Opinion: Start planning now for transition in Syria

Syria is in the midst of a civil war. The common wisdom both from inside and out is that the Assad dynasty is doomed to follow the plight of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, and Gadhafi in Libya, not to mention Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The questions are how, when and how many more dead.

The situation from inside is untenable. As many as 7,000 to 9,000 dead, tens of thousands injured and displaced, with the same amount in Syrian jails. The Syrian army tactic of sealing off a town or village before firing indirect artillery barrages and using snipers to pick off those venturing into the streets has forced whole communities to go underground. They use smuggled satellite phones and modems, as well as portable generators, to bypass government blockages. 

There is no going back for the hundreds of thousands who have supported the demonstrations or suffered from the government crackdown in one way or another. Just as important, Syria is a country of 22 million people who mirror the myriad ethnic, religious and cultural populations that make up the Arab world. The escalating violence threatens to overflow into a regional conflict of sectarian upheaval. Even the Arab League and reserved Saudis have publicly stated that it was no longer appropriate to stand by and watch the bloodshed in Syria. 

However, the fact that the uprising, which emanated organically across the country, maintains little central direction or single political polestar makes a foreign military coup impractical. There are no safe havens or defined corridors to protect through foreign air power. Government forces are purposely interspersed through populated civilian areas.   

I have worked closely with Syrian activists for the past decade, and there is no doubt that, for better or worse, the uprising began as a democratic, nonviolent demonstration against tyrannical rule in the truest sense. The local coordinating committees who provide logistical support and communications among neighborhood activists were a product of the upheaval. Their primary leaders were liberal professionals whose angst has been festering over decades as their quality of life and civil liberties eroded and the influence of Iran increased. (Interestingly, many of the uprising’s star leaders are professional women, such as the leading human rights attorney, Razan Zeituna, now in hiding.) The strategy of countering demonstrators by fueling sectarian fears of retribution à la Ambassador L. Paul Bremer’s de-Baathification policy in Iraq and the recent violence against Christians in Egypt was initially received as disingenuous to most Syrians during the first few months of the uprising. 

As both the political and security situations escalated over the past year, externally sponsored extremist groups began to move into the political vacuum. For example, last week’s endorsement by al-Qaeda and an increase in activity of Islamic Salafi-inspired groups is instigating further retrenchment by the remaining 30 percent or so of society yet to abandon the current regime, namely the business class, Christians, Kurds and other minorities who would otherwise be supporting the revolution. Additionally, the rise of Islamist-led governments in Tunisia and Egypt, combined with the impending turmoil in Libya, further dissuades the remaining population segments from aggressively advocating for regime change. 

While the Arab League and the United Nations contemplate observer and humanitarian missions, the Syrians realize that they have to make do largely for themselves. The umbrella opposition grouping, the Syrian National Council (SNC), modeled after the Libyan Transitional National Council, has not yet asked for foreign military intervention other than to provide humanitarian support. 

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up of a few hundred core army defectors, receive safe haven and small arms from Turkey but lack the recruits and materiel to go head-to-head against the Russian- and Iranian-supported heavy Syrian armor. More for the purposes of turning up the heat on Assad and his Iranian ally rather than actually effecting a coup, the Saudis and Qataris are contemplating providing arms and logistical support to the FSA. 

The opposition is hesitant to publicly call for foreign intervention with an overt American presence, such as that waged in Libya, even if conducted under the legal cover of the U.N. or another multinational mission. Privately, however, it recognizes that such an intervention would only be possible through logistical and diplomatic support of the United States or our allies. U.S. humanitarian support for displaced and injured Syrians would help create good will among the general population while softening the ground for the “good guys” in the opposition in their fight against the “bad guys,” be it the Iranian-sponsored regime or the al-Qaeda and Salafi extremists. It is in our national security interest for Washington to bolster the Arab League’s observer effort while discreetly providing material and political support to the SNC. 

The United States can help foster a discussion regarding the future of the country in a more viable and localized context than that of the American Future of Iraq Program organized by President George W. Bush prior to the invasion of Iraq. As we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, it is never too early to prepare for the tremendous upheaval of a transition period. Without such an anticipatory program, the grassroots that took to the streets will be co-opted by the Muslim Brotherhood, or worse. 

