To Syria, on Yom Kippur: ‘We have sinned’

We all know the three most important things when assessing real estate: location, location, location. As the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo suffers through the brutality of Russia and Bashar Assad, we should recall that when it comes to American foreign policy, the three most important words are: tradeoffs, tradeoffs, tradeoffs.

At no time of the year should this focus our mind more sharply than at Yom Kippur. We repent and promise — mostly sincerely — to sin no more (even if we know we cannot keep this promise). But what should we do in world politics, where no matter what we do, we will cause — either by commission or omission — suffering and death, perhaps to our loved ones?

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told the United Nations Security Council, “What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism.” She is correct. The Washington Post editorial board has slammed Power’s boss, President Obama, for doing nothing about it but “hemming and hawing.” But what should we do? Unsurprisingly, the Post said nothing. Because that is where real, and hard, moral choices begin.

Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine and some Republicans such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham have proposed a no-fly zone. That sounds good, but once it begins, then American pilots will fight against Russian MiGs, and try to evade Syrian anti-aircraft weaponry. That would risk war with a nuclear power and having our pilots shot down. If they get shot down, then of course we must rescue them. That would mean ground troops: perhaps thousands of Americans would be killed. Of course Russia might escalate, which would mean that we would have to escalate as well. That means more troops. They might not, but would you risk it? Is it worth it? If you think so, would you go? Would you tell your children to go?

Perhaps someone else with a greater interest can provide ground troops. But that immediately gets us into trouble as well, for America lacks a strong, sturdy ally to do the fighting for us.

The strongest resistance armies are Sunni jihadists closely aligned with al-Qaida. Those who currently attack President Obama for fecklessness usually point to Potemkin groups like the Free Syrian Army, which never was a real army to begin with, and is merely a collection of dozens of militias, many of them as jihadist as ISIS. Distributing American weapons to shadowy resistance groups usually winds up getting Americans killed, as was revealed a few months ago. We had sent arms to the Syrian resistance through our best Arab ally, Jordan; they wound up on the black market, were used to murder Americans, Jordanian intelligence officials padded their bank accounts. Much of ISIS’ arsenal comprises U.S. weaponry captured from Syrian rebels.

More recently, we found a brighter possibility in the Syrian Democratic Forces, an army of Syrian Kurds, which has fought well. But it has nowhere near the strength to topple Assad, and in any event, there is a bigger problem: Our ostensible NATO ally, Turkey, sees the SDF as its sworn enemy because it is associated with Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Nothing would be more satisfying from a moral perspective than to tell Turkish President Recyyip Tarep Erdogan to perform an unnatural act on himself, but Turkey is a NATO member, and it provides us access to air bases in the fight against ISIS. Are we prepared to sacrifice part of the fight against ISIS to take on Assad?

Perhaps we can only try to rescue more Syrian refugees, saving those who can get out. But the Republican Congress has voted to block all Syrian refugees, attacking the president for the paltry number of 10,000. Hillary Clinton has proposed 65,000 — still a drop in the bucket — and has been lambasted for it by nativist xenophobe Donald Trump. We would need to do far more to make a real difference, and this is my personal choice — but here, too, there are terrible risks. The United States screens potential refugees much better than Germany, but we can hardly rule out the possibility that some potential jihadists will get through our screening process, especially as we increase numbers.

Of course we could simply revert to the old policy expressed by our greatest Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, who warned that America must not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” But then we are back where we started, hemming and hawing as we witness a Syrian holocaust.

President John Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Sounds great. But really? Any price? Any burden? Any hardship? It was nonsense when JFK said it, and in light of our disasters in Vietnam and Iraq, now little more than absurd. 

