U.S. says 85-90 percent of Russian strikes hit moderate Syria rebels

Eighty-five to 90 per cent of Russian strikes in Syria have hit the moderate Syrian opposition, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East told a congressional committee on Wednesday.

Russia boosted its military support for President Bashar al-Assad's fight against rebels in the four-and-a-half year Syrian civil war, beginning air strikes last month that it said would also target the Islamic State militant group.

“Moscow has cynically tried to claim that its strikes are focused on terrorists, but so far 85 to 90 percent of Syrian strikes have hit the moderate Syrian opposition,” Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson told lawmakers.

Testifying with her, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, Victoria Nuland, said Russia had also begun to deploy ground assets such as artillery to areas Assad forces have lost to the moderate opposition, including near the cities of Hama and Homs.

“Russia is fielding its own artillery and other ground assets around Hama and Homs, greatly increasing Russia's own soldiers' vulnerability to counterattack,” Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said.

Patterson also told the House hearing that President Barack Obama is considering additional ways to “intensify” the campaign against the Islamic State, which has seized swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.

“The president is looking at a number of other efforts to intensify our efforts in this battle,” she said.

The Obama administration last week announced it would send fewer than 50 special operations forces into Syria in an advise and assist capacity, weeks after Russia escalated its involvement in the conflict with its own air strikes.

Syria rebels: Chemical attack killed hundreds

Syria's opposition accused President Bashar Assad's forces of gassing many hundreds of people — by one report as many as 1,300 — on Wednesday in what would, if confirmed, be the world's worst chemical weapons attack in decades.

Western and regional countries called for U.N. chemical weapons investigators – who arrived in Damascus just three days ago – to be urgently dispatched to the scene of one of the deadliest incidents of the two-year-old civil war.

Russia, too, urged an “objective” investigation but Assad's biggest foreign ally also heaped skepticism on his enemies' claims. A foreign ministry spokesman in Moscow said the release of gas after U.N. inspectors arrived suggested that it was a rebel “provocation” to discredit Syria's government.

Images, including some by freelance photographers supplied to Reuters, showed scores of bodies including of small children, laid on the floor of a clinic with no visible signs of injuries.

Reuters was not able to verify the cause of their deaths. The Syrian government denied that it had used chemical arms.

Noting the “criminal act” took place as the U.N. team got to work, the Russian spokesman said: “This cannot but suggest that once again we are dealing with a pre-planned provocation … We call on all those who can influence the armed extremists make every effort to end provocations with chemical agents.”

George Sabra, one of the leading opponents of Assad, said the death toll was 1,300 killed by poison gas released over suburbs east of Damascus.

“Today's crimes are … not the first time the regime has used chemical weapons. But they constitute a turning point in the regime's operations,” he told a news conference in Istanbul. “This time it was for annihilation rather than terror.”

An opposition monitoring group, citing figures compiled from medical clinics in the Damascus suburbs, put the death toll at 494 – 90 percent of them killed by gas, the rest by bombing and conventional arms. The rebel Syrian National Coalition said 650 people had been killed.

If the cause of death and the scale of the killing were confirmed, it would be the worst known use of chemical weapons since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.

Activists said rockets with chemical agents hit the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar during fierce pre-dawn bombardment by government forces.

The Damascus Media Office monitoring center said 150 bodies were counted in Hammouriya, 100 in Kfar Batna, 67 in Saqba, 61 in Douma, 76 in Mouadamiya and 40 in Irbib.

Residents of the capital said mortars later hit government-held areas in Faris Khoury Street and the Malki district, where Assad has a residence. There were no reports of injuries.

Heavy air strikes continued throughout the day against the rebel suburbs of Mouadamiya and Jobar.


A nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility, Bayan Baker, earlier told Reuters the death toll collated from medical centers was at least 213.

“Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils constricted, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims,” the nurse said. Exposure to sarin gas causes pupils in the eyes to shrink to pinpoint sizes and foaming at the lips.

The U.N. team is in Syria investigating allegations that both rebels and army forces used chemical weapons in the past, one of the main disputes in international diplomacy over Syria.

The Swedish scientist leading the team, Ake Sellstrom, said the reports should be looked into, but doing so would require a request from a U.N. member state. [ID:nS3N0EQ023] A U.N. diplomat said France and Britain were about to write to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to make just such a request.

France and Sweden said the mission must be sent to the site to investigate without delay. “They need to immediately get access to this site – it's 15-20 minutes from where they are currently,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia made similar calls. Britain said it was deeply concerned and would raise the issue at the U.N. Security Council, adding the attacks would be “a shocking escalation” if confirmed.

Extensive amateur video and photographs appeared on the Internet showing countless bodies, with victims choking, some of them foaming at the mouth, and no sign of outward injury.

A video purportedly shot in the Kafr Batna neighborhood showed a room filled with more than 90 bodies, many of them children and a few women and elderly men. Most of the bodies appeared ashen or pale but with no visible injuries. About a dozen were wrapped in blankets.

Other footage showed doctors treating people in makeshift clinics. One video showed the bodies of a dozen people lying on the floor of a clinic, with no visible wounds. The narrator in the video said they were all members of a single family. In a corridor outside lay another five bodies.

A Syrian military officer appeared on state television and said the allegations were untrue and a sign of “hysteria and floundering” by Assad's opponents. Information Minister Omran Zoabi said the allegations were “illogical and fabricated”.

The head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition said Assad's forces had carried out a massacre: “This is a chance for the (U.N. inspectors) to see with their own eyes this massacre and know that this regime is a criminal one,” Ahmed Jarba said.


Syria is one of just a handful of countries that are not parties to the international treaty that bans chemical weapons, and Western nations believe it has caches of undeclared mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agents.

Assad's officials have said they would never use poison gas – if they had it – against Syrians. The United States and European allies believe Assad's forces used small amounts of sarin gas in attacks in the past, which Washington called a “red line” that justified international military aid for the rebels.

Assad's government has responded in the past by accusing the rebels of using chemical weapons, which they deny. Western countries say they do not believe the rebels have access to poison gas. Assad's main global ally Moscow says accusations on both sides must be investigated.

Khaled Omar of the opposition Local Council in Ain Tarma said he saw at least 80 bodies at the Hajjah Hospital in Ain Tarma and at a makeshift clinic at Tatbiqiya School in the nearby district of Saqba.

“The attack took place at around 3:00 a.m. (8 p.m. ET). Most of those killed were in their homes,” Omar said.

An activist working with Ahrar al-Sham rebel unit in the Erbin district east of the capital who used the name Abu Nidal said many of those who died were rescuers who were overcome with poison when they arrived at the scene.

“We believe there was a group of initial responders who died or were wounded, because when we went in later, we saw men collapsed on staircases or inside doorways and it looks like they were trying to go in to help the wounded and then were hurt themselves,” he told Reuters by Skype.

“At first none of us knew there were chemical agents because it seemed like just another night of air strikes, and no one was anticipating chemical weapons use, especially with U.N. monitors in town.”

The timing of the allegations – just three days after the U.N. experts checked in to a Damascus hotel a few kilometers to the east at the start of their mission – was surprising.

“It would be very peculiar if it was the government to do this at the exact moment the international inspectors come into the country,” said Rolf Ekeus, a retired Swedish diplomat who headed a team of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq in the 1990s.