This effort should include providing technical support to the opposition, inside and out, to begin planning for the transition. Getting it right with issues such as transitional justice, developing effective media and election laws, the role of the military, minority rights and the role of religion are crucial to an effective transition to democracy. A very public discussion of these issues, initiated on the world stage, would provide hope to the remaining Syrians tied to the dictator and fearing a future without what they know, and ensure against the political vacuum that has resulted from abrupt regime change elsewhere in the region.

Syria came late to the Arab Spring. The world is now otherwise preoccupied. At this point, only Iran, with some complementary activities by Russia and China, is aggressively moving to stop Syria from continuing to implode — albeit on the side of the dictator. It is time for the democratic world to chime in with support for the Syrian democracy activists who are risking their lives in support of the freedom and liberty that we so often take for granted.

James Prince is president of the Los Angeles-based Democracy Council (democracycouncil.org) and is a leading expert on Arab civil society.

Peres to Clinton: Israel is ready to assist in Mideast transition

Shimon Peres told Hillary Rodham Clinton that Israel was ready to do what it could to facilitate transition among its neighbors to democracy.

“We see this occasion as an occasion for better and for good will to cooperate in every possible way to enable this change to take the course into the 21st century for all the Middle East people and escape their poverty and problems and wants,” the Israeli president told the U.S. secretary of state before their meeting Monday afternoon.

Peres is in Washington to meet with President Obama on Tuesday. Statements from some Israeli leaders have suggested that they believe the Obama administration is moving too fast in encouraging some nations to transition to democratic governments as a result of the “Arab Spring,” the tumult now sweeping the region.

U.S. officials, in turn, have suggested that Israel and the Palestinians could help ease the process by resuming peace talks.

Clinton told Peres that it was an honor to host him in Washington and that “President Obama is very much looking forward to seeing you and discussing the issues that you have raised and your perspectives and the way forward, which will hopefully realize the better outcomes that we all wish for.”

“Our task together is to deepen and broaden our friendship, our relationship, our partnership to look for ways that we can work toward the kind of future that you have always believed in and that you have held out as a promise for the children of Israel and the children of all the countries of the Middle East,” Clinton said.

U.S. won’t interfere in Egyptian transition, White House official says

A senior White House official told Jewish leaders that the United States does not deal with the Muslim Brotherhood but would not interfere in the Egyptian transition process.

Dan Shapiro, the senior National Security Council official dealing with Israel and its neighbors, briefed Jewish leaders on Wednesday evening, as forces loyal to Hosni Mubarak unleashed violence against protesters seeking to unseat his 30-year autocracy.

Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, asked Shapiro to elaborate on comments earlier in the day by Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, who had said that “meaningful transition must include opposition voices and parties being involved in this process as we move toward free and fair elections.  But that process must begin now.”

Solow asked if the White House included the Muslim Brotherhood among “opposition voices and parties.”

Shapiro said: “That’s something that will be determined by the Egyptian people. The United States will not be an arbiter.”

He added that it is U.S. policy not to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that rejects Israel’s existence and maintains relations with groups such as Hamas, designated by the United States as terrorist.

Shapiro condemned the violence that erupted Wednesday, and said that the Obama administration had reassured Israeli leaders that its commitment to Israel was “rock solid.”

Obama: Egypt transition ‘must begin now’ [VIDEO]

Transition in Egypt “must begin now,” President Obama said.

Obama spoke Tuesday about two hours after after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he would not run in presidential elections scheduled for September, and would prepare for a peaceful handing over of power to his successor.

It was not clear from Obama’s statement whether this was sufficient, or if he wanted Mubarak to step down sooner. Opposition groups have said that Mubarak must step down now.

“An orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful and must begin now,” Obama said. “It shouldd include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties.”

Obama said he had spoken to Mubarak after the Egyptian president’s address.

“He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place,” he said.

Obama said it was not the role of outside governments to determine what happens next in Egypt, but stressed that he is “committged to a partnership” with Egypt.


