mean, who doesn’t want to see if Sam Bradford’s knee will hold up?

Today, Lord knows we have reached the saturation point. Our compassion has officially collapsed. No surprise, then, the growing backlash to the world’s newfound sensitivity to refugees. We humans are so predictable.

I was asked, on a panel of rabbis this spring, if the world was better or worse off now than one hundred years ago. Is our trajectory one of progress or regress?

I immediately thought of the midrash – perfect for this Day of Creation – in which the Holy One, preparing to create Adam haRishon, the first person, sees the ministering angels break into factions and start arguing:

The Angel embodying LOVE argues: “Let them be created – they will perform acts of love!”

TRUTH responds: “Let them not be created – they will all be liars!”

JUSTICE says: “Let them be created – they will fight for justice!”

PEACE shouts: “Let them not be created – they will only make war!”

God, irritated, thrusts the Angel of Truth to earth, creating a 2 to 1 majority in favor of humanity (a technique, incidentally, that would pass for democracy in some parts of the world…). And so Adam is created. “Now stop fighting!” the Holy One shouts. “The matter is resolved” (Midrash Rabbah 8:5).

Have human beings made the world better or worse? The rabbi seated to my left says that, sadly, we are worse now than a century ago. He speaks of the atrocities – millions dead to war, hatred, fascism, now religious extremism and terror. The only thing the past century brought was better technology to weaponize our hatred and kill more efficiently and effectively than in years past.

And he’s right. The 20th century was unforgiving: world wars and genocides and famines that took hundreds of millions of lives. Oppression, repression, suppression. Outbreaks, epidemics, pandemics. Terrorism, violent crackdowns, exploitation, enslavement. These have been dark times, to be sure.  

The rabbi to my right takes the opposite approach. He is clearly enamored by the advances of the past century. He lauds our new understandings of the body, our unprecedented ability to treat illnesses – so much so that some deadly diseases, like smallpox, have even been effectively eradicated.

And he’s right too. The 20th century saw outstanding advances in science, medicine and technology, breakthroughs in biology, chemistry, physiology and pharmacology. Think of the accelerated rate of progress: how quickly – in the scheme of things – we moved from cars to electric cars to driverless cars, from planes to commercial space travel, from radio to TV to color TV Ultra HD. From Texas Instruments and Atari to universal wifi and little devices on our beings at all time – including watches some of you are wearing now that tell you when to walk around the room to keep the blood flowing and deliver email to your wrist. God forbid we should leave the smartphone at home one day we wouldn’t be smart enough to know where to go, how to get there, who we’re meeting or why we’re even going. The other day I got into the car late for a meeting, put the address in Waze and just started to drive, while toggling between two work calls. It occurred to me at some point that I was driving further north than I thought I needed to go, but, as we say in our family, “In Waze We Trust.” Twenty minutes later I ended up miles from my destination and now really late. It seems I neglected to put in the SOUTH part of the address before the street name. Telling my kids the story that night, I explained that we used to have a street map library in our house growing up (the NJ equivalent of the Thomas Guide), and whenever we went on the road we’d lay out the map and plot our route. They laughed and laughed – as if I was explaining that we used to make fire from rubbing sticks together.

So are we better or worse off than we were one hundred years ago?

This rabbi is right, and this rabbi is right. And I sit right in the middle.

            I see the progress. And I see the pain.

            I see expansive potential, and I see a dangerous narrowing of the heart.

I see the enormity of the tragedies unfolding even as we speak, and I see that we wake up to them only to quickly lull ourselves back to sleep.

In the past century we have figured out how to tap into vast sources of energy with flick of a switch. We are 3D printing prosthetics – bioengineers are working now on kidneys and livers. We have figured out how to safely perform full face transplants: jaws, teeth, and tongue.

But we have not yet figured out how to deal with the legacy of slavery and this country’s original sin – racism. How to address the fact that African American community still suffers from economic inequality, lack of opportunity, stigmatization and isolation, that African Americans make up 15% of the general population but nearly 60% of the prison population, and that there still exist in this country, in 2015, extremists intoxicated by a racialized ideology, hell bent on starting a race war and willing to spill the blood of parishioners in a church Bible study to prove it.

Did you hear? Just last week scientists discovered a galaxy 13.3 billion years old. Forty-six years after we landed on the moon, we’re now preparing to establish a base on Mars!

And yet we render ourselves completely powerless – fresh out of ideas – as to how to protect children in our classrooms and malls and theaters from disturbed young men armed with weapons of war.

Tell me – how is it possible that we have discovered ice volcanos and geysers on Pluto and brought species back from the brink of extinction…

But we can’t muster the collective will to care for the world’s most vulnerable: refugee children, leaving them no choice but to venture into a raging sea on broken inflatable rafts?

Astonishingly, our abundant resources, ever-increasing competence and immense capacity have done little to improve our overall lot as a human community. Our exceptional achievements in science and technology in some ways only make our moral failures more damning. Now it’s undeniable: we can do almost anything, and yet we so easily throw up our hands when it comes to human tragedy, as though we can do nothing at all.

We have the ability. What we lack is the will.

We are the most powerful people alive, convinced of our powerlessness.

When it comes to human suffering, we’d rather roll over and hit snooze.

That is the definition of a MORAL CRISIS.

Rosh Hashanah bursts into our September with a vengeance this year. Sleeping soundly while the world burns – or drowns – is simply not an option.

Remember the Israelites, standing at the edge of the Sea. Five days have passed since they left enslavement in Egypt. Five days, and already Pharaoh’s troops are bearing down on them – determined to bring them back as slaves or lead them to the slaughter. The people panic. They cry out to God and to Moses: Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the Wilderness? (Ex 14:11-14)

What does Moses do? He prays and prays. And then prays more. Nothing happens. Until finally the Holy One gives him some hard love: Ma titzak elai? Why are you crying out to me? My children are on the verge of drowning in the sea. There is a time to be longwinded, exceedingly deliberative, slow to action – and there is a time to get to the point. There is only one thing to do right now, Moses: speak to the Children of Israel and tell them to start walking. (Shemot Rabbah 21:8)

Ma titzak elai? Don’t just cry there… do something!

Empathy is a critical first step. But it must be paired with moral action for it to make a damn bit of difference to the children at the other end of the barrel, or those holding on for dear life to a raft that has no business crossing the rough sea. Or to the parents who fear that their children won’t make it home from school alive.