“At the least, it wouldn't be very clever.”

Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Niklas Pollard in Stockholm and Thomas Grove in Moscow; Writing by Peter Graff and Dominic Evans; Editing by Will Waterman and Alastair Macdonald

Syrian rebels increasingly frustrated

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Gazing out at the rubble which was all that remained of a four story apartment complex in the city of Azaz just south of the Turkish border, 41 year old bricklayer Khalid Jaza’iri did not see much to be optimistic about. 

“The regime is slaughtering us, we are no longer making progress and the world gives us only words when we need bullets,” he told The Media Line sadly.

With the Syrian government reversing losses on the battlefield and showing willingness to defy the international community by employing chemical weapons, Syrians in rebel controlled territory are increasingly losing hope they will emerge victorious in the country’s revolution. And Western nations’ empty promises have only reinforced their belief that they have been abandoned to bear the brunt of the regime’s fire power. 

Recent comments by US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that “arming the rebels – that’s an option,” have done little to alleviate the skepticism Syrians feel after two years of false hopes. They charge that American officials offer only encouraging words followed by inaction.

“His bold statements mean nothing to us,” complained 31 year old Muhammad Mosuli, an unemployed driver to The Media Line. “We heard the West’s assurances of water in the desert only to be given sand.”

Syrians are particularly exasperated with an American administration that makes promises it cannot keep. President Barack Obama asserted in August that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” Rebels believed the Americans had drawn a line in the sand. 

But after American intelligence agencies declared that the regime used chemical weapons, President Obama backtracked, leaving even his most diehard Syrian supporters crestfallen.

“If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence,” the president said last week, “then we may find ourselves in the position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”

Today, Syrians have lost all hope in America’s courageous declarations.  “Where is Obama after (Syrian President Bashar) Al-Assad used the most vile weapons against us?,” asked 24 year old Samir Anwar in the city of Tel Rifa’t. “We don’t expect anymore from America,” he said, plopping falafel balls in a deep fryer.  “We are alone in this war.”

It is a fight that is increasingly turning against the rebels.  After entering Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, last summer, the opposition was confident that it could topple the regime by the end of the year.  Today, though, the battle is deadlocked with each side hunkering down behind its sandbags.

Worse, the regime has begun to go on the offensive.  Last week it made a big push to dislodge rebel forces in the central city of Homs.  News of the regime’s battlefield gains has people in Azaz worried.

“People here are beginning to say that the war will never end,” admits 34 year old activist Rashid Hawrani.  “Some say living with the regime is better than living in rubble with no bread and no electricity.” 

It is a far cry from the optimism Azaz’s residents expressed last summer when they dislodged regime troops and withstood punishing air attacks that reduced large swaths of the city to little more than ornate piles of stones.  Control of the town allowed the rebels to seize the border crossing with Turkey, facilitating the transportation of aid.

Azaz still bustles with aid convoys, activists and foreign journalists.  But the enthusiasm and confidence have given way to gloom as once beaming faces have been replaced by looks of dejection and melancholy.

“Back then, we were jubilant,” Jaza’iri says within sight of a destroyed tank.  “But now, I see nothing to be optimistic about.  We are losing hope.  We are losing our souls.”

Did Bashar Assad use chemical weapons?

Marea, Northern Syria — Ahmad Jabir gesticulated wildly when he heard the news. “This regime is crazy,” the 24 year old rebel fighter shouted. “When will the international community realize it will kill us all with gasses like the chemical weapons it fired today?”

Throughout Northern Syria, rumors that chemical weapons were used in an Aleppo neighborhood have everyone on edge.  Many worried that there would be no shelter from a regime that has unleashed all its weapons against a helpless population. But some confident voices emerged arguing the regime may have finally crossed a red line that will trigger international intervention. Amongst the fear and uncertainty, most simply believe that the episode is merely the latest proof that the world has abandoned Syrians to face their fate alone. 

In the city of Marea, news of last week’s attack on the Aleppo neighborhood of Khan Assal trickled in slowly. Rumors initially circulated that hundreds had died when the regime of President Bashar Assad launched a rocket armed with chemical weapons.

“It’s a massacre,” 31 year old Muhammad Shadi told The Media Line at a falafel stand.  Residents panicked, with a number of the few remaining families packing their belongings to head to Turkey. 

But as the day progressed and more details emerged, residents calmed down. News that only 26 died rather the hundreds many here claimed had perished eased fears. And when foreign governments issued statements that no use of chemical weapons was detected, people resumed their daily routines. 

The United States was quick to douse the claims.

“I have no information at this time to corroborate any claims that chemical weapons have been used in Syria,” Pentagon spokesman George Little declared.  Not all Western nations agreed.

“It is clear for us here in Israel” that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told CNN. 

Ever since the Syrian revolution devolved into an armed conflict, the international community has worried the regime would use its chemical weapons against the rebels.  Syria is believed to have the fourth largest chemical weapons arsenal in the world including mustard gas, Sarin and VX. According to former Israeli National Security Adviser, Uzi Arad, Syria has 1,000 tons of chemical agents. A dose of VX as small as 10 milligrams is considered lethal.

For more than a year, American President Barack Obama has warned the Syrian government that employing its arsenal of chemical weapons would have dire consequences.

“We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that's a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” he said in August 2012.

Rebels are hoping that he will act on those warnings. Ever since the Syrian military began strafing and shelling civilian areas, the opposition has urged the international community to intervene in the conflict. 

“Bashar is digging his own grave,” 21 year old fighter Jasim Bunni told The Media Line.  “Obama will not let him slaughter Syrians with these horrible weapons.”

The American president did not disappoint him. “I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer… The international community has to act on that.” Obama said in Jerusalem last week.

His strong words stirred hope in fighters whose confidence has been dashed by months of battlefield deadlock and low morale.

“If Obama gives us weapons, we can enter Damascus in a week,” exclaimed 23 year old Samir al-Hamawi in the nearby city of al-Bab. “We just need some help.”

Civilians who have borne the brunt of a war that has played itself out in populated areas were just as optimistic.  “This is Bashar’s gift we have been waiting for,” said Mustafa Sa’id, a 39 year old mechanic. “America and France promised us they would strike at him for this.”

But others who had seen previous hopes dashed by the international community’s inertia were less sanguine.

“No one will save us from this monster,” lamented 43 year old grocer Tariq Faris. “We are alone in a war that is destroying our lives.  Your nations speak a lot but do not act.”   

It is a refrain often heard in Syria.  As the death toll grows higher with the passing of every day, Syrians are slowly losing the small remaining hope that outside powers will intervene to stop the killing.  They no longer have faith that the glamorous international conferences and bold statements by presidents and leaders will save them.  For in the lion’s den that is Syria, they have come to realize that they can only count on themselves to end their nightmare.

Syrian treated by IDF soldiers dies in Israeli hospital

An injured Syrian treated by Israeli soldiers on the Golan Heights border died in an Israeli hospital.

The dead Syrian was one of seven treated on the border Wednesday morning, Israel's Channel 10 reported. Two were taken to an Israeli hospital. The rest were repatriated to Syria after their treatment.

All of the wounded are residents of the Syrian-controlled central Golan Heights, Ynet reported. They are believed to be civilians.

Seven Syrian rebels entered Israel through the Golan Heights in February and were treated in Israeli hospitals. Six were quietly repatriated at an undisclosed location for their own safety; one was very severely injured and remained in the hospital.