Jewish organizations mostly at ease with Obama appointees

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Barack Obama’s “team of rivals” is turning into a collection well known to the Jewish community, which should comfort those who expressed apprehension about who the president-elect would appoint to his Cabinet.

Obama is fulfilling pledges he made during a grueling election campaign by reaching out to notables in both parties with deep wells of experience.

While Obama has yet to announce his foreign policy team formally — he publicized his economic team Monday — a welter of leaks has lined up U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as secretary of state and former NATO commander Gen. James Jones as his national security adviser.

Some Jewish observers are uneasy over who might prevail in a rivalry between Clinton, who is seen as pro-Israel, and Jones, about whom some Jewish observers have expressed reservations.

Steve Rosen, the former AIPAC foreign policy chief who now writes a blog hosted by the Middle East Forum, has raised concerns about Jones that have redounded in the conservative Jewish world through e-mails. Rosen’s piece on Jones was titled “Jones to be National Security Adviser; wrote harsh report on Israel.”

Condoleezza Rice, the current secretary of state, added Jones last year to her team of generals monitoring the “road map” peace plan launched by President Bush in 2003. Jones reportedly wanted to publish a report that was harshly critical of Israel’s failure to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian security force and to allow more freedom of movement for the Palestinians.

But the report, which was never published, also was tough on the Palestinian force, expressing doubts about its readiness to meet Israeli expectations that it would contain terrorism. And in public forums and as NATO’s commander in chief, Jones has been friendly to Israel and its regional security concerns.

As for Clinton, her deep ties to the pro-Israel community date back to her days as the first lady of Arkansas, when she gained an admiration for the Jewish nation after introducing Israeli early childhood programs in Arkansas.

She endured some criticism from pro-Israel groups while her husband was president — for her infamous embrace of Yasser Arafat’s wife and for being a stalking horse for Palestinian statehood, floating the idea without President Clinton’s administration formally proposing it — but as a U.S. senator Clinton has been solidly pro-Israel, emphasizing the need for Palestinians to temper incitement against Israel as a precondition for peace.

Her likely deputy will be James Steinberg, a deputy national security adviser under President Clinton. Deputy secretaries of state often serve as day-to-day point men in dealings with the Middle East, and Steinberg’s record is reassuring to the pro-Israel establishment. He has advocated an increased role for Arab states in helping to create conditions for a Palestinian state, long the position of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Some in the pro-Israel community have expressed concerns about others who might make it into Obama’s inner circle, noting that after the election it emerged that Obama had been speaking frequently with Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush who supports making eastern Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state and advocates putting an international peacekeeping force in the West Bank.

In an Op-Ed column in the Washington Post of Nov. 21, Scowcroft argued in favor of those positions in a piece that was co-authored by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser and a longtime critic of the pro-Israel lobby.

But Steven Spiegel, a UCLA political scientist who advises the Israel Policy Forum, said the fact that Scowcroft and Brzezinski felt they needed to make their case in a newspaper rather than privately to Obama demonstrates that they don’t have the president-elect’s ear when it comes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“If Scowcroft was sure the president-elect was on his side, he wouldn’t be taking this public,” Spiegel said.

Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Obama’s deliberative style means that he’s unlikely to press Israel into an accelerated peace process, especially with Hamas terrorists still controlling the Gaza Strip and making a comprehensive deal unworkable.

“He’s very pragmatic, during the campaign and in his appointments,” Reich said of Obama. “For those who want him from day one to put two feet in the peace process, it’s not going to happen. It’s going to be deliberate; nothing’s going to happen overnight.”

Obama’s emphasis will be the economic crisis, Spiegel said. On foreign policy, he said, Obama is deliberatively choosing people who will have the independence to handle the international stage, but without drama: Clinton as diplomat, Jones as a tough-minded coordinator.

“What these appointments suggest to me is that he’s got to solve his economic problems first and foremost,” Spiegel said.

It was “ridiculous” to worry about Jones, he said, with a Cabinet that includes Clinton and a White House that has as senior advisers Rahm Emanuel and David Axelord — both of whom are deeply pro-Israel.