The purely righteous people do not complain about evil; they add justice.

They do not complain about heresy; they add faith.

They do not complain about ignorance; they add wisdom. (Rav Kook, Arpelei Tohar, p 39)

The only thing to do is to start walking. Fight the inevitable backpedal. Mobilize now – before there is another beautiful dead child all over our FB feed.

In 1967 at an interfaith conference in Washington, DC protesting the War in Vietnam, Abraham Joshua Heschel told a story about his first encounter – as a seven year old – with the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, which we’ll read tomorrow morning. He is sitting in class, reading the story from the Book of Genesis. When the moment comes that Abraham holds the knife over his son’s throat, Heschel begins to weep. By the time the angel cries out: Abraham, Abraham, lay not your hand on the child! Heschel is sobbing uncontrollably, overcome with terror. 'Why are you crying?' the Rabbi asks him. 'You know that Isaac was not killed!' ‘But rabbi,’ he says, ‘supposing the angel had come a second too late?’ The Rabbi comforts him, explaining that an angel cannot come late. “My friends,” Heschel concludes decades later, “an angel cannot be late. But we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late.”

Across the world, one little boy has stopped time. One precious child of God, who showed us all so vividly the brutality of war and our own silent complicity. We all remember – it was just last week. But his image is already starting to fade. We’re already late. The question is: will we do something now or will we doze off once again?

The answer to the crisis in Syria is not resettlement of every person in the country – it is an end to war. That, clearly, is not something you or I – with all the best intentions – could make happen. But as long as there remains a political crisis, there will be an equally devastating humanitarian crisis. And rather than sit ensnared in rage and despair, awaiting the inevitable return to apathy, it’s time for those of us who heed the call of the shofar, who are awake today, to start the new year by stepping up and doing something.

I am asking today that we honor of the memory of Aylan Kurdi by taking a few tangible steps in response to this crisis.

First, HIAS – Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – is leading an advocacy effort to get the US to raise its refugee quota, given the urgency and immediacy of the moment. We can and should support this effort by signing their petition as soon as yontif ends.

Second, Germany – as you know – has brought in 800,000 refugees. I reached out to Rabbi Gisa Ederberg in Berlin to see how we can help. There is a Catholic Hospital just behind the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue. A few months ago, they finished building a new wing to the hospital and decided to dedicate it to use as a refugee shelter. A critical side note: this hospital is located just next to the Jewish Home for the Elderly. Under the Nazis, that very same Jewish Home for the Elderly was a collection point for deportation to the camps. During one round up, some Jews managed to escape from the building and the nuns at the Catholic Hospital next door took them in, wrapped them in bandages and put them in beds, simulating an intensive care unit. It saved their lives. Today, the Jewish community is working in that same Catholic hospital to bring hope and healing to Muslim and Christian refugees. They need our partnership and support – we can make contributions to Masorti Olami, earmarked for this relief project.

Finally, there is a growing interfaith interest in organizing a kindertransport for Syrian children who have been orphaned by war, who may be able to enter the United States with fewer security barriers than adults. We’ll need strong leadership from community members to work on assessing the feasibility of this path. IKAR can play a significant leadership role in this effort.

Each year we ask every person in our community, during these days of contemplation and reflection, to make a spiritual pledge – a commitment to turn our best intentions into meaningful action. This year, I’m asking us to act, rather than fall back asleep. Take out your pledge card and grab a sticker. Make a commitment to participate in one or more of our Minyan Tzedek paths: either Feeing Our Neighbors – direct action in response to hunger and homelessness in Los Angeles, or Green Action – our environmental justice and sustainability group, or the Organizing Path – which is focused this year on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform, or Global Partnership – which will now include not only our work in Katira, Uganda, but will also be the home address for our refugee response.

“I do not want future generations to spit on our graves,” Heschel said in 1964, “saying: ‘Here lies a community which living in comfort and prosperity, kept silent while millions of their brothers [and sisters] were exposed to spiritual extermination” (Heschel, A Declaration of Conscience, 1964) 

Uru y’shenim – Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep! Wakefulness does not demand of us asceticism or self-abnegation. There’s time for family dinners and theater and even football games. And private vs. charter is no small matter. And yes, there are people in our own community and our own homes who desperately need our love and attention and resources too. There is room in our hearts to hold all of this.

We’re wide awake now. A sweet boy in a red t-shirt woke us up. Together, let’s turn our best intentions now into moral action.

Please stand and pray with me.

El Rahum v’Hanun – God of Mercy and Love-

This year, help us remain awake.

Help us remember that while we come together during these holy days to pray and learn, dance and cry, You have called us to turn our holy tears into action.

Help us dedicate our vast expertise, experience and resources, our brilliance, creativity and exceptional privilege into not only life-saving advances in medicine, technology and science – but also into life-saving advances in human dignity.

Help us find our power this year, God, and help us use it to bring justice, light, hope and peace to all of Your children.

Shanah Tovah.

Jewish woman who helped Kurds fight ISIS returns to Israel


A Canadian-Israeli who was the first foreign woman to help the Kurds in their fight against Islamic State has left the front lines and returned to Israel, saying she was worried about Iranian involvement in the war zone.

After eight months in which she was often incommunicado, stirring rumors that she had fallen captive, Israeli media feted Gill Rosenberg's sudden return on Sunday. But she may still face a legal reckoning for her unauthorized travels.

The 31-year-old former Israeli army volunteer said the lessons of the Holocaust drove her to help protect the Kurds and other Middle East minorities menaced by Islamic State.

“I think we as Jews, we say 'never again' for the Shoah, and I take it to mean not just for Jewish people, but for anyone, for any human being, especially a helpless woman or child in Syria or Iraq,” Rosenberg told Israel's Army Radio on Monday.

She said that during her time with Kurdish YPG guerrillas in Syria and later with the Dwekh Nawsha, a Christian militia in Iraq, she took part in “some pretty major firefights” with Islamic State insurgents holding lines just 1 mile away.

“But in the past few weeks I think a lot of the dynamics have changed there, in terms of what's going on in the war. The Iranian involvement is a lot more pronounced. Things changed enough that I felt that it was time to come home.”

TRAVEL BAR

Kurdish sources confirmed her service with YPG to a Reuters correspondent who also met Rosenberg at a Dwekh Nawsha base. Pictures she shared over Facebook showed her holding a rifle at a lookout position and, in full battle gear, guarding prisoners.

