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Shlomo Bolts: A Syrian Jew Opposed to a Political Solution With Assad

The Syrian researcher holds Bashar al-Assad fully responsible for the slaughter of Syrians. He views ISIS as a willing tool of Assad and Iran to eliminate the Syrian Revolution.
Monday 12 January 2015

In America and worldwide, civil and political organizations have emerged to support the Syrian Revolution and the people’s calls for change. While Syrian Jews have kept their distance from the turbulent Syrian political scene, some are nonetheless active and influential. Shlomo Bolts, a researcher on Syria who prepares policy papers for senior officials in the American government and Congress, is one of them.

Shlomo’s family migrated to the United States from the Syrian city of Aleppo, yet they still consider themselves a Syrian family. They are not alone. Many Syrian Jews see no conflict between their Jewish identities and a full sense of Syrian belonging. They see it as within their rights to demand change and democracy in Syria just as Syrian Muslims, Syrian Christians, and Syrian Yazidis would.

Shlomo studied Political Science and Sociology at Columbia University, before attaining a master’s degree in Modern Society and Global Transformations from the University of Cambridge. He has been active in the fields of human rights, defense against oppression, and Jewish-Arab dialogue throughout the past ten years. In 2011, he began to join protests in the United States in support of Syrian demands for change. In fall 2012, he joined the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, and he is now a member of the Syrian American Council based in Maryland. He previously worked at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Project on Middle East Democracy.

Over 10,000 Jews lived in Syria in the year 1922, when the total Syrian population was only 1.5 million. Jews at the time were a more numerous minority than Shiites. While Shiites constituted 0.6% of the Syrian population, Jews comprised 0.72% of all Syrians, thereby approaching the Ismailis, who encompassed 0.9% of Syria’s residents. In 1919, the Syrian Conference was established as the first Syrian parliamentary body. Linado, a Syrian Jew, was elected as a representative for Damascus. He continued as a parliamentary member until 1943, when Jewish representation moved from Damascus to Aleppo with the election of the Aleppine Jew Ezra Azraq.

After independence and parliamentary elections in 1947, President Shukri al-Quwatli issued a decree delineating electoral constituencies, the number of representatives, and the sects belonging to them. Jews held one seat within the Damascus representation, which was won by Wahid Mizrahi as the representative of Damascus and its suburbs. In 1957, Jews inside Syria numbered 32,000 souls.

Migration During the Hafez al-Assad Era

"Jews participated in Syrian public life before the Hafez al-Assad regime," says Shlomo Bolts to Al-Arab, and adds: "They all left during the reign of Assad the father, and the real reason they migrated was pressure from the Assad intelligence services. Every religious festival, every prayer, every holiday and every occasion, you would have Mukhaberat agents monitoring and interfering, until ordinary life became impossible for Syrian Jews in Syria, even though they had zero interest in political affairs."

Shlomo further explains, "Syrian Jews today strive to preserve their religion and culture for the future—their unique prayers, their cultural and religious differences—because these are their spiritual riches and treasure. But Syrian Jews have been largely disconnected from other Syrians, just as the Assad regime has in this way or that disconnected all Syrian sects from one another. This allowed Assad to portray himself as the only incubator and protector of minorities."

"This did not happen everywhere. In Morocco, you can see to this day Jews living peaceful and normal lives. In Tunisia, even after the revolution against Zein al-Abideen Bin Ali, we have not heard of major incidents against the Jews. What befell the Jews of Syria was therefore the product of the Assad regime."

How did Syrian Jews in the United States and abroad respond to the peaceful popular uprising of 2011, and to the outbreak of mass demonstrations calling for change and regime overthrow? Shlomo comments: "I think most Syrian Jews were not terribly interested at the start of the Syrian Revolution. I spoke to an Iraqi Jew at the start of the Arab Spring, when Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis were united against the tyranny of Nuri al-Maliki. I told him there were protests in Iraq that incorporated all religions and sects. He said that he saw only chaos and anarchy that would create an insecure situation."

"I think Syrian Jews felt similarly and I understand this attitude. Because of insecurity and violence, Syrian Jews as well were forced to leave Syria in the past. But as Assad escalated his violence against the people, Syrian Jews began to consider ways to aid refugees and the needy. Fairly early in the Revolution, conversations about aid projects began, some of which have materialized with positive results."

"I personally feel that many Syrians had an incorrect attitude toward Syrian Jews, because many of them believed that ties between Syrian Jews and Syria were severed for good. In truth, there were Syrian Jews who at the start of the Revolution were chanting to themselves from afar ’One one one, the Syrian people are one’ alongside the protesters."

The Holocaust and Chemical Weapons

Shlomo does not dispute that Bashar al-Assad, who heads the Syrian regime, is responsible for the massacres that have been perpetrated against the Syrian people. He tells Al-Arab: "I supported the Arab Spring, and I wish to help the people of Syria. What is happening now in Syria, what is being carried out at the hands of the Bashar al-Assad regime, is genocide in the full sense of the word. And it has been going on for the past four years. Since Jews know what genocide means from the Holocaust, I believe it is incumbent on them to stand against all genocides anywhere in the world."