Meanwhile, Obama’s domestic choices have been widely praised among Jewish groups.

The United Jewish Communities federation umbrella organization has issued several news releases hailing Obama’s appointments, including the selection of former Sen. Tom Daschle as secretary of Health and Human Services and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as chief of Homeland Security.

By contrast, over the past several years the UJC criticized the Bush administration for starving federal entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Obama also pledged during the campaign to move away from Democratic Party dogma when it comes to church-state issues, favoring, for instance, vouchers for families who send their children to private schools, including parochial schools.

The Jewish community is divided on the voucher issue and is waiting to see what Obama’s education appointments augur.

However, the Orthodox Union already has praised two appointments announced Monday to the White House’s Domestic Policy Council: The incoming director of the council, Melody Barnes, and her deputy, Heather Higginbottom, are both former Senate staffers who helped author legislation protecting religious rights in the work place and in federal institutions.

Congregations help the homeless into homes — one family at a time

Sharon (not her real name) and her 4 1/2-year-old son have been in and out of shelters and temporary housing for the past several years, sometimes living on the streets. A recovering drug addict, Sharon now has a steady job working at a bakery but is about to reach her time limit in a transitional housing apartment.

But this time, she has a team of congregants from Leo Baeck Temple to help her not only find a place she can afford to live, but create and stick to a budget. They’ll help her furnish her apartment, will set up her transportation and will even baby-sit for her son so she can get an occasional break.

Leo Baeck connected with Sharon through Imagine LA, a program in its pilot year that aims to end homelessness among families by connecting Los Angeles’ 8,000 places of worship with the city’s 8,000 families who are on the verge of homelessness.

Three churches and Leo Baeck have signed on, and by 2009 Imagine LA hopes to have 30 families adopted.

Congregations make a financial commitment of $5,000 to adopt a family for two years. Most of that money is put into a donor-directed bank account overseen by the family, the congregation and case managers.

Imagine LA inserts itself into the problem of homelessness at a critical juncture: the exit from transitional housing. While case managers and psychologists help residents in transitional housing stabilize, many find themselves spiraling lower in the cycle of homelessness when the six-month to two-year limit there is up.

Imagine LA coordinators work with facility case managers and faith partners to determine the family’s needs and set up a plan for independent living. They might help a single mother get her high school equivalency diploma, help kids with homework or shuttle kids to sports programs. Sometimes, a mother needs to learn how to shop for and cook meals for a week, or sometimes she just needs moral support.

“The idea is to create a sustainable exit from homelessness, so they don’t just get into housing and get on the treadmill, but feel like they can grow and have some hope,” said Jill Govan Bauman, executive director of Imagine LA, an independent nonprofit founded in 2005 at the Bel Air Presbyterian Church.

The Leo Baeck team has met with Sharon once a week over the last month, since they signed on, and they’re hoping to have her in an apartment soon.

“Many of us here are socially active in many different ways, and there were enough of us who wanted to really do this hands-on,” said Scott Sale, a Leo Baeck member working with Imagine LA. He said the team bought into the idea of each faith-based organization in Los Angeles adopting one family to make a huge impact. “If we have to do it one at a time, that’s how we’ll do it. It’s just like the Jewish idea of saving one life is like saving the whole world.”

For additional information, visit http://www.imaginela.org/main/index.html.

Ray of Hope

What will become of five Jccs?

The question has still not been answered, but by next week, a resolution will be definitively closer.

Five center must submit their business plans by next week to the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles’ (JCCGLA) new transition committee for review. If the facilities can run on a budget-neutral basis, they can remain open.

On Tuesday, delegates from five JCCs centers slated for closure this summer attended a JCCGLA meeting at Valley Cities JCC in Van Nuys, where they had the opportunity make oral presentations on ideas to save their respective centers.

In the closed board meeting that followed, JCCGLA executives decided on next week’s deadline for business plans to be given to the Transition Committee. The committee, with the assistance of JCCGLA financial consultant Roni Fischer, will review and analyze the plans, and then decide by early February, on a case-by-case basis, the direction of each center and its programming.