“She is a trained fighter with capabilities. She was not afraid,” Dwekh Nawsha spokesman Albert Kisso said on Monday.

Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia have led much of the fighting against Islamic State in Iraq over the last year, and Tehran also backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has lost large parts of eastern Syria to Islamic State control.

Israel bars its citizens from traveling to Iraq and Syria, with which it is technically at war, as it is with Iran.

The Israeli internal security agency Shin Bet said it questioned Rosenberg after she landed in Tel Aviv. It did not elaborate on whether she would face criminal charges, but an Israeli justice official told Reuters it appeared unlikely.

Rosenberg's native Canada, from which she emigrated alone to Israel, had also urged her to get out of Syria. The Canadian embassy in Israel did not immediately comment on her return.

U.S. authorities could pose more of a challenge, however.

In 2009, Rosenberg was arrested in Israel over an international phone scam and extradited to the United States, where she served time in prison. Yahel Ben-Oved, one of her lawyers, said Rosenberg won early release in 2013 on condition that she remain paroled either on U.S. or Israeli soil.

“I believe she may have violated this by going to Syria,” Ben-Oved told Reuters. “This could be a problem for her.”

U.S. officials said they were looking into the case.

Rosenberg declined a Reuters request for an interview, saying she would speak to foreign media later in the week.

Islamic State in Syria abducts at least 150 Christians


Islamic State militants have abducted at least 150 people from Assyrian Christian villages in northeastern Syria they had raided, Christian Syrian activists said on Tuesday.

A Syrian Christian group representing several NGO's inside and outside the country said it had verified at least 150 people missing, including women and elderly, who had been kidnapped by the militants.

“We have verified at least 150 people who have been adducted from sources on the ground,” Bassam Ishak, President of the Syriac National Council of Syria, whose family itself is from Hasaka, told Reuters from Amman.

Earlier the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 90 were abducted when the militants carried out dawn raids on rural villages inhabited by the ancient Christian minority west of Hasaka, a city mainly held by the Kurds.

Syrian Kurdish militia launched two offensives against the militants in northeast Syria on Sunday, helped by U.S.-led air strikes and Iraqi peshmerga.

This part of Syria borders territory controlled by Islamic State in Iraq, where it committed atrocities last year against the Yazidi religious minority.

Islamic State did not confirm the kidnappings. Supporters posted photos online of the group's fighters in camouflage attire looking at maps and firing machine guns. The website said the photos were from Tel Tamr, a town near where the Observatory said the abductions occurred.

Many Assyrian Christians have emigrated in the nearly four-year-long conflict in which more than 200,000 have people have been killed. Before the arrival of Kurds and Arab nomadic tribes at the end of the 19th century, Christians formed the majority in Syria's Jazeera area, which includes Hasaka.

Sunday's offensive by Kurdish YPG militia reached within five km (3 miles) of Tel Hamis, an Islamic State-controlled town southeast of Qamishli, the Observatory said.

At least 14 IS fighters died in the offensive, in which Assyrians fought alongside Kurds, it added. Eight civilians were also killed in heavy shelling by the Kurdish side, which seized several Arab villages from Islamic State control.

Last year, Islamic State fighters abducted several Assyrians in retaliation for some of them fighting alongside the YPG. Most were released after long negotiations.

RELIEVING PRESSURE

Military experts said militants were trying to open a new front to relieve pressure on Islamic State after several losses since being driven from the Syrian town of Kobani near the border with Turkey.

“Islamic State are losing in several areas so they want to wage an attack on a new area,” said retired Jordanian general Fayez Dwiri.

Since driving IS from Kobani, Kurdish forces, backed by other Syrian armed groups, have pursued the group's fighters as far as their provincial stronghold of Raqqa.

A resident of Hasaka, jointly held by the Syrian government and the Kurds, said hundreds of families had arrived in recent days from surrounding Christian villages and Arab Bedouins were arriving from areas along the border.

“Families are coming to Hasaka seeking safety,” said Abdul Rahman al-Numai, a textile trader said by telephone.

Israeli minister urges West to give more arms to Kurds, Jordan


Western states should provide more weapons to Jordan, Egypt, Kurdish forces and certain opposition forces in Syria, Israel's Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said on the sidelines of the Munich Security conference on Friday.

Israeli officials had previously stopped short of making such explicit calls, citing concern that such groups would face added hostility by being publicly associated with Israel.

Kurdish regional forces are battling Islamic State militants on Syrian and Iraqi territory where IS has submitted whole towns to strict Islamic rule. Egypt is trying to defeat jihadists operating in the Sinai Peninsula, bordering Israel.

When asked what the Western-led alliance conducting air strikes against IS strongholds could do better, Steinitz said:

“More support with weapons and also financial support to more moderate groups, Islamic forces, like for example the Kurds, like the Free Syrian Army and like moderate Arab states, like Jordan, like Egypt.”

The Free Syrian Army is an array of mainly Western-backed armed opposition groups that have little or no central coordination in fighting President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war that began with peaceful anti-government protests in 2011.

Thousands rallied in Jordan on Friday three days after Islamic State released a video purporting to show a Jordanian fighter pilot being burned alive in a cage as masked militants in camouflage uniforms looked on.

Many Jordanians have opposed their country's involvement in U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State, fearing retaliation. But the killing of the recently married pilot, who was from an influential Jordanian tribe, has increased support for the military push.

Yuval said he saw no immediate threat to Jordan's sovereignty from Islamic State: “If there will be such a threat, I believe the world and even if necessary Israel will interfere,” he said.

Foreigners fighting Islamic State in Syria: who and why?


While illegally crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border, Canadian Peter Douglas was adamant that his incursion was for humanitarian reasons – to help the people of Syria.

Douglas is one of a growing band of foreigners to dodge authorities and join the fight against Islamic State militants who have killed thousands and taken vast parts of Iraq and Syria, declaring a caliphate in territory under their control.

Many of these fighters argue they are there for humanitarian reasons but they say their decision to take up arms to fight for the Syrian people will not be viewed as such by some.

“I want to fight the Islamic State, although it might be the last thing I do,” said Douglas, 66, from Vancouver, as he prepared to board a boat crossing a remote stretch of the Tigris River .

“I know I have 10 years to live before I will start develop dementia or have a stroke so I wanted to do something good,” he added, although he acknowledged that taking up arms was new on the list of jobs and occupations he has previously pursued.