Tradeoffs, tradeoffs, tradeoffs. We can: 1)intervene militarily and risk a wider war with thousands of American casualties; 2) support inadequate Sunni opposition forces and risk not only abject failure but lethal arms falling into ISIS hands and the strengthening of new jihadist forces;  3) support Kurdish opposition forces and risk the fight against ISIS; 4) welcome more refugees but raise a risk — minuscule, but real — of a handful of jihadists getting into the United States; or 5) do nothing and face the cruel judgment of history. (At this time of accounting for our souls, we face the terrifying prospect of making this choice.)

We can, at least, acknowledge that it is a terrible choice, that there are no easy answers. Such moral maturity marks a good way to observe Yom Kippur. But what is your choice? What risks will you take, as a Jew, as a citizen, as someone who aches to live according to the highest ideals of our people and our country? Against these questions, the pieties of the Unetaneh Tokef and the Ashamnu seem serene and cozy by comparison.

Jonathan Zasloff is Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law and a student in the ALEPH ordination programs.

What Ramy knew about the fall of Assad and the rise of the Islamic State

After a few years of the cold shoulder, I finally heard from my Syrian friend, Ramy Mansour, and his message couldn’t have been more clear: “I told you so.”

Ramy didn’t use exactly those words. But his Facebook message to me, after years of silence, essentially summarized what the regime of Bashar Assad has been saying since the Arab Spring swept into Syria three years ago: that if Assad fell, Islamist terrorist thugs would rise.

I met Ramy in 2007. He came to the United States as a Daniel Pearl Fellow, one of just two or three Muslim journalists from the Middle East and South Asia selected each year to work for six months at a major American newspaper, in his case the Los Angeles Times. As part of their fellowship, the Pearl fellows also agree to spend one week at the Jewish Journal. 

Most of the Pearl fellows meet their first real Jews at the Jewish Journal — Ramy was our first real Syrian. But he was vastly different from the other fellows.

He was a handsome, buff 20-something journalist, with a close-shaved head, dark eyes and a cigarette always in hand.   

The other fellows over the years have come to us genuinely open to learning about America — its politics and its culture — and about Judaism. Ramy, by contrast, had a way of being apolitical, completely stuck in his beliefs and dismissive of my opinions — all in the same sentence.

When I asked him whether he was allowed to write positively about Israel in his independent paper, he said, “No.” 

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because there’s nothing positive about Israel,” he said.

After Ramy left, we kept in touch through Facebook for a while. He became a broadcaster and eventually anchored a major TV news show. When the Syrian revolution broke out, I sent him a message of concern and wrote, with astounding naiveté, that I hoped freedom would prevail.

Ramy stopped messaging me.

Meanwhile, I noticed posted on his Facebook page diatribes against the Islamists that were, he wrote, the true face of the Syrian resistance. Sure, I thought, and Assad is Thomas Jefferson.

Two weeks ago, I posted my column on the persecution of Syrian Christians and other minorities at the hands of the Islamic fundamentalist ISIS militants. ISIS has seized a territory the size of Jordan in northern Iraq and Syria, slaughtered hundreds of Syrian government and rebel fighters, and last week a video was released of the beheading of the American journalist James Foley. Why hasn’t the West done more to stop them, I wondered?

Soon, I had my first message from Ramy in years. He wrote, “Hi Rob, Please ask this question to American government … Why American government supports Syrian opposition and all American Arms go to ISIS? Thanks my friend.”

In other words, I told you so.

Was Ramy right? For people like me who supported the Syrian revolution, it’s an important gut-check to ask. The Middle East is Murphy’s Law with sand, and perhaps support for the brutal Assad regime might have prevented the chaos that led to the rise of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

But Syrian experts wiser than I still maintain that had President Barack Obama and the West quickly and intelligently armed and aided the legitimate resistance, they could have toppled Assad, consolidated power, and found a way to include Islamists à la Tunisia, and voilà — a new Syria would have been born.

But Obama didn’t listen to them, or to me, or to Hillary Clinton. Maybe he foresaw that even that choice was illusory: After all, the rebel groups allied themselves to what was then the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (now ISIS or the Islamic State) and Jabhat al-Nusrah (Syria’s al-Qaida wing) through late 2012. 

