Laying Groundwork for Life After Syria's Assad

As Regime Teeters, Jews Mull Outreach to Rebel Fighters

Future Leaders?: With Syrian rebels close to tipping the balance against strongman Bashar al-Assad, Jews are starting to think about their next steps.
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Future Leaders?: With Syrian rebels close to tipping the balance against strongman Bashar al-Assad, Jews are starting to think about their next steps.

By Nathan Guttman

Published January 01, 2013, issue of January 04, 2013.
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Israel is also concerned about the growing influence of foreign jihadist groups that have infiltrated Syria as the civil war there has progressed. A December 21 paper prepared by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a hawkish Israeli think tank close to Netanyahu that focuses on security issues, warns that after Assad’s fall, “a potential military-terrorist threat to Israel will likely emerge in the transition period, which will be marked by governmental instability and a lack of central control over at least some of the fighting forces.”

Syrian opposition activist Radwan Ziadeh argued that such concerns should not deter the community from getting involved. “It is better to invest in the future than to hang on to the old regime,” said Ziadeh, director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Washington. In his meetings with members of the Jewish community, Ziadeh talks about the role he sees for American Jews in helping the Syrian cause. “Now is the time for the Jewish community and for Israel to push the Obama administration to take action,” said Ziadeh, who supports American military intervention aimed at helping the opposition—a position rejected by mainstream Syrian government opponents.

Despite American Jewish concerns and Israel’s relative comfort with the Assad regime as the devil it knows, some Jewish groups are, in fact, reaching out to Syrian opposition, based on a joint humanitarian cause.

The American Jewish Committee, which has hosted several events with Syrian dissidents, is active in bringing to light abuses carried out by the regime. “The options for Jewish groups as Jewish groups are relatively limited,” said Felice Gaer, director of the AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights. “They cannot reach a peace agreement and will not solve the Syrian problem. But they can call for humane principles in the conduct of the government and those rebelling against it.”

Gaer, who is also a commissioner on the United Nations Committee Against Torture, said that the Jewish community has a role to play in telling the world about “how brutal and vicious this conflict is and how brutal the government is in its use of torture.”

But intervention by Jewish activists can, at times, be used against those it aims to help. When Bernard-Henri Levy, a Jewish French philosopher, called for international intervention to help oust Assad, members of left-wing Syrian opposition groups criticized his efforts and pointed to his support of Israel as an incriminating factor.

“Jews will always be used by one side or another” in the conflict, Gaer argues in response. But the circumstances in Syria are so harsh and clear, she said, that there is no room for concern about Jewish support de-legitimizing the opposition. “If we speak to this issue we will not hurt the effort,” she said. “Turning an eye away from what’s going on, that is what can be seen as not legitimate.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman


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