Earlier this month Israeli soldiers provided medical care to four wounded Syrians, two of which were taken to Israeli hospitals due to the severity of their injuries.

U.N. curbs Golan patrols after peacekeepers seized, diplomats say

U.N. peacekeepers monitoring the ceasefire line between Syria and the Israel's Golan Heights have scaled back patrols after rebels detained 21 Filipino observers for three days last week, diplomats said on Thursday.

The seizure of the unarmed observers highlighted the vulnerability of the 1,000-strong U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), whose mission began in 1974, to the growing violence in Syria.

It also heightened concern in Israel that Islamist rebels, separated from Israeli troops only by a toothless U.N. force, may be emboldened to end years of quiet maintained by President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him on the Golan front.

“They have reduced their patrols for now, halted patrols in areas like the place where the Filipinos were taken hostage,” one diplomat in the region said.

A U.N. official in Damascus declined to comment, but two Israeli officials confirmed that UNDOF had reduced operations.

The capture of the 21 peacekeepers was the latest challenge for the United Nations force, comprised of troops from the Philippines, India, Croatia and Austria.

Japan said it was withdrawing soldiers from UNDOF three months ago in response to the violence in Syria. Croatia said last month it would also pull out its troops as a precaution after reports, which it denied, that Croatian arms had been shipped to Syrian rebels.

Two weeks ago the United Nations said an UNDOF staff member had gone missing. It did not identify him but one rebel source identified him as a Canadian legal adviser and said he had been captured by another rebel force and held for ransom.


The diplomat said the new restrictions on UNDOF affected mainly the southern part of its “area of separation”, between Syrian and Israeli forces, a narrow strip of land running 45 miles from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan.

“But it does affect all areas where there are potential security issues,” she said, adding that the whole UNDOF operation may need to be “reframed and reworked”.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a December report to the Security Council that fighting between Syrian armed forces and rebels inside the area of separation has “the potential to ignite a larger conflict between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic, with grave consequences”.

Israel warned 10 days ago that it could not be expected to stand idle as Syria's civil war, in which 70,000 people have been killed, spilled over into the Golan Heights.

The 21 Filipino peacekeepers were released on Saturday by Syrian rebels who had seized them and held them for three days in the southern village of Jamla.

The rebels from the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade initially accused the peacekeepers of collaborating with Assad's forces during heavy fighting last week and of failing to carry out their mandate to keep heavy arms away from the frontier region.

At first they demanded the Syrian army cease shelling in the area and pull back from Jamla village as a condition for releasing the peacekeepers, but later described them as guests and escorted them to freedom in Jordan.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Editing by Alistair Lyon

U.S. to give Syrian rebels medical, food aid, not arms

The United States said on Thursday it will for the first time give non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels and more than double its aid to Syria's civilian opposition, disappointing opponents of President Bashar Assad clamoring for Western weapons.

The U.S. cast the aid as a way to bolster the rebels' popular support. It will include medical supplies, food for rebel fighters and $60 million to help the civil opposition provide basic services like security, education and sanitation.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced the new steps after a meeting of 11 mostly European and Arab nations within the “Friends of Syria” group.

The aid did not appear to entirely satisfy the Syrian National Council opposition, a fractious Cairo-based group that has struggled to gain traction inside Syria, especially among disparate rebel forces.

“Many sides … focus (more) on the length of the rebel fighter's beard than they do on the blood of the children being killed,” Syrian National Coalition President Moaz Alkhatib said at an appearance with Kerry and Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi.


In what analysts described as a sign of disappointment, Syria's political opposition has postponed talks to choose the leader of a provisional government, two opposition sources told Reuters in Beirut.

Opposition leaders hoped a Saturday meeting in Istanbul would elect a prime minister to operate in rebel-controlled areas of Syria, threatened by a slide into chaos as the conflict between Assad's forces and insurgents nears its second anniversary.

While one source said the meeting might happen later in the week, a second source said it had been put off because the three most likely candidates for prime minister had reservations about taking the role without more concrete international support.

“The opposition has been increasingly signalling that it is tired of waiting and no one serious will agree to be head of a government without real political and logistical support,” said Syrian political commentator Hassan Bali, who lives in Germany.

Bali said the U.S. and other members of the core “Friends of Syria” nations appeared intent “on raising the ante against Assad but are not sure how.”

A final communique said participants would “coordinate their efforts closely so as to best empower the Syrian people and support the Supreme Military Command of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army in its efforts to help them exercise self-defence”.

More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in a fierce conflict that began with peaceful anti-Assad protests nearly two years ago. Some 860,000 have fled abroad and several million are displaced within the country or need humanitarian assistance.

The U.S. has given $385 million in humanitarian aid but President Barack Obama has so far refused to give arms, arguing it is difficult to prevent them from falling into the hands of militants who could use them on Western targets.

On Thursday, however, Kerry said the U.S. would for the first time provide assistance – in the form of medical supplies and the standard U.S. military ration known as Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs – to the fighters.

A U.S. official told reporters it would give the aid only to carefully vetted fighters, adding the U.S. was worried that “extremists” opposed to democracy, human rights and tolerance were gaining ground in the country.

“Those members of the opposition who support our shared values … need to set an example of a Syria where daily life is governed neither by the brutality of the Assad regime nor by the agenda of al Qaeda affiliated extremists,” the official said.

If sending non-lethal assistance goes smoothly, it could conceivably offer a model for providing weaponry should Obama ultimately decide to do so.

The continued U.S. refusal to send weapons may compound the frustration that prompted the coalition to say last week it would shun the Rome talks. It attended only under U.S. pressure.

Many in the coalition say Western reluctance to arm rebels only plays into the hands of Islamist militants now widely seen as the most effective forces in the struggle to topple Assad.

However, a European diplomat held out the possibility of Western military support, saying the coalition and its Western and Arab backers would meet in Istanbul next week to discuss military and humanitarian support to the insurgents.

With fighting raging on largely sectarian lines, French President Francois Hollande said at a Moscow summit that new partners were needed to broker talks on ending the crisis, winning guarded support from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We think that this dialogue must find a new form so that it speaks to all parties,” said Hollande, giving few details of his proposal.

Putin said Russia – one of Assad's staunchest allies – would look at Hollande's proposal, “which I think we could consider with all our partners and try to carry out.”


Russia has said Assad's departure must not be a precondition for talks and a political solution, while the West has sided with Syria's opposition in demanding his removal from power.

Kerry's offer of medical aid and food rations fell far short of rebel demands for sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to help turn the tables against Assad's mostly Russian-supplied forces.

It also stopped short of providing other forms of non-lethal assistance such as bullet-proof vests, armoured personnel vehicles and military training to the insurgents.

Last week the European Union opened the way for direct aid to Syrian rebels, but did not lift an arms embargo on Syria.

Kerry said the U.S. role should not be judged in isolation but in the context of what other nations will do.

“What we are doing … is part of a whole,” he said. “I am absolutely confident … that the totality of this effort is going to have an impact of the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals.”

Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Roger Atwood

U.S. says Russia ‘waking up to reality’ on Syria

The United States welcomed on Thursday a Russian admission that Syria's rebels may succeed in their drive to topple President Bashar Assad and called on Moscow to join efforts to manage a peaceful political transition.