So far an estimated few dozen Westerners have joined Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State in northern Syria, including Americans, Canadians, Germans, and Britons.

The Syrian Kurdish armed faction known as the YPG has not released official numbers confirming foreign or “freedom fighters” and academics say it's hard to assess the total.

But the number pales compared to an estimated 16,000 fighters from about 90 countries to join Islamic State since 2012, according to the U.S. Department of State figures.

The United Nations has warned extremists groups in Syria and Iraq are recruiting foreigners on an “unprecedented scale” and with a commitment to jihad who could “form the core of a new diaspora” and be a threat for years to come.

FIGHTING FOR A CAUSE?

Western governments are closely monitoring foreign fighters but law enforcement agencies are acting differently towards those joining Islamic State or those linking up with the Kurdish resistance whose motivations are far more diverse.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has made it clear there is a fundamental difference between fighting for the Kurds and Islamic State. British law stipulates fighting in a foreign war is not automatically an offense and depends on circumstances.

Two British military veterans, Jamie Read and James Hughes, returned to England last month after several months with the YPG, saying they were fighting for “humanitarian purposes”, and no action has been taken against them on their return.

They signed up outraged by a series of chilling videos showing the murders of two U.S. journalists, a U.S. aid worker, and two British aid workers and by the plight of millions of Syrians caught between Islamic State and government forces.

British-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, estimates in six months the radical Sunni group has killed about 1,878 people in Syria off the battlefield, mostly civilians.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war, which started when President Bashar al-Assad's forces cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.

“We went there to help innocent people and to document the YPG struggle against ISIS,” Hughes, 26, who spent five years in the British army, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We had a warm welcome home. Everybody thought we were heroes. They were proud of us. I also received hundreds of messages of people wanting to join the YPG,” he said, adding he planned to return to Syria in coming months.

Still many foreign YPG fighters are concerned about legal repercussions when they return home so seek to stay anonymous.

“We might get in trouble with our governments,” said one U.S. veteran who ensured all his financial and legal affairs were in order before heading to Rojava, the area controlled by the YPG in Syria.

Many are concerned how the media portrays them at home and wanted to clarify they are volunteers, not mercenaries. They say they are not paid but are there as they believe in the cause.

Many have some military experience and have signed up to the battle through contacts on Facebook.

Lorenzo Vidino, an analyst at the Institute for the International Political Studies in Italy, said foreign fighters might argue they are joining the battle against Islamic State for the good but they were not effective militarily.

“Westerners joining the YPG are a very small phenomenon especially if compared to Islamic State. The IS recruitment machine works better and you can see evidence of that in terms of numbers,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

U.S. fighter Dean Parker, 49, joined after watching video footage of the blitz on Sinjar in northwest Iraq in August when Islamic State militants killed or captured thousands of minority Yazidis.

“I saw the fear and terror on this child eyes who was looking directly at me through the camera … I never been moved by anything like that in my life,” he said in an email exchange, one of several foreign fighters from Syria interviewed on location, by email or by phone in November and December.

Canadian-Israeli woman Gill Rosenberg, 31, from Tel Aviv, said in a recent interview with Israel Radio that she decided to join the YPG for humanitarian and ideological reasons.

But not all foreign fighters are motivated by the same cause.

Jordan Matson, 28, a U.S. army veteran from Winconsin who joined the YPG about four months ago, said he joined because he was running away from a “civilian” life he didn't really like.

“Here, instead, everything makes sense,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a YPG base near to Derik, a town in Syria's northeastern Kurdish region.

U.S. reports more air strikes against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq


U.S. aircraft carried out six strikes against Islamic State militants near the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani on Thursday and Friday, the U.S. military's Central Command said.

It also said U.S. and allied forces had launched 12 air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, including near Mosul Dam, near the Baiji oil refinery and near Falluja, since Thursday.

Reporting by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Jim Loney

Why Israel loses no sleep over Islamic State


At first sight, it seems that Israel is just as preoccupied with the rise of Islamic State as anyone else. Israeli media report diligently on the extremist group's assault on the Kurdish town of Kobani and run at least a story every few days on its atrocities. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu references Islamic State frequently, as do other Israeli ministers. And the stories of two Palestinian citizens of Israel who died fighting for the group have been recently featured in the press.

Still, Israel remains the least concerned and least directly threatened country in a region increasingly rocked by Islamic State's advance. It certainly does not see the group as an external threat. Shocking though the events in Syria and Iraq are, Israel is far beyond the range of even the most sophisticated of Islamic State's weapons. The group's immediate territorial interests do not extend to anywhere near Israeli borders, and its support in areas adjacent to Israel is still negligible. What's more, unlike many militant groups and states in the region, Islamic State has declared itself emphatically disinterested in intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, preferring instead to draw its support from Sunni revanchism and introducing a semblance of order into war-torn regions of Iraq.

Islamic State also does not yet pose an internal threat to Israel. Unlike most countries bordering Syria, Israel has not been politically or demographically unsettled by the civil war there. The diversified systems of control employed by Israel – some liberal democracy and some military rule – have cemented differences among the country's constituencies disgruntled with the Israeli government. The divisions have precluded the emergence of a broad uprising similar to those that constituted the Arab Spring. The relatively short, highly militarized border between Israel and Syria has prevented the influx of refugees into Israel, as well as any significant spread of the fighting.

In the absence of incentives to change policy, Israel remains determined to display an official disinterest in Iraq and a staunch neutrality toward Syria. Although the government has often expressed sympathy for victims of the Syrian civil war and offered some of them medical treatment, and has on one or two occasions hit targets in Syria, Israel has been careful to signal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that it considers him a relatively reliable neighbor and would not work actively to replace him.

It's also unlikely that Israeli leaders will come under any internal pressure to change this position. While the images of the war in Syria have prompted some Palestinians to travel abroad and take up arms against the Syrian regime, sometimes fighting alongside jihadist organizations, the numbers have been small – and their wrath, for now, directed at the Syrian regime, not at Israel. Images of Islamic State's atrocities, combined with the group's religious fanaticism, contempt for nation-states and express disinterest in the Palestinian cause have left Palestinians – largely secular, nationalist and deeply committed to building their own nation-state – more alienated than allured.