JCCGLA Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman Giladi and Transition Committee chief Marvin Gelfand told The Journal that the deadline for a final decision regarding the centers must be made by early next month, so that parents who want to use the JCC’s early-childhood education services can make plans.

Representatives from the impacted centers (Bay Cities JCC, Silver Lake-Los Feliz JCC, Westside JCC, Valley Cities JCC and North Valley JCC) addressed 25 members of the JCCGLA council, headed by JCCGLA President Marty Janoll and Giladi. In their 10-minute statements, they described why their centers are vital to their community and detailed how to keep their facilities operating without interrupting key services.

"Our goal for the next year is to provide education for the 40 Bay City kids plus 20 kids from neighboring synagogues," said Bay Cities’ James Barner, accompanied by Dan Grossman.

Mark Frazin, and Cary and Renee Fox of North Valley JCC, want to improve marketing and planning to build their center back to its original 550-family membership.

Silver Lakers Jane Schulman, Devra Weltman and Andrew Thomas painted their facility as the sole Jewish representation in their neighborhood. Weltman –herself a product of North Valley JCC and a decade of JCC’s summer camp — told the room that she bought a home in the area while eight months pregnant because of Silver Lake’s JCC.

"I knew what the philosophy would be and where I wanted my child to be," Weltman said.

Michael Kaminsky, Helene Seifer and Deborah Schmidt evoked their successful $119,000 fundraising drive to keep Westside JCC open in the short term, and Mike Bresner, accompanied by Marla Abraham, hope to raise $240,000 to keep Valley Cities operational through 2003.

Members from all five centers at the meeting told The Journal that they were optimistic that a solution could be reached.

"I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t," North Valley’s Andrea Goodstein said.

JCCGLA has already taken proactive measures to avoid a future financial crisis, which has put five of seven sites in jeopardy and has led to the layoff of 49 employees.

On Jan. 11, JCCGLA announced its plan to revamp its bookkeeping with the hiring of Century City accounting firm Licker+Ozurovich. The firm’s founding partner, Andy Ozurovich, will serve as JCCGLA’s chief financial officer, overseeing payroll administration, budget preparation, and bookkeeping. JCCGLA hopes to save $200,000 annually.

"What a long way we’ve come since November," said Gelfand, who cited a groundswell of community outcry and media coverage as prime reasons that JCCGLA’s moribund status has segued into serious discussions on salvaging JCC facilities and programs.

Gelfand pointed to fundraisers underway by various centers to raise money, including an upcoming Westside JCC fundraiser featuring musician Peter Himmelman and proceeds from a "Fiddler on the Roof" production.

In what Giladi deemed is still a "fluid situation," the JCCGLA executive commended the community’s drive to keep JCCGLA thriving.

"The Jewish Community Centers are an entry-point to the Jewish community," Giladi said, evoking Schulman’s speech. "For many people it’s not their only entry point but for many it’s their sole affiliation."

Part of the JCCGLA’s plan to keep its centers alive will center around upcoming fundraising events. Gelfand and Giladi also announced that The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles will offer its entire mailing list to JCCGLA so that the JCCs can execute a direct mail financial support campaign next month.

According to Gelfand, JCCGLA’s position mirrors situations that have occurred throughout the 275-center Jewish Community Centers of North America system.

"JCCs do not operate at a profitable basis anywhere in the country," Gelfand said. "Federations throughout the country have helped JCCs. We need to improve our independent fundraising abilities and mechanisms."

The JCCGLA executives said that they have no current plans to solicit donations from the 1,000 JCC of North America members coming to Los Angeles in April for a biennial convention. They question whether it would be an appropriate move.

"I think that right now our community feels energized," Giladi said. "This is a very exciting time. You’re talking about an organization that last month was considered dead. So from that perspective, to have the biennial in L.A., I think, ‘Wow, what a great opportunity,’ because everyone knows that L.A. was in crisis, and we’re building to the future. What could be better than that?"

"We all believe very strongly," Gelfand added, "that the JCCs are here to stay and to grow."