“We want to commend the Russian government for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime's days are numbered,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.

“The question now is, will the Russian government join those of us in the international community who are working with the opposition to try to have a smooth democratic transition?”

Another U.S. official said the rebels appeared to be making gains against Assad and his forces.

“The rebels are pressuring Assad harder than ever before and his reach is contracting,” the U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

“Assad probably still believes that Syria is his and illusions can die hard. But Assad and those closest to him have got to be feeling the psychological strain of fighting a long war that is not going their way,” the official said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, the Kremlin's envoy for the Middle East, said on Thursday that rebel gains on the ground mean that their ultimate victory over Assad “cannot be ruled out.

Bogdanov's comments were among the most pessimistic yet from Russia, which has shielded Assad's government from U.N. Security Council censure and sanctions, resisting Western pressure to join efforts to push him from power.

Nuland said Bogdanov's comments demonstrated that Moscow now “sees the writing on the wall” on Syria and said Russia should now get behind efforts to prevent a wider bloodbath.

“They can withdraw any residual support for the Assad regime, whether it is material support (or) financial support,” Nuland said.

“They can also help us to identify people who might be willing inside of Syria to work on a transitional structure.”

International envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has met Russian and U.S. officials twice in the past week, is seeking a solution based on an agreement reached in Geneva in June that called for the creation of a transitional government in Syria.

But Russia has repeated warnings that international recognition of a new opposition coalition, notably by the United States, is undermining diplomacy, and rejected U.S. contentions that the Geneva agreement sent a clear message that Assad should must step down.

Nuland said the Brahimi meetings could lay the framework for the political structure that follows Assad.

“We've said all along to the Russians that we are concerned that the longer that this goes on, and the longer it takes us to get to an alternative political path for Syria, the only path is going to be the military one and that is just going to bring more violence, more destruction, more disruption and death inside Syria,” Nuland said. “We all ought to be working together.”

Reporting By Andrew Quinn, additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Warren Strobel and David Brunnstrom

Assad kept chemical weapons out of hands of extremists, Moshe Yaalon says

Syrian President Bashar Assad responded to past warnings about the security of chemical weapons by taking steps to keep them out of the hands of militants, Israel's vice prime minister Moshe Yaalon said on Wednesday.

Yaalon joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in making clear that Israel is as concerned about chemical weapons falling into the hands of anti-Assad insurgents as it is about them being used by state forces in the Syrian civil war.

“Together with the international community, we are closely monitoring developments in Syria regarding its stores of chemical weapons,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday. “Such weapons must not be used and must not reach terrorist elements.”

In an interview with the Israeli news website Walla that was posted on his Facebook page, Yaalon said: “There is speculation that the chemical arsenal will fall into the hostile and irresponsible hands of the likes of al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

“In the past, clear messages were relayed to Assad on a number of opportunities, and in response Assad in fact gathered up the weaponry and separated the materials,” Yaalon said.

Yaalon confirmed that the United States had spotted “suspicious activity” involving Syria's stockpile, hence the warning to Assad from President Barack Obama and European allies meeting at NATO headquarters that they must never be used.

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said on Wednesday the United States was worried an “increasingly desperate” Assad could resort to the use of chemical weapons against rebels, or lose control of them “to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria”.

Clinton said Washington had made clear to Syria that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the United States.

Syria refuses to acknowledge possession of chemical arms but has said repeatedly it would not use such weapons on its own people, though it might against foreign attackers. Israel and NATO countries say Syria has stocks of various chemical warfare agents in four sites.

Syrian rebels who have been fighting for the past 20 months to topple Assad have recently overrun some Syrian military bases. Radical Islamist groups which included foreign Jihadi fighters are a powerful force in the revolution.

Reporting by Dan Williams; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Erika Solomon and Andrew Roche

Anti-American fury sweeps Middle East over film

Fury about a film that insults the Prophet Mohammad tore across the Middle East after weekly prayers on Friday with protesters attacking U.S. embassies and burning American flags as the Pentagon rushed to bolster security at its missions.

The obscure California-made film triggered an attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya's city of Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans on Tuesday, the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

In Tunis, at least three people were killed and more than two dozen wounded, state television said after police gunfire near the U.S. embassy in the city that was the cradle of last year's Arab Spring uprisings for democracy. At least one person died in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, a doctor said, after some of thousands of protesters had leaped into the U.S. embassy.

As U.S. military drones faced Islamist anti-aircraft fire over Benghazi, about 50 marines landed in Yemen a day after the U.S. embassy there was stormed. For a second day in the capital Sanaa, police battled hundreds of young men around the mission.

In Khartoum, wider anger at Western attitudes to Islam also saw the German embassy overrun, with police doing little to stop demonstrators who raised a black Islamist flag. Violence at the U.S. embassy followed protests against both Washington and the Sudanese government, which is broadly at odds with the West.

The wave of indignation and rage over the film, which portrays Mohammad as a womanizer and a fool, coincided with Pope Benedict's arrival in Lebanon for a three-day visit.

The protests present U.S. President Barack Obama with a new foreign policy crisis less than two months before seeking re-election and tests Washington's relations with democratic governments it helped to power across the Arab world.

He was at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington to greet a flight bringing home remains of the four dead from Benghazi.

It also emerged that Libya had closed its airspace over the second city's airport for a time because of heavy anti-aircraft fire by Islamists aiming at U.S. reconnaissance drones flying over the city; Obama vowed to bring the ambassador's killers to justice.

The closure of the airport prompted speculation that the United States was deploying special forces in preparation for an attack against the militants who were involved in the attack.

A Libyan official said the spy planes flew over the embassy compound and the city, taking photos and inspecting locations of radical militant groups who are believed to have planned and staged the attack on the U.S. consulate.

There were protests in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.


The Pentagon said it had sent a “fast” platoon of Marines to Yemen to bolster U.S. embassy security after clashes in Sanaa.

U.S. embassies were the main target of anger and protest but most embassy staff were not at work because Friday is the Muslim weekend across the Arab World.

The frenzy erupted after traditional Muslim Friday prayers. Fury over the film has been stoked by Internet video footage, social networks, preachers and word-of-mouth.

Protesters clashed with police near the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Two Islamist preachers in Egypt told worshippers that those who made the movie deserved to die under Islamic law but they urged protesters not to take their anger out on diplomats.

In the restive Sinai peninsula, militants opened fire on an international observer base near El Gorah, close to the borders of Israel and the Gaza Strip, and burned tires blocking a road to the camp, a witness and a security source reported. The source said two members of the force were wounded.

The Sudanese who broke into the German embassy in Khartoum and hoisted an Islamic flag, while one person was killed in protests in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

Police in the Sudanese capital had fired tear gas to try to disperse 5,000 protesters who had ringed the German embassy and nearby British mission. A Reuters witness said police stood by as a crowd forced its way into Germany's mission.

Demonstrators hoisted a black Islamic flag saying in white letters “there is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet”. They smashed windows, cameras and furniture in the building and then started a fire.

Staff at Germany's embassy were safe “for the moment”, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin. He also told Khartoum's envoy to Berlin that Sudan must protect diplomatic missions on its soil.

Sudan's Foreign Ministry had criticized Germany for allowing a protest last month by right-wing activists carrying caricatures of the Prophet and for Chancellor Angela Merkel giving an award in 2010 to a Danish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet in 2005 triggering protests across the Islamic world.

Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa, Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Ulf Laessing and Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Gareth Jones in Berlin, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Benghazi, Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Libya, Sami Aboudi in Dubai, Raissa Kasolowsky in Abu Dhabi, Aref Mohammed in Basra, Iraq, Siva Sithraputhran in Kuala Lumpur, Anis Ahmed in Bangladesh, Regan Doherty in Doha, Roberto Landucci in Italy and Mirwais Harooni in Kabul; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Peter Millership and Alastair Macdonald

Syrian minister says gov’t will not use chemical weapons on rebels

Syria will only use its chemical weapons on threats from outside of the country, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Monday that the country’s chemical weapons are being guarded by the military, and that they would not be used against the rebels, nor could they fall into the wrong hands, according to reports.

Makdissi’s news conference was carried live on Syrian state television.

U.S. Pentagon officials discussed during meetings last week with Israeli defense officials whether Israel could destroy Syrian chemical weapons facilities in the event of the collapse of the Syrian government, The New York Times reported

During a briefing on the Golan Heights late last week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel is concerned about chemical weapons scattered throughout Syria falling into the wrong hands, and said that Israel is monitoring that possibility.

“We obviously are not the only player in the region that is anxious; anxious about the fact that an anarchic situation will bring about the transfer of sensitive systems into the wrong hands,” Barak said. “There is no small amount of chemical weapons dispersed all around the country, and there is a lot of weaponry in the hands of the civilians.”

Bomb kills powerful Assad kin; battle in Damascus

A bomber killed three of Bashar Assad’s top military officials on Wednesday – including his powerful brother-in-law – in a devastating blow to the Syrian leader’s inner circle as rebels closed in vowing to “liberate” the capital.

Slain brother-in-law Assef Shawkat was one of the principal figures in the tight, clan-based ruling elite that has been battling to put down a 16-month rebellion against four decades of rule by Assad and his father.

The defense minister and a senior general were also killed and other top security officials wounded in the attack on a crisis meeting of top Assad security aides that took place as battles raged within sight of the nearby presidential palace.

A security source said the bomber was a bodyguard entrusted with protecting the closest members of Assad’s circle. State television said it was a suicide bomb. Two anti-Assad groups claimed responsibility.

The government vowed to retaliate, and residents said army helicopters fired machine guns and in some cases rockets at several residential districts. Television footage showed rebels storming a security base in southern Damascus.

By nightfall, activists said Syrian army artillery had begun shelling the capital from the mountains that overlook it.

Assad’s own whereabouts were a mystery – he did not appear in public or make a statement in the hours after the attack. The White House said it did not know where the Syrian leader was.

Diplomacy moved into overdrive as countries spoke of the conflict entering a decisive phase. Washington, which fears a spillover into neighboring states, said the situation seemed to be spinning out of control. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “the decisive fight” was under way.

The U.N. Security Council put off a scheduled vote on a Syria resolution. U.S. President Barack Obama spoke with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has acted as Assad’s main protector in the diplomatic arena.

State television said Shawkat and Defense Minister Daoud Rajha had been killed in a “terrorist bombing” and pledged to wipe out the “criminal gangs” responsible. It later said General Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister and senior military official, had died of his wounds, while Intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar and Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar were wounded but were “stable”.

The men form the core of a military crisis unit led by Assad to take charge of crushing the revolt which grew out of a popular protests inspired by Arab Spring uprisings that unseated leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

“I heard … a loud explosion but it was not a very big bang. I went down to take a look and I saw a lot of men in plain clothes with rifles,” one resident near the scene told Reuters by telephone. Windows on the third floor of the national security building were shattered.

Security sources said Assad was not at the meeting where the attack took place. The armed forces chief of staff, Fahad Jassim al-Freij, quickly took over as defense minister to avoid giving any impression of official paralysis.

“This cowardly terrorist act will not deter our men in the armed forces from continuing their sacred mission of pursuing the remnants of these armed terrorist criminal gangs,” Freij said on state television. “They will cut off every hand that tries to hurt the security of the nation or its citizens.”

The explosion appeared to be part of a coordinated assault on the fourth day of fighting in the capital that rebel fighters have called the “liberation of Damascus” after months of clashes which activists say have killed more than 17,000 people.

It began early on Wednesday with fighting around an army barracks in the district of Dummar, hundreds of meters from the presidential palace, and was followed by blasts close to the base of the elite 4th armored division in the southwest. The unit, led by Assad’s brother Maher, has been instrumental in crushing protests around Syria.

Assad’s enemies described victory as imminent.

“This is the final phase. They will fall very soon,” Abdelbasset Seida, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, told Reuters in Qatar. “Today is a turning point in Syria’s history. It will put more pressure on the regime and bring an end very soon, within weeks or months.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said: “This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control.” He called for maximum global pressure on Assad to step down.

Panetta said Assad’s government would be held responsible if it failed to safeguard its chemical weapons, which Western and Israeli official have said have been moved from storage sites.

Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary-General who has acted as a peace envoy but whose calls for a ceasefire have fallen on deaf ears, said world powers should act to halt the bloodshed.


A video posted by activists who said it was filmed in the southern Qadam district showed at least two bodies lying in pools of blood and one rebel commander said at least 45 civilians had been killed in Damascus on Wednesday.

There was no way to confirm the figure, and he gave no tally of rebel or security forces casualties. The Syrian government restricts access by international journalists.

Western leaders fear the conflict, which has been joined by al Qaeda-style Jihadists, could destabilize Syria’s neighbors – Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi blamed Western and Sunni Arab governments for the crisis. “They are responsible for every drop of blood. And they will be accountable,” he said.

“I stress to them that this is the decisive battle in all of Syria,” Zoabi said on state television.

Rebels say they have brought reinforcements from outside the city to topple Assad by attacking the power base of the ruling elite for the first time.

Syrian forces hit rebel positions across the capital after the attack on the security meeting, with activists saying government troops and pro-government militia were flooding in.

State television broadcast footage it said was filmed on Wednesday showing men in blue army fatigues ducking for cover and firing – the first time official media has shown clashes in the heart of the capital.


Two rebel groups claimed responsibility for the attack on the security meeting.

“This is the volcano we talked about, we have just started,” said Qassim Saadedine, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, a group made up of army defectors and Sunni youths.

Liwa al-Islam, an Islamist rebel group the name of which means “The Brigade of Islam”, said it had carried out the attack by planting a homemade bomb in the building.

Fighting also erupted overnight in the southern neighborhoods of Asali and Qadam, and in Hajar al-Aswad and Tadamon – poor, mainly Sunni Muslim districts housing Damascenes and Palestinian refugees.

Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam whose power was cemented after a coup in 1970. The elite has endured more than a year of rebellion but recent high level defections have signaled support beginning to fall away.

Two Syrian brigadier-generals were among 600 Syrians who fled from Syria to Turkey overnight, a Turkish official said on Wednesday, bringing the number of Syrian generals sheltering in Turkey to at least 20.

In Damascus, government troops used heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns against rebels moving deep in residential neighborhoods, armed mostly with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

Rebel fighters have called the intensified guerrilla attacks in recent days the battle “for the liberation of Damascus”.

Still, some opposition figures did not predict easy victory.