So who knows, maybe Obama was right, maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Or maybe his fears were self-fulfilling. In any case, here we are, fighting the very people we most fear, ISIS, alongside the very people we most loathe, Assad and the mullahs of Tehran.   

The more important question now is: Now what do we do?

At the heart of the problem are two vacuums. One is the vacuum created by our half-assed support for the Syrian resistance. We provided enough aid to weaken the Syrian regime, but not enough to allow non-Islamist forces to consolidate power.  ISIS, backed by Qatari money, filled the void. 

Unlike al-Qaida, these groups have command and control and advanced weaponry.  On the northern border with Israel, they have rockets that make the stuff Hamas sends into Israel look like cherry bombs. 

“When you have boys with guns who have nothing to lose, they’re going to shoot them off, unless you go in and take them away,” James Prince, the head of the Democracy Council, told me by phone after returning from a recent trip to Syria. 

A long-term solution, Prince said, means supporting military action and bolstering civil societies across Syria, so people won’t have to turn to ISIS to run schools and bakeries and the like.

But the success of ISIS is also a victory for awful ideas. You can get a glimpse of the Salafist, or Islamic fundamentalist, rhetoric in Dabiq, the monthly online English-language magazine the group publishes, a kind of jihadi

“It is only a matter of time and patience before [ISIS] reaches Palestine to fight the barbaric Jews,” a column in the Ramadan issue says. 

These images and messages cross continents and enter young minds.

Jessica Stern, who spent four years interviewing terrorists around the world for her acclaimed 2003 book, “Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill,” recently told NPR that the young men and women who flock to join ISIS are drawn by a sense of alienation, humiliation and purposelessness.

In other words, the real vacuum of Syria attracts young men suffering an inner vacuum of the spirit.  

And that is a dire threat to us all.

“It is only a matter of time before Western veterans of the Syrian conflict bring the jihad back home,” Stern said.

Prince, who is no alarmist, put it to me in even harsher terms. “As far as Israel and the Jewish community is concerned,  I’ve never seen a threat like this,” he said. “Palestinian  nationalism pales in comparison to the Salafi movement. And it knows no bounds. Kill a Jew anywhere. ISIS is preaching there’s no boundaries. 

“Osama bin Laden didn’t pay a lot of attention to Israel. But look at what [ISIS] is doing to Christians. The rhetoric is worse for Jews. You’re going to get crazies that are going to take it to the next level.”

So the war against ISIS is a war for inclusion and against alienation, to be fought as much with words and laws in the cities of Europe and America as with guns in Syria and Iraq.

It is also a war that is not yet lost. That is something I’ve learned from the Pearl fellows who have followed Ramy. To a person, they have proven themselves committed to the courageous practice of both independent journalism and moderate Islam . They, too, are young, and eager to see the forces of extremism and oppression in their countries defeated. They are a reminder that the people who pay the greatest price for Muslim extremism are other Muslims.

“You know things take time,” Asma Ghribi, a Tunisian journalist and one of this year’s Pearl fellows told me just a couple of weeks ago. “The French Revolution became bloody and people died, and it took them more than 100 years. Just give us some time.”

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

With Netanyahu in Shanghai, China rips Syrian airstrikes

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a five-day visit to China, the Chinese Foreign Ministry criticized the military strikes on Syria without singling out Israel.

“We oppose the use of military force and believe any country's sovereignty should be respected,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday. She did not mention Israel by name.

“China also calls on all relevant parties to begin from the basis of protecting regional peace and stability, maintain restraint and avoid taking any actions that would escalate tensions and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also is visiting China; Abbas and Netanhayu are not scheduled to meet there. Netanyahu will meet with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday.

On Monday evening, Netanyahu met in Shanghai with dozens of Israeli businesspeople who represent companies that operate in China. The company representatives discussed ways to increase bilateral trade.