Even attempts by Israeli centrists and the U.S. to tie progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the fight against Islamic State have left Israel unmoved. Israel, the argument went, should make concessions in its talks with Palestinians to mollify Arab populations as their governments yet again throw in their lot with the Americans – and by extension, with the Israelis. This tactic rests on the idea that the only real threat that Islamic State poses to Israel, however remotely, is if it toppled any of the “moderate” Arab states, especially Jordan, by invading them or capitalizing on their local discontents, or a combination of the two.

But the Israeli government, which has no interest, political or ideological, in facilitating a two-state solution, has so far responded with a shrug. The view in Israel is that the moderate Arab regimes are sufficiently threatened by the spread of Islamic State to prioritize drawing the Americans in, warts and all. If anything triggers revolutions in these countries, it will not be the plight of the Palestinians.

The lack of direct threats notwithstanding, Israel has been able to extract some short-term gains from unfolding catastrophe. With the West again mobilizing against a radical Islamist group, Netanyahu find himself on the familiar turf of the “war on terror.” He is capitalizing on this by trying to equate Palestinian nationalism – especially the religious wing of it – with Islamic State at every conceivable opportunity (even if with little perceptible effect). Second, Israel is again making itself useful to the West as a corner of stability and pro-Western sentiment in an otherwise turbulent Middle East – and is using this to push the Palestinian issue further down the agenda.

These considerations apart, Israel sees Islamic State as something that's happening to other people – and the country will do its best to keep it so.

Turkey to let Iraqi Kurds reinforce Kobani as U.S. drops arms to defenders


Turkey said on Monday it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce fellow Kurds in the Syrian town of Kobani on Turkey's border, and the United States air-dropped arms to help the Kurds there resist an Islamic State assault.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey was facilitating the passage of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces, themselves fighting Islamic State in Iraq. He stopped short of saying whether Ankara backed the U.S. air-drop of weapons.

Turkey's refusal to intervene in the fight with Islamic State has frustrated the United States and sparked lethal riots in southeastern Turkey by Kurds furious at Ankara's failure to help Kobani or at least open a land corridor for volunteer fighters and reinforcements to go there.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington had asked Ankara to help “get the peshmerga or other groups” into Kobani so they could help defend the town, adding he hoped the Kurds would “take this fight on”. The European Union also urged Turkey on Monday to open its border to allow supplies to get through to residents of Kobani.

If the reinforcements come through, it may mark a turning point in the battle for Kobani, a town where Syrian Kurds have struggled for weeks against better-armed Islamic State fighters trying to reshape the Middle East.

Speaking in Indonesia, Kerry acknowledged Turkish concerns about support for the Kurds, and said the air drop of supplies provided by the Kurdish authorities in Iraq did not amount to a change of U.S. policy.

The battle against Islamic State, a group also known by the acronym ISIL that has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq, was an overriding consideration, Kerry indicated.

“We understand fully the fundamentals of (Ankara's) opposition and ours to any kind of terrorist group, and particularly, obviously, the challenges they face with respect to the PKK,” he told reporters.

But he added: “We cannot take our eye off the prize here. It would be irresponsible of us, as well as morally very difficult, to turn your back on a community fighting ISIL.”

Ankara views the Syrian Kurds with deep suspicion because of their ties to the PKK, a group that waged a decades-long militant campaign for Kurdish rights in Turkey and which Washington regards as a terrorist organization.

'A CRISIS MOMENT'

Kerry said both he and President Barack Obama had spoken to Turkish authorities before the air drops “to make it very, very clear this is not a shift of policy by the United States”.

“It is a crisis moment, an emergency where we clearly do not want to see Kobani become a horrible example of the unwillingness of people to be able to help those who are fighting ISIL,” he added.

Iraqi Kurdish official Hemin Hawrami wrote on his Twitter feed that 21 tonnes of weapons and ammunition supplied by the Iraqi Kurds had been dropped in the small hours of Monday.

U.S. Central Command said U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft had dropped weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to allow the Kurdish fighters to keep up their resistance in the town, which is called Kobani in Kurdish and Ayn al-Arab in Arabic.

The U.S. military said on Monday that among the six U.S. military air strikes conducted against Islamic State militants near Kobani on Sunday and Monday was one that destroyed a stray bundle of supplies from a U.S. air drop in order to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.

The main Syrian Kurdish armed group, the YPG, said it had received “a large quantity” of ammunition and weapons.

A 'POSITIVE IMPACT'

Redur Xelil, a YPG spokesman, said the arms dropped would have a “positive impact” on the battle and the morale of fighters. But he added: “Certainly it will not be enough to decide the battle.”

“We do not think the battle of Kobani will end that quickly. The forces of (Islamic State) are still heavily present and determined to occupy Kobani. In addition, there is resolve (from the YPG) to repel this attack,” he told Reuters in an interview conducted via Skype.

Welat Omer, one of five doctors in Kobani, told Reuters by telephone that he and his colleagues had received medicine and were distributing it to patients. That included drugs for children and the elderly and materials for operations.

“This medicine will only be enough for five days. We want them to send more, because we have many patients,” he said.

The United States began carrying out air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq in August and about a month later started bombing the militant group in neighboring Syria.

But the resupply of Kurdish fighters points to the growing coordination between the U.S. military and a Syrian Kurdish group that had been kept at arm's length by the West due partly to the concerns of NATO member Turkey.

The Turkish presidency said Obama and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had discussed Syria, including measures that could be taken to stop Islamic State's advances, and Kobani.

The spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) peshmerga fighters said the Iraqi Kurdish region was ready to send backup forces to Kobani and planning was under way.

“There are efforts and we are prepared to send some backup forces either by land or air,” said KRG peshmerga ministry spokesman Jabar Yawar. He said the forces were not en route.

But one Kurdish official in Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed doubt any fighters would be deployed to Kobani as they battle Islamic State at home.

Washington has pressed Ankara to let it use bases in Turkey to stage air strikes, and a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said the country's airspace had not been used during the drops on Kobani.

Kobani is one of three areas near the border with Turkey where Syrian Kurds have established their own government since the country descended into civil war in 2011.

Reporting by Mohammad Zargham, Arshad Mohammed and Warren Strobel in Washington, Tom Perry in Beirut, Seda Sezer in Turkey, David Brunnstrom in Indonesia and Dasha Afanasieva in Suruc, Turkey, Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir, Isabel Coles and Ned Parker in Iraq, and Adrian Croft in Luxembourg; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Anna Willard, Peter Cooney and Howard Goller

Islamic State seizes large areas of Syrian town despite air strikes


Islamic State fighters seized more than a third of the Syrian border town of Kobani, a monitoring group said on Thursday, as U.S.-led air strikes failed to halt their advance and Turkish forces nearby looked on without intervening.