“It is going to be difficult to sustain supply lines and the rebels may have to make a tactical withdrawal at one point, like they did in other cities,” veteran opposition activist Fawaz Tello said from Istanbul.

“But what is clear is that Damascus has joined the revolt.”

Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Oliver Holmes and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Marcus George in Dubai and Jonathon Burch in Ankara; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Peter Graff

Gadhafi tells rebel-stronghold Benghazi: Libya army is coming tonight

Muammar Gadhafi told Libyan rebels on Thursday his armed forces were coming to their capital Benghazi tonight and would not show any mercy to fighters who resisted them.

In a radio address, he told Benghazi residents that soldiers would search every house in the city and people who had no arms had no reason to fear.

“It’s over … We are coming tonight,” he said. “You will come out from inside. Prepare yourselves from tonight. We will find you in your closets.”

Read more at Haaretz.com.

At least 30 killed in Libya as Gadhafi forces fight to take back rebel-held town

The Libyan army staged a prolonged artillery barrage on the city of Zawiyah, west of Tripoli, on Thursday, with residents saying more than 30 people have been killed.

“There has been heavy shelling of Zawiyah by (Muammar) Gadhafi’s forces and we are hearing of many casualties,” Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebel February 17th Coalition, said.

An improvised force of rebels has been pushed back to the central square in Zawiyah, 50 km west of Tripoli, where about 2,000 of them are getting ready to make a last stand, a rebel spokesman said.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Hybrid Jews

Jews are not a people suited for the status quo. We have a rebellious gene. We can’t stand still.

Look everywhere and you’ll see signs of our restlessness.

The Reform movement is debating whether it has gone too far in moving away from halacha (Jewish law). The Conservatives are always going through an identity crisis, so much so that sometimes I think they enjoy it. The Orthodox have so many variations that a neighbor of mine calls Pico-Robertson the Baskin-Robbins of frum neighborhoods — pick your flavor.

We’re a people of paradox: We love the safety and stability of permanence, but we’re always on edge — ready to take off, to break away, to declare our independence.

Often these breakaway dramas are small, local affairs — a few Jews get annoyed with a few other Jews; they meet, they eat, they scheme and another shul is born.

I’ve seen this as often with Ashkenazim as with Sephardic Jews. We love each other, but not enough to pray together if we get on each other’s nerves. But this getting on each other’s nerves has a wonderful side benefit: We get to experience this continuous influx of new shuls, new ideas and new movements.

One of the great movements in recent Jewish history is the Chasidic movement. Over two centuries ago, a revolutionary Jew called the Baal Shem Tov decided that Torah belonged to the masses, not just to the yeshivas, and it should be lived with deep joy, not just deep study. Within several decades, despite major opposition from mainstream Judaism, Chasidic offshoots were branching out in Eastern Europe and Russia, taking on local flavors and each having their own leader, or rebbe.

One of these Chasidic groups was called the Breslovers, originating in a little town in Ukraine called Breslev. Their leader was the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, known simply as Rebbe Nachman — an intense, charismatic mystic who died in his late 30s.

I got a taste of the Breslev world when I traveled in the early ’90s to the Ukrainian city of Uman, where many of Rebbe Nachman’s followers gathered at his gravesite during Rosh Hashanah, as was his wish.

When I visited, there must have been several hundred people at the gathering. Today, I hear the annual number has grown to well over 20,000, with Jews from all over the world and all walks of life coming to soak up the rebbe’s holy vibes.

Among the participants in this worldwide pilgrimage is a small contingent from the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, led by a French-speaking Algerian Jew in the garment business named Sylvain Sellam.

Sylvain runs a little Breslev shul in the hood, at the corner of Robertson and Cashio, called The Breslev Center. I was there on a recent Shabbat, and for a minute I thought I was in the middle of the desert hanging out with Israeli settlers. It was that laid back.

It’s OK at the Breslev shul to wear jeans and sneakers and not tuck in your shirt. You won’t see any sign of a rabbi, but you’ll see lots of men with one eyebrow. You see, the davening is Sephardic, and if you stick around for the Kiddush, you’ll get to taste what may be the only Kurdish cholent in town, a thick, dark concoction made by an elderly Israeli Kurd named Abe.

Now, you might ask, what is so Chasidic about a little shul that looks, smells, tastes and sounds so Sephardic? There are no black hats, no Chasidic melodies, no long beards — so what gives?

Have you heard of these new hybrid cars that combine the traditional engine with an electric one? Well, this is the equivalent phenomenon — hybrid Jews — Jews who embrace a new tradition, but keep a connection to their old one.

Sylvain Sellam is a hybrid Jew.

He is madly in love with Breslev and with Rebbe Nachman, but he hasn’t abandoned his Sephardic roots, which include a direct lineage to the revered mystics of North Africa. He was indeed skeptical when, several years ago, a Sephardic buddy told him about Rebbe Nachman and Breslev. It felt foreign and irrelevant. But he agreed to take a look at Rebbe Nachman’s major book (Likutey Moharan), and it changed his life.

But wait, it gets more interesting. While Sylvain is passionate about Breslev, and he maintains his Sephardic roots, he’s even more passionate about a renegade offshoot of Breslev loosely called the “Na Na Nachmans.” This is the Wild Wild West of Breslev.

They don’t believe in rabbis or any of the trappings of organized religion. They have only one rabbi, and he’s in the other world — Rebbe Nachman. Unlike the traditional mainstream of Breslev, they are not quiet and self-effacing. Their mission is to spread the words of Rebbe Nachman, especially the words of the “Petek.”

The Petek is a mysterious “letter from heaven” from Rebbe Nachman revealed to a righteous Breslev (Rav Israel) many decades ago that followers say holds the key to redemption. In practical terms, the key is the mantra “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’Uman,” a kabbalistic breakdown of Rebbe Nachman’s name that has become the movement’s cri de coeur.

The mainstream Breslovers, including the unofficial leadership in Safed, don’t know what to make of this vocal and free-spirited band of Breslev gypsies who travel around Israel in hippie-style vans playing loud “Na Na Nachman” music and handing out Rebbe Nachman literature. They are the rebels of Breslev — the rebels among the rebels.

The Breslev Center here in the hood is one of the few “Na Na Nachman” shuls outside Israel. If it were up to Sylvain, there’d be a lot more. His enthusiasm for the Petek is obvious and intense. He’ll tell you about miracles he has witnessed just from the act of meditating on the Petek.

What struck me when I was in his shul, though, was how familiar it all felt. Kids were running around making a lot of noise, grown-ups were schmoozing and everyone was reading the exact same Torah portion being read in every shul in the world.

Maybe that explains our rebellious gene — we’re comfortable breaking away because we know that deep down, we’ll never let go.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.


Breslovers gather in Ukraine. Click the BIG ARROW

The Spin on Spinoza — Rebel or Traitor?

“Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity” by Rebecca Goldstein (Schoken, $19.95).

In high school, I read and reread two fluent, erudite surveys of philosophy until the pages of the books fell to pieces. By the time the glue bindings cracked on Will Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy” and Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy,” I knew one thing for sure — they both loved Baruch Spinoza.

For Durant, Spinoza was as close as philosophy could come to sainthood — a life of austerity, rationality, independence, principle, rarefied thought. For Russell, the draw was not only Spinoza’s devotion to reason, but his willingness to devote himself fully to the world of thought. For a philosopher to be excommunicated gave him intellectual street cred, a kind of cognitive cache. Spinoza was the real deal.