Shlomo speaks of Jewish humanitarian organizations who support the Syrian Revolution. According to him, their numbers are steadily increasing, and Jews of Syrian ancestry are joining their ranks. Because these groups do not wish to appear controversial, they insist that their sole goal is protecting the Syrian people. Shlomo adds: "When Assad deployed chemical weapons in Ghouta, there was a huge reaction. Jews denounced the attack as criminal behavior, and said that these are innocents from among the people dying as Jews died at the hands of Nazis in the Holocaust. Even AIPAC got involved, and lobbied for the American Congress to authorize military strikes against Assad. I believe that most American Jews, Syrian and non-Syrian, were outraged by the events in Ghouta."

The Israeli Position

And how does Shlomo, in his familiarity with the Jewish political scene, evaluate the Israeli perspective on ongoing events in Syria? Many Syrians believe that Assad’s survival is an Israeli demand and that Israel protects the regime behind the scenes, on the grounds that the regime has preserved Israel’s interests and protected her borders with Syria and Lebanon.

But Shlomo says: "Israel does not hold just one viewpoint on Syria. There’s the Iranian factor, to which Israel devotes particular attention, and also Hezbollah. Israel describes these actors as her enemies, and since the Houla Massacre, Israeli politicians and especially right-wing politicians have repeatedly denounced Assad’s massacres. One could say that these condemnations are made only for political interests, but I know that there have also been demonstrations inside Israel to support the Syrian people."

"I have talked to influential Israelis connected to the government and asked them about the Syrian Revolution. In these discussions, I did not focus on genocide and massacres, but on geopolitics, pointing out that the Syrian Revolution is against Israel’s enemies Iran and Hezbollah. Given these interests, I asked them, why hasn’t Israel supported the Syrian people more firmly? They often answer that Israel is of two minds. On the one hand, they favor a democratic revolution by the Syrian people, but on the other hand, they worry that extremists like Nusra and ISIS will end up in power."

Many will wonder how Syrian Jews feel regarding the Syrian Golan Heights that Israel has occupied, as this has been an ambiguous topic shrouded in mystery. Shlomo states: "I suspect most Syrian Jews were sympathetic to peace talks that took place in the past, as these talks could have put an end to the state of war by returning the Golan to Syria. I personally worked for a long time on Jewish-Arab dialogue before the Revolution, and I was in favor of the talks between Israel and the Assad regime. But when I think about it today, who has the right to make peace? Can a government like Assad’s really make a final peace? This is the right of the Syrian people alone."

"I still hope for peace, but I hope for a peace deal signed by a popular, democratically-elected government. I have supported returning Golan to the Syrian people before, when it looked like such a peace was possible. But today civil society is more important than talks between political regimes that could change at any moment. In order to end the Jewish-Arab conflict, ties between people are most important, and I hope that I am furthering such ties with my current work."

Surveying the scene of the Syrian conflict today, Shlomo states: "I support the Free Syrian Army. It flies the Syrian independence flag that preceded Assad, and that flew when Syrian Jews were still numerous in Syria. Naturally, I oppose ISIS, which kills and commits terrible massacres even against Muslims. I think it is quite possible that the Assad regime and Iran created ISIS to eliminate the Syrian Revolution and expand their influence. But it is more important to recognize that ISIS does not fight the Assad regime. Over 60% of ISIS attacks are against the Syrian opposition, and only 13% of attacks are against the Syrian regime. Therefore, while ISIS stands against the Assad regime with their words, they support Bashar al-Assad with their actions. ISIS and Assad have the same goals, and for this reason we must reject both of them together, fight them, and remove them from Syria."

However, regarding the unaffiliated Islamic brigades who fight on the ground, Shlomo remarks: "With respect to the Islamic opposition brigades such as the Islamic Front, I definitely do not agree with their political views. But I know that they protect the Syrian people from Assad’s massacres, so I rejoice in their successes."

As Shlomo sees it, matters began to complicate at an important turning point that he identifies: "Since the Battle of Qusair, Iran has been present on the Syrian battlefield brazenly and in force. They have operated through Hezbollah, which has raised sectarian banners on the minarets of Sunni mosques. Russia has also supported Assad for the duration. How can the Syrian people resist and defeat all these powers together? They face a great power imbalance."

The De Mistura Plan

Shlomo also opposes the De Mistura plan for local ceasefires, and says: "We are working hard and explaining to officials in Washington that this is not the correct path. America right now has a problem with ISIS. After standing aside for three years of massacres against the Syrian people, it took just three months for America to begin military operations against ISIS without the Assad regime’s permission."

"I believe De Mistura and his plan would not aid the war against ISIS in the long term, because this would create a victory for Iran at the same time. There was already a ceasefire in Homs previously, and Assad of course did not abide by it, but exploited the situation to change the demographic balance. America says that we need to work with the moderate Sunnis in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. I do not believe that steps modeled on what happened in Homs can earn support from moderate Sunnis. Moderate Sunnis have not even been able to return to Homs. Today, they are in refugee camps in Lebanon suffering attacks from Hezbollah."

"There is a great sectarian struggle across the region. The problem is that Iran is the most sectarian regime in the Middle East. People say that ISIS shattered the Syrian-Iraqi border, but before that, Hezbollah did exactly the same thing to the Syrian-Lebanese border at the Battle of Qusair."

A Political Solution in Syria

Shlomo says that Assