The case for humanitarian diplomacy in Syria


The statistics are staggering. Almost 200,000 Syrians have been killed in the last three years, with no end of the bloodletting in sight.

From a population of 23 million, about 12 million people are either internally displaced or are refugees in neighboring countries, making Syrians the world’s most displaced people. Many children in refugee camps do not attend school.

The conflict is spilling over and destabilizing Syria’s neighbors, including Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. ISIS, which now calls itself the Islamic State, used Syria as a sanctuary where it gained financial and military strength and ultimately a launching pad to take over large portions of Iraq. Al-Qaida is now three miles from Israel’s border.

A growing number of U.S. and European citizens are flocking to Syria for jihad. Many will return trained and radicalized. In late May 2014, a Floridian blew himself up in a suicide attack in Syria.

In that same week, a French jihadist who spent a year in Syria killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. An increasingly destabilized Middle East is a serious security threat to all.

For moral and strategic reasons, including support for Israel, the American Jewish community has an interest in actively provide humanitarian aid and moral support to Syrian refugees in response to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe since Rwanda.

Syrian moderates with Western values do exist. An example of one such moderate is a Syrian Sunni Arab named “Amin” (he used a pseudonym for his protection), who spoke back June 23 to the New York Board of Rabbis.

“We were taught to hate the Jews and Zionists and to kill them before they kill us… . Israel is not the enemy,” Amin said. “We need to have an effort by everyone to show [that if Syrians] suffer, that [others] care regardless of … religion or race or ethnicity and that people will be there if [the Syrian people] are suffering. “This is the way to change their [the Syrian people’s] minds,” he went on.

“But if [you] just sit and do nothing, you’re going to continue this cycle of hate that is never going to end.” Jewish values and commandments are instructive.

Leviticus 19:16 states: “[T]hou shall not stand on the [profit from] blood of thy neighbor.” The Jewish people should continue its tradition of humanitarian activism to help others in crisis. “Humanitarian diplomacy” has the potential of changing attitudes of Syrians and the Jewish people toward one another. Many are surprised to learn what the world Jewish community is already doing.

Comprised of 16 member organizations, and operated under the umbrella of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief (JCDR) has raised and donated $600,000 to help Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Through May 2014, Israel treated more than 1,000 wounded Syrians in various Israeli hospitals. Politically, Jewish organizations and Jewish voters from both political parties can support those elected officials that want to do more, but have constituents who fear that the United States will get embroiled in another military intervention in the Middle East.

No one is advocating American boots on the ground. There are many policy options that can be adopted between U.S. military intervention and the current policy of doing virtually nothing.

America simply can’t ignore the Middle East because, as Michael Eisenstadt from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy puts it, “If you don’t visit the Middle East, it will visit you.”

Martin Kalin is a member of the Jewish Funders Network and a trustee of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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