But I also grew up knowing what Rebecca Goldstein tells us again and again in her about-to-be-released speculative, digressive, charming and lucid book, “Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity”: Traditional Judaism feared and distrusted this child of the enlightenment. Although prominent Jewish thinkers, from Moses Mendelssohn to Solomon Maimon to modern Zionists, have claimed him as their own, every deliberation on Spinoza wonders — is he a Jewish thinker? Surely he does not believe in the chosenness of the Jews or the Divine authorship of Torah or the mandates of halachah — does he even believe in God?

The prosecution has a formidable team. Although Goldstein does not speak very much about the reaction of Jewish scholars to their illustrious precursor, we recall that the great historian Heinrich Graetz, while insisting that Spinoza was one of the greatest thinkers of his time, also described Spinoza’s relation to Judaism as that of a “murderer to his mother.” Hermann Cohen accused Spinoza of “incomprehensible treason” and, needless to say, in more traditional circles Benedict Spinoza in Jewish history is seen with the same sympathy as Benedict Arnold in American history.

Who was this lovable genius and hideous traitor? Spinoza was born in 1632, one of five children. His mother died in his seventh year. He saw around him the multiple traumas that afflicted the Jewish community. Despite the relative tolerance of Amsterdam in that age (their libraries were famous throughout Europe for their extensive, uncensored holdings), there were persecutions of dissidents, excommunications in the Jewish community, vigilance and fear. The historical tidal wave of the Inquisition continued to ripple through Europe. Many Jews were at some stage of hiding: Jews who converted to Christianity and practiced Judaism in secret; Jews who remained sincere Christians but had close Jewish family; Jews converted and then returned to Judaism, weighed down by guilt. These and a thousand other permutations made identity, fidelity and individual contingency very fraught questions. One of the joys of Goldstein’s book is to watch her briefly trace the historical patterns of the Inquisition — work done so extensively in Yirmiyahu Yovel’s admirable two volumes (“Spinoza and Other Heretics”) — and relate it to Spinoza’s character and story.

Here is the “betrayal” of the title. For Spinoza was the most thoroughgoing depersonalizer in the history of philosophy. In the 20th century, existentialism sought to return philosophy to the “I.” It was about my individual, free, personal orientation to existence and my acceptance of the reality of death. Spinoza is the anti-existentialist. The only universal quality that can explain the world is reason. You don’t know my experience, but we can share a syllogism. It is emphatically not about me; a wise man, he wrote, thinks of nothing less often than death.

Spinoza was a monist, believing all things are composed of the same substance and all must have come to be the way they are. There is no room for individual variation, except as a manifestation of the same substance, the whole of which Spinoza called “god.” The way to grasp the substance, and to transcend the false individuality that traps us is through reason. Logic, reason, thought are the tools of salvation and of goodness. To relate Spinoza’s philosophy to the death of his mother or the status of the Jews was precisely to contradict his reigning insight — it is all impersonal and about the austere, diamond-hard, cold and eternal realm of logic. The logical web fastens the universe, and it is our task to understand it better to expand our minds. The intellectual love of God, to know all through logic, is the highest human goal.

One friend of Spinoza’s, quoted by biographer Stephen Nadler, said he never saw the philosopher sad or merry. We might call that a “flattened affect,” but Spinoza would call it philosophical detachment and calm.

In Spinoza’s world, there is no reward and punishment, immortality or freedom; there is the striving to use the mind to achieve union with nature, which is identical with God. We cannot change things, because everything is as it must be: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, condemn or scorn human actions, but to understand.”

Goldstein, who grew up in an Orthodox girls school and went on to write novels and become a professor of philosophy, traces many threads of influence on Spinoza: his excommunication, his shattered family life, the way Spinoza used kabbalistic questions in his philosophy, his mathematical aspirations (the “ethics” is laid out like a Euclidean geometry.) She also powerfully investigates the Jewish upbringing that not only led him to a book on the composition of the Bible, but, at the end of his life, to compose a Hebrew grammar.

Spinoza was convinced the Torah was the product of human hands. Although he did not invent biblical criticism, he was an early exponent of it. He was also an early supporter of the “this-worldly return” of the Jewish people to Israel.

Spinoza spent most of his adult life grinding lenses in his apartment. He had friends and acquaintances who testified to the gentleness of his character; he turned down academic offers and offers of stipends. Some have seen him as the first truly secular man — he was excommunicated from the Jewish tradition and never became a Christian. But he could not reliably be called secular when he believed so deeply in a god — albeit a God very different from the one he had known in youth. “God-intoxicated” the poet Novalis called him, and he was — drunk with the Divine.

Spinoza died when he was 44 years old, with the herem — excommunication — still in effect. So can this gentle, heretical philosopher be legitimately included in Jewish history? In modern times, when our sense of Jewishness is broadened, it may be interesting to note which major Jewish figure called for repeal of Spinoza’s herem — David Ben Gurion.

David Wolpe is rabbi at Sinai Temple in Westwood.


It’s Passover Time Down Under, Mate

Because Australia is situated below the equator, its seasons
rebel against the Jewish calendar. Our winter is their summer; our spring their
fall. Although Passover’s rituals and symbols resonate spring, the holiday is
celebrated in autumn Down Under.

“Passover begins just as the temperature drops, days grow
shorter, and grapevines lose their leaves,” said Jenni Neumann, a New Yorker
who grew up in Sydney. “It’s rather odd, if you’re not used to it, I guess.”

Yet, most of Neumann’s childhood memories of Passover would
be familiar to many American Jews: the apple and walnut charoset, matzah balls
floating in golden broth and jars of Manishewitz gefilte fish. Like many of her
American counterparts, Neumann, 38, grew up in an Ashkenazi world. While
Australian Jews call themselves Aussies, throw chicken on the barbie — or
barbecue — and speak English with the accent of Crocodile Dundee, their
Passover cuisine is straight from Molly Goldberg.

How did that happen, since Australia not only began as an
English colony, but still owes its allegiance and cultural heritage to Great

While British Jews were present at the colony’s inception,
the demographics of Australia’s Jewish population has somersaulted several
times, as immigrants from various continents landed on its shores. After the
American Revolution, England needed another penal colony and selected Australia
as a dumping ground for undesirables.

In 1788, eight of the 751 convicts expelled on the first
fleet from London were Jews. If that’s not surprising enough, some of these
Jews were women. In subsequent decades, Jews continued to be sprinkled in
convict shipments, and others, down on their luck, left London voluntarily,
hoping for a better life in this hardscrabble country.

Defying the odds, many Jewish prisoners attained freedom
within several years. By 1817, Jews in Sydney had established a minyan and
burial society.

“When thinking of Jewish life back home, I picture Sydney’s
Great Synagogue,” said Neumann, describing this architectural jewel with its
four-story pointed towers and spectacular stained glass.

Built in 1879, the Great Synagogue is a quintessential
example of Victorian architecture, one of the most magnificent synagogues in
the world. During Australia’s first 150 years, English descendants dominated
the Jewish community and were fiercely loyal to the “mother country.” But the
19th century saw the arrival of German, Russian and Polish Jews.

