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 jewishjournal.com.
“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.”
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