With Washington ruling out a ground operation in Syria, Turkey described as unrealistic any expectation that it would conduct a cross-border operation unilaterally to relieve the mainly Kurdish town.

The U.S. military said Kurdish forces appeared to be holding out in the town that lies within sight of Turkish territory, following fresh airstrikes in the area against a militant training camp and fighters.

However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamic State, which is still widely known by its former acronym of ISIS, had pushed forward on Thursday.

“ISIS control more than a third of Kobani – all eastern areas, a small part of the northeast and an area in the southeast,” said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Observatory which monitors the Syrian civil war.

The commander of Kobani's heavily outgunned Kurdish defenders confirmed that the militants had made major gains in a three-week battle that has also led to the worst streets clashes in years between police and Kurdish protesters across the frontier in southeast Turkey.

Militia chief Esmat al-Sheikh put the area controlled by Islamic State, which has already seized large amounts of territory in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, at about a quarter of the town. “The clashes are ongoing – street battles,” he told Reuters by telephone from the town.

Explosions rocked the town throughout Thursday, with black smoke visible from the Turkish border a few kilometers (miles) away. Islamic State hoisted its black flag in Kobani overnight and a stray projectile landed 3 km (2 miles) inside Turkey.

The United Nations says only a few hundred inhabitants remain in Kobani but the town's defenders say the battle will end in a massacre if Islamic State prevails, giving it a strategic garrison on the Turkish border.

They complain that the United States is giving only token support through the air strikes, while Turkish tanks sent to the frontier are looking on but doing nothing to defend the town.

However, the U.S. Central Command said it conducted five air strikes near Kobani on Wednesday and Thursday, and that the Kurdish fighters in the area appeared to “control most of the city and are holding out against” the militants.

The strikes had damaged an Islamic State training camp and destroyed one of its support buildings as well as two vehicles, CENTCOM said in a statement. They also hit one small unit and one large unit of militant fighters.

UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

Despite Kurdish appeals for help, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu played down the likelihood of its forces going to the aid of Kobani.

“It is not realistic to expect Turkey to conduct a ground operation on its own,” he told a joint news conference with visiting NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg. However, he added: “We are holding talks…. Once there is a common decision, Turkey will not hold back from playing its part.”

Ankara resents any suggestion from Washington that it is not pulling its weight, but wants broader joint action that also targets the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “We strongly reject allegations of Turkish responsibility for the ISIS advance,” said a senior Ankara government source.

“Our allies, especially the U.S. administration, dragged their feet for a very long time before deciding to take action against the catastrophic events happening in Syria,” he added.

Turkey has long advocated action against Assad during the civil war, which grew out of a popular uprising in 2011. However, the United States called off air strikes on Damascus government forces at the last minute last year when Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons.

Retired U.S. General John Allen, tasked by President Barack Obama to oversee the creation and work of the anti-Islamic State coalition, was in Ankara on Thursday and Friday for talks with the Turkish leadership.

President Tayyip Erdogan says he wants the U.S.-led alliance to enforce a “no-fly zone” to prevent Assad's air force flying over Syrian territory near the Turkish border and create a safe area for an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to return.

But Stoltenberg said that establishing a no-fly zone or a safe zone inside Syria has not been discussed by NATO.

TURKISH CLASHES

At least 21 people died in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey on Wednesday during clashes between security forces and Kurds demanding that the government do more to help Kobani. There were also clashes in Istanbul and Ankara.

The fallout from the war in Syria and Iraq has threatened to unravel Turkey's peace process with its Kurdish community. Ankara has long been suspicious of any Kurdish assertiveness as it tries to end its own 30-year war with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Following Wednesday's violence in Turkey, streets have been calmer since curfews were imposed in five southeastern provinces, restrictions unseen since the 1990s when PKK forces were fighting the Turkish military in the southeast.

Erdogan said that protesters had exploited the events in Kobani as an excuse to sabotage the peace process. “Carrying out violent acts in Turkey by hiding behind the terror attacks on Kobani shows that the real intention and target is entirely different,” he said in a statement.

Selahattin Demirtas, the head of Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) which called on Turkish Kurds to take to the streets earlier this week, rejected accusations that this call had provoked the violence. Appealing for calm, he also said jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan had called for talks with the government to be stepped up.

Kurdish leaders in Syria have asked Ankara to help establish a corridor which will allow aid and possibly arms and fighters to cross the border and reach Kobani, but Ankara has so far been reluctant to respond positively.

Syrian Kurds annoyed Ankara last year by setting up an interim administration in the northeast after Assad lost control of the region. Turkey wants Kurdish leaders to abandon their self-declared autonomy and has also been unhappy with their reluctance to join the wider opposition to Assad.

On the Turkish side of the frontier near Kobani, 21-year-old student Ferdi from the eastern Turkish province of Tunceli said if Kobani fell, the conflict would spread to Turkey. “In fact it already has spread here,” he said, standing with a group of several dozen people in fields watching the smoke rising from west Kobani.

Turkish police fired tear gas against protesters in the town of Suruç near the border overnight. A petrol bomb set fire to a house and the shutters on most shops in the town were kept shut in a traditional form of protest against state authorities.

Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul and Orhan Coskun, Tulay Karadeniz and Jonny Hogg in Ankara; Editing by David Stamp

Islamic State fighters advance into Syrian border town of Kobani


Islamic State fighters pushed into two districts of the strategically important Syrian border town of Kobani in fierce fighting late on Wednesday, Kurdish officials among the town's defenders said.

“Tonight (Islamic State) has entered two districts with heavy weapons, including tanks. Civilians may have died because there are very intense clashes,” Asya Abdullah, co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Syrian Kurdish group defending the area, told Reuters from the town.

Another PYD official said that despite continuing U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on Wednesday evening Islamic State fighters had seized some buildings on the eastern edges of the town.

The militants were being held in the suburbs by fierce resistance from Kurdish forces defending the town, which has been under assault for more than three weeks, the official added.

Reporting by Daren Butler and Jonny Hogg; Editing by Peter Graff

American fighter joins Kurds in battle against Islamic State


After months in which the United States and European countries issued warnings about their citizens traveling to Syria fight on behalf of Islamic State, there are new reports of Westerners going to fight on the other side, against the militants.