A small Sephardi community bloomed and withered. As diverse
as these influences were, they were not strong enough to compete with the
established Jews who quickly Anglicized and absorbed newcomers. But this
situation changed radically during the 1930s when Jews from Central and Eastern
Europe headed in large numbers to Australia to escape the anti-Semitism fueled
by Hitler.

Anglo Jews could not contain this flood of Yiddish-speaking
immigrants who descended en masse and eventually overran them. Once World War
II ended, another band of European Jews took root, people freed from displaced
persons camps. Today, approximately half the Jews in Australia arrived in the
Holocaust’s wake, or are their descendants. For example, Neumann’s family
originated in Moravia (the southern part of the Czech Republic) and moved at
some stage to Vienna, where they became jewelers. Her grandparents and
great-grandparents fled the Nazis in 1938. Finding asylum in Australia, they
brought their Passover recipes and traditions with them.

“The thing I remember most about childhood seders are the
red eggs my mother used to make,” said Neumann, explaining that this was one of
the recipes her grandparents carried from Vienna. She describes how white
eggshells absorb brilliant pigment from steeping for hours with skins from
brown, or better yet, red Spanish onions.

Their red-brown color symbolizes the roasted egg on seder
plates. The pigment penetrates so deeply that egg whites turn a pale peachy
shade. Neumann’s mother, Barbara, starts stockpiling onion skins two months
before Passover.

“I save skins every time I use an onion in cooking and also
collect them from the green grocer’s onion display,” she said, explaining that
she prepares about five dozen eggs, enough to send home with Seder guests and
to last through the holiday’s eight days.

While charoset is a delightful treat, Neumann feels her
family recipe is the best. A generous amount of cinnamon and a splash of sherry
hint at palatschinken, the famed Viennese dessert crepe often filled with

Neumann has fond memories of spending Passovers with her
Uncle John and Aunt Shirley, whose father grew horseradish in his garden.
Contrary to bottled horseradish in America, where the infusion of red beet
juice indicates milder flavor than its white counterpart, in Australia mixing
beet juice with this bitter herb connotes that only the hottest horseradish was

“As far as I’m concerned, the hotter the better,” said
Neumann, chuckling as she remembers challenging her Uncle John to see who could
take the strongest horseradish.

Shirley introduced a trendy honey mustard chicken and a
layered matzah cake, with decadent amounts of cocoa, whipped cream and dark
chocolate. She learned to make this outrageous dessert from an Israeli friend
in the catering business, and it immediately became everyone’s favorite.

“Shirley had to make two of these cakes to keep us happy,”
Neumann said.

With an eclectic array of recipes, Shirley credits Sephardi
friends with expanding her culinary horizons. Australia’s long-dormant Sephardi
community was revitalized in 1956, following the Suez Crisis. After some
political maneuvering, Egyptian Jews were allowed to enter its borders. By 1969
when Iraqi Jews were targeted for persecution, Australia opened its doors to

Twenty years later, a stream of South African Jews arrived,
reinforced by refugees seeking opportunities after the former Soviet Union
disbanded. There’s a contingent of Israelis, too. Today more than 100,000 Jews
call Australia home; 80 percent of them live in Melbourne and Sydney. With more
than half of Jewish students attending Jewish schools, Australia boasts the
highest enrollment rate of any country except Israel. The Orthodox movement is
strong Down Under, but Reform — or what Aussies call Progressive — Jews make up
about 25 percent of the population.

Neumann waxes poetic about a leather bound haggadah she
received as a bat mitzvah gift. A copper plaque depicting ruins of the Second
Temple graces its front. “It’s beautiful and for years I proudly brought it to
Seders,” she said, explaining that the copper comes from mines in Israel dating
back to King Solomon. She inherited her appreciation of the past from her
parents who are antique dealers.

While shopping for their business, the Neumanns collect
Passover artifacts for their seder table, remnants of Australia’s rich Judaic
history, a legacy they have passed to their children.

Sherry Charoset

1 pound red apples (2-3) with skin on and seeds and core

5 ounces walnuts, chopped

2 teaspoon cinnamon

1¼4 cup sweet sherry

1¼3 cup matzah meal

Liquid artificial sweetener to taste

1. Cut apples into chunks run through a food processor using
the coarse grating disk.

2. Place in a mixing bowl. Add walnuts and cinnamon. Combine
ingredients by hand.

3. Mix in sherry. Add meal to stiffen mixture. Add
sweetener, if needed. Charoset should be soft yet easy to serve

with a spoon. If necessary, adjust sherry and meal for
consistency and flavor. If making in larger quantities, retain the

apple-walnut-cinnamon ratio.

Yield: 8 servings

Red Eggs

Large pot that you don’t mind staining

Supermarket sized bag full of onion skins

2 dozen medium sized raw eggs

1¼2 pound fatty brisket

1. Place a thick layer of onion skins at bottom of pot,
followed by a layer of eggs. Continue layering, finishing with a layer of onion

2. Top with brisket.

3. Add enough cold water to cover the contents of pot (about
2 inches from the top).

4. Cover pot and place over medium heat to bring to a boil
slowly, which helps eggs from cracking. Keep eggs boiling steadily for 5-6
hours, adjusting heat between medium and low.

5. Check on eggs every 20 minutes, adding more water if
necessary. Gently move eggs around, using a wooden or plastic spoon. Make sure
eggs are covered all the time.

6. Turn off flame and cool down to warm. Wearing plastic
gloves to protect hands from staining, carefully remove eggs to a strainer to
dry. Store in original egg containers in refrigerator. They will keep right
through the holiday. To serve, break shells and sprinkle with a little salt or
salt water.

Chicken in Honey-Mustard Marinade

2 tablespoon margarine

1¼2 cup honey

1¼4 cup artificial kosher-for-Passover Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 teaspoon salt

8 chicken drumsticks

No-stick spray

1. In a saucepan, stir first five ingredients over a low
flame until thoroughly blended, about 5 minutes. Cool.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a shallow, oven-proof baking
pan with spray. Arrange drumsticks in a single layer. Pour marinade over drumsticks.

3. Place pan in center of oven, turning drumsticks every 10
minutes. Lower temperature if sauce thickens quickly as it may burn. Roast 40
minutes, or until drumsticks brown and juices run clear when pierced with a

Cocoa Cream Layer Cake

1¼2 pt. of nondairy whip topping (or heavy cream, for dairy

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1¼2 teaspoon baking cocoa

3 matzahs

6 teaspoons sweet sherry (or a bit more, if needed)

1. In a large bowl, whip nondairy whip topping, sugar and
cocoa until stiff peaks form. (If using cream, do not overbeat or you’ll get
chocolate butter.)

2. Spread matzahs on 3 plates. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons sherry
over each matzah. Make sure entire surface is moistened, but don’t wet
completely or they’ll become mushy.

3. On a serving plate, place one matzah and completely cover
with half of whipped cream mixture. Don’t leave any area bare or it will dry
out. Place a second matzah on top and repeat.

4. Place third matzah on top and cover with chocolate
topping (recipe below).

Chocolate Topping

3 one-ounce squares of semisweet chocolate

2 pareve margarine (or sweet butter, for dairy version)

1 tablespoon milk nondairy creamer (or milk, for dairy

In a double boiler, melt and blend topping ingredients.
Spread on top of third matzah. Place toothpicks into softened spots near the
top matzah’s four corners. Cover completely with aluminum foil. Refrigerate for
two days before serving.

Yield: 9 servings