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Understanding Syria

By Larry Gordon

“As a shepherd examines his flock, making his sheep pass under his staff, so do You cause to pass before You every living soul and You count, reckon, and are mindful of them . . .” This is a small section of the U’nsaneh Tokef prayer viewed by many, by virtue of its profundity, as the centerpiece of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy.

Aside from speaking about every individual who experiences judgment on these Days of Awe, our sages say that the same is true of all entities, including the countries that dot the globe. This idea was brought home to me this year over Rosh Hashanah and the accompanying Shabbos, all of which I spent at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton on the New York/New Jersey border. The program, directed expertly by Rabbi Moshe Fuchs of Far Rockaway, also featured as scholar in residence Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Needless to say that for three afternoons, the after-davening subject was the Middle East and how the currently unfolding situation there is so poignantly relevant to our Rosh Hashanah tefillos. It is difficult to write about such a fluid situation in a weekly newspaper. The daily papers have problems with how the situation on the ground changes in Syria from the time they go to press until the papers hit the stands. What can I say definitively in a weekly paper about a matter that changes daily and often a few times a day?

Additionally it was difficult to grasp and absorb everything Mr. Hoenlein said without the benefit of any note-taking—because it was, after all, yom tov. So I’m going to do some paraphrasing and summation based on what I heard and took from the talks.

Hoenlein’s overall message was that just about everything being reported that emanates from the Middle East is not what it seems to be on the surface. News organizations are being very superficial in their reporting and, because of the danger, there are virtually no correspondents reporting from the field. As a result of this reality, major news outlets are forced to rely on information about revolutions and uprisings from unreliable sources combined with those who have an agenda to intentionally misinform and mislead the public.

About Syria, the Conference of Presidents director says that much has been bungled by the Obama administration. He says that there is a fundamental misunderstanding in Washington about what energizes these conflicts in places like Syria, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, and Jordan. There is a reflexive need to simplify everything and couch them in easily understood terms so that the information can be fed to an ill-informed public that has no idea about what is at play or what is at stake on the ground in the Middle East.

Just as important, Malcolm Hoenlein explains, is that it is becoming abundantly and rapidly clear to most that the issue that needs to be urgently dealt with is not the Israeli–Palestinian situation. He says that he and other representatives of his group can have meetings with Arab leaders these days and the issue is hardly ever raised or discussed, as was the case recently in Morocco.

It certainly is true that today more than ever, almost nothing is as it seems to be at first. So at least today as I type these words onto my computer screen, the question still hangs overhead: Will President Obama order the military to attack Syria or not? The most definitive answer one can hope for in my estimation is yes and no.

That is, yes he will instruct the military to respond to Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons, but it will be a perfunctory or even sad-sack type of response that will mean little and accomplish less.

Now it is a new day, and the likelihood of an American military strike on Syria has become extremely remote. I am just waiting for Mr. Obama to say that a military strike can be successful without firing any weapons or missiles. He is capable of explaining that the potency of an American threat to attack might be just as great as an actual military assault on Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons and other armament stockpiles.

A few days ago, Mr. Hoenlein was certain that there would be an American strike, though he was concerned that the action would be so limited as to be considered on par with not reacting militarily at all. So I spoke to Mr. Hoenlein on Tuesday after it became clear that the Obama administration was backing off and limiting any assault on Syria to huffing and puffing while abstaining from blowing anyone’s house down.

Because I was trying to get a handle on the contorted and amateurish Obama approach, I made certain to watch and listen to the hearings at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. Aside from Mr. Obama backtracking on his threat to Syria, I also learned that one of the considerations for desisting from any kind of military operation at this juncture is that it is very expensive and we are just better off not having to incur all those expenses. The hearing featured Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey. One of the senators informed the three that the cost of maintaining the presence of the naval fleet in the Mediterranean today is $30 million a week.

And guess what—the new, Russian-engineered diplomatic solution will probably cost this country much more than the original plan to gently bomb the Syrian capital of Damascus. And that is because Mr. Assad has reportedly stockpiled over 1,000 tons of chemical weapons. According to the experts, it will take about 75,000 ground forces—mostly American, of course—about ten years to properly and safely dispose of these weapons. No quick fix here.

And that is if the diplomatic solution comes to pass—which is still highly questionable. President Putin, who is running circles around Mr. Obama, said on Tuesday that the diplomatic solution can only be implemented if Obama promises not to attack Syria now or anytime in the future. Mr. Obama will agree to that. Our president had no choice but to flee to the quickest diplomatic exit because Congress was not going to approve his “unbelievably small” and perfunctory bombing of some hen houses or barns in the Syrian hills.

So, what does all this mean for Israel? A serious American strike was going to teach Assad an important lesson and do the same simultaneously to Iran, Hezbollah, and other assorted terrorists in the region. Now instead of being weakened and set back, the terrorists are strengthened and emboldened. Just as the Iranian people were double-crossed by Obama in 2009, now once again the Syrian rebels, those seeking Assad’s downfall, have also been stabbed in the back by the president.

So the question is, as Norman Podhoretz asked in the Wall Street Journal this week, has this been Obama’s plan all along—to project an American image of weakness? Charles Krauthammer of Fox News responded to that query by saying that when it comes to Mr. Obama, he will always choose incompetence over conspiracy. So as far as these gentlemen are concerned, the Obama handling of Syria does not just look incompetent, it is incompetent.

Mr. Hoenlein says he is surprised that the U.S. had just about no comment the last ten times that Assad used chemical weapons on civilians over the last two years. He adds that only 10 to 20 people died in each of those attacks, so since no one noticed there was no need to comment.

So while the Obama double-talk and mind-changing is not the best thing for Israel, the fact that the rebels will continue to kill members of Assad’s army, and that the army will kill rebels, is not necessarily a bad thing for Israel from a strategic perspective. There are many sides to this conflict. Shiites are killing Sunnis and vice versa. Some Shiites and Sunnis are united in their effort to kill Alawites, the faction of Islam that Assad belongs to. And some Muslim rebel groups are also united in their zeal to murder Christians and burn churches.

The endgame here is what happens in Iran as a result of the Americans’ erasure of all red lines. Putin is shlogging kapparos with Mr. Obama. Talk about cruelty to those poor chickens. v

Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at

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Posted by on September 12, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.