A man who said he is a U.S. citizen and former soldier from Ohio said in a video interview inside Syria that he had come to join Kurdish fighters to battle Islamic State.

Other Americans were also fighting there on behalf of a Syrian Kurdish group, said the man, who identified himself as Brian Wilson and spoke to a freelance photographer working for Reuters in Syria.

“Most people in America are against Daesh of course, Islamic State,” Wilson said, sitting with four Kurdish fighters and dressed in green camouflage clothes in the northeast Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishli. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

“There are a few Americans who wanted to come here and help the YPG in any way we can,” he said, referring to the main Kurdish group fighting against Islamist militants in Syria.

Wilson is the second American known to have joined the YPG forces. Jordan Matson, a 28-year-old from Wisconsin, is also fighting with the YPG, a spokesman for the armed group said last week. He has given an interview to a Kurdish TV station.

Islamic State tightened its siege of the YPG-held Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani on Tuesday despite U.S.-led air strikes meant to weaken the group. The fighting has sent more than 180,000 refugees into Turkey since last month.

The United States has been striking Islamic State targets in Iraq since August and extended the campaign to Syria in September.

Washington is supplying weapons to Kurdish fighters in Iraq to help them battle Islamic State, but does not have an official policy of helping Kurdish groups in Syria.

Wilson, who looked middle aged and had his head shaved, said he met YPG fighters through “Kurdish contacts”. He said he had not yet engaged in combat.

“Everything has been fine. They're very nice, very accommodating, hospitable. Very good people,” he said of his hosts.

Western countries say scores of their citizens have traveled to Syria to fight on behalf of Islamic State, a phenomenon hammered home in videos showing the beheadings of hostages apparently by a fighter with a British accent.

Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Peter Graff

How Islamic State became ‘the best-funded terrorist group in history’


After months of rampaging through Iraq and stoking international fears that the Islamic State terrorist group could spread, a combination of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, aided by targeted United States airstrikes, appear to have pushed back the self-proclaimed caliphate’s rampage in the region.

Yet Islamic State’s potential reach and brutal tactics continue to worry lawmakers and analysts. The terrorist group, experts say, has managed to brilliantly leverage its acquisitions—including land grabs, hostages, and oil—in a style that is part mafia tactics, part bureaucratic wile. So far, the group continues to be well-armed, flush with cash, and in possession of American and European captives.

Even with the U.S. Senate in recess, Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sent a joint letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Aug. 26, calling for the Obama administration to target all aspects of Islamic State’s operational funding and to have the Treasury Department classify the group as a Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO).

“[Islamic State’s] criminal activities—robbery, extortion, and trafficking—have helped the organization become the best-funded terrorist group in history,” the senators wrote. “This wealth has helped expand their operational capacity and incentivized both local and foreign fighters to join them.”

Islamic State is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Islamic State’s extreme viciousness led al-Qaeda to cut ties with it. According to Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), most of al-Qaeda’s deep-pocketed, Gulf-based terrorism financiers remained with the parent organization, forcing Islamic State to adopt unorthodox fundraising methods.

At first glance, the senators’ request that the Obama administration cut off Islamic State funding sources looked to some like political posturing. Islamic State, after all, was classified by the State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2004 and its assets within America’s control were frozen. That designation further established sanctions for cooperating economically with the terror group. With the U.S. in open conflict with Islamic State, is there really more to be done to choke off Islamic State’s cash flow?

“I think there are [additional] things we can do to try and cut off the funding; it’s really hard,” said Austin Long, assistant professor in security policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “Even when there were 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq at the height of the surge, we couldn’t cut off all the funding to al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State.”

When a group is designated a TCO, its operations are restricted, as outlined in Executive Order 13581, which prevents members of TCO-designated organizations, and those aiding and abetting them, from transferring, paying, exporting or withdrawing assets in the U.S. “or in an overseas branch of a U.S. entity”—essentially the same barriers currently facing Islamic State.

Some of the groups presently listed as TCOs include: The Brothers’ Circle (Eurasia), Camorra (Italy), Yakuza (Japan), Los Zetas (Mexico), Yamaguchi-Gumi (Japan), and Mara Salvatrucha (El Salvador).

Sens. Casey and Rubio are part of a larger group of lawmakers pushing to include the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah under the TCO classification through the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act. The bill was passed unanimously by the House in July and is currently awaiting approval from the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at FDD and a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Treasury Department, said that the TCO designation would allow for a broader scope to investigate and cut off Islamic State’s funding sources.

“It allows the intelligence community to work with a broader array of actors to counter [Islamic State], and it allows for the FBI to have a greater role as well,” said Schanzer. “It basically widens the ability of the United States government to act on multiple levels with multiple players—inside and outside the United States. If it’s considered a criminal organization, the FBI can look into whatever assets may be here. So, in other words, it becomes a warfare issue as well as a criminal one.”

Operating like an organized-crime family, Islamic State has surprised—and even, in a dark sense, impressed—the international community with its numerous, creative methods to fund itself.

“The common assumption has been for a long time, and I don’t know where it comes from, but there are a lot of people who have surmised that Islamic State’s funding comes from various Gulf individuals or a number of different Gulf governments including Qatar and Kuwait,” said Lee Smith, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “This is not true. There has been some money in the past but this is not the main source of Islamic State’s funding. The main source of funding comes from the fact that Islamic State sells oil on the black market. That’s the number-one source of income. The number-two source of Islamic State’s income is its extortion rackets in towns it runs —and it runs a few, including Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, which are both fairly large Arab cities.”

Islamic State’s most profitable venture is the selling of oil that is produced in areas under the group’s control. Two of its biggest oil wells are located in a region it occupies in northern Syria—the cities of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa. Upon occupying an oil field or oil-producing city, the group makes the local populace an offer it can’t refuse, said Columbia’s Long.

“That’s what they try to do. People don’t always cooperate, but in general, if somebody says, ‘We’re going to keep paying your salary, just keep showing up for work’ and the alternative might be something bad happens to you, then you can either keep showing up for work or you can become a refugee, and I think a decent number of people don’t want to become refugees understandably,” Long said.

Much of the oil is then sold internally, to the Syrian and Iraqi residents of Islamic State-occupied territories.

“People have lots of cars,” said Long. “Iraq is just like every modern country, but in some sense is more dependent on it. You need trucks to move food around—without gasoline, the economy grinds to a halt.”

The rest of the oil is smuggled out and sold abroad and, surprisingly, some of the buyers include governments that are fighting Islamic State—such as Syria and Turkey.

“That’s a pretty typical feature of Arab warfare,” said Smith. “People make all sorts of deals with all sorts of different people.”

Determining who exactly is bypassing sanctions and buying oil from Islamic State sources—or even exactly how much of it is being bought—is difficult to determine. The oil is sold on the black market and transported by smugglers to refineries located mostly in Turkey.

“The oil could be going across the border in Turkey, and the Turks maybe aren’t asking too many question about who it comes from, hypothetically, because of course it won’t be necessarily somebody waving the Islamic State flag that drives the tanker truck across the border,” Long said.

Once the crude oil gets to a participating refinery, it is mixed with crude from other sources, making the final product even harder to trace. Just as difficult to track are the proceeds, mostly in cash, which make their way into the hands of middlemen, smugglers, and corrupt politicians as kickbacks.

What makes this oil attractive to even those at war with Islamic State are the vastly discounted prices offered. According to a recent estimate by BBC News, Islamic State exports about 9,000 barrels of oil per day at prices ranging from about $25-$45 a barrel—a significant discount from the current international price of around $100 per barrel. With prices so low, both Islamic State and its enemies win from the transaction.

Islamic State’s second major source of funding comes directly from the population it controls, coming in forms such as religiously mandated tithing called “zakat,” tributes from religious minorities who remain in Islamic state-controlled territory, bank robbery, and mob-style protection rackets.

“So you go to a business and you’re like, ’Oh, it would be a shame if something terrible happened to this nice business,’” Long said.

Yet another, more sinister Islamic State fundraising strategy—kidnapping Westerners—has been at the forefront of the public consciousness since the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Opponents of paying the ransoms demanded by groups like Islamic State say that doing so incentivizes those groups to continue kidnapping. Official U.S. policy is not to pay ransoms to terrorist organizations in return for hostages.

Before video of his beheading was released Tuesday, Sotloff was one of four Americans currently being held by Islamic State. Experts believe ransoms make up the smallest part of the terror group’s budget.

“There are lots of uses for [captives] and in the worst-case scenario, you can use them for propaganda,” Long said. “That’s why I think it’s not something they (Islamic State) necessarily count on, but it’s a nice bonus.”

Writer Confronts Intifada Lethargy


“I’m just so tired,” Israeli author Orly Castel-Bloom says. She’s not speaking about the effects of her recent flight into Paris, where she has come to deliver some lectures. Nor is it the interviews she has given since landing earlier in the day, although that has zapped her, too. It’s an existential exhaustion that keeps her thinking about sleep all the time these days.

Castel-Bloom, author of 10 books — the most recent of which, “Human Parts” (David R. Godine) has been translated into English — can’t get the state of affairs in her home country off her mind.

“Human Parts” chronicles the intersecting lives of ordinary, flawed Israelis trying to survive a bitterly cold winter that coincides with an increase in suicide bombings. The characters range from a Kurdish refugee washerwoman to the spoiled scion of a real estate family, but all live lives against the backdrop of terror that seems to incapacitate their ability to function fully.

The novel uses satire and absurdism to look squarely at contemporary Israeli life and society. For years, Castel-Bloom has thought about the social conditions of lower and middle-class Israelis: the prevalence of poverty, the constant need to pursue money just to scrape by. But she and her contemporaries refused to write about the political situation — the conflict with the Palestinians, the vicious fighting among Israelis about how best to deal with the situation. Now, however, it’s all she can think about.

And it’s tiring her out.

When asked how she copes, she responds quickly, “I sleep.”

Coming to Paris is a chance to close the drapes and shut out the world, even if only momentarily, although she knows that post-Sept. 11 realities will catch up with her; even here in France, where they fool themselves into thinking that they live in a dream of fraternite, protected against what has spread beyond Israel into the world.

“Israel is a laboratory. It’s a very radical situation. Look, my daughter is going to the army; she has to take two buses to get there, but she’s a new driver. So should I let her take the two buses or give her my car. She doesn’t use the side mirrors, I just found out last week, which is very dangerous…. These are the kinds of existential questions we have to ask.”

Motherhood itself, says Castel-Bloom is cruel in Israel, where children grow up with a casual knowledge of death from the first. She recently took her 12-year-old son and his friends to a disco so they could dance to the music of Fifty-Cent and Nelly. There, she overheard them debating the relative chances of getting killed in a discotheque versus a restaurant.

She can only hope that when his turn for army service comes around, he won’t end up in some of the more dangerous platoons. That, and that Israel will become a better place for her children in the future. What else is a mother to do?

Asked if there is anything that gives her joy or solace these days, Castel-Bloom cites “Seinfeld,” gardening and her work.

“It’s hard to write these days,” she says. “I try to write objectively, especially after ‘Human Parts.’ I’ve been trying to retreat from myself, but my situation is so s—-y that I retreat from writing. Still, I write, even though I write about reality. It’s the monster I can’t get rid of, but it’s still a way out of the despair.”

For all the uncertainty that has infected Israeli life, Castel-Bloom believes in the necessity of the Israeli state, not just for herself — although as a writer she requires immersion in the language and life of the country. She would understand if her children wanted to move away, to go somewhere where they wouldn’t have to worry about the relative lack of safety of riding a bus or driving a car. But she has to stay. Besides, she couldn’t leave the climate: Tel Aviv; the beach. One day, she says, she will swim in the ocean every morning with the other grandmothers.

As a second-generation Israeli, one who did not help build the country but inherited it, she never thought that she would end up having to fight for her own existence, for her country’s existence, and that the struggle would leave her, her neighbors and friends, so worn out. In the end, she thinks, exhaustion on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, may be the only way out of the current state of affairs.

“The intifada must stop immediately and peace should be achieved immediately or else I will go to sleep all day,” she says. “I can’t bear it.”


Orly Castel-Bloom will speak Thursday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. about “A Fragile Life: Terror and Satire in Contemporary Israel” at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. To R.S.V.P., visit www.zocalola.org. She will also speak about “Living and Writing in Uncertain Times” Sunday, Oct. 24, at 7:30 p.m at the UCLA Faculty Center. For more information, call (310) 825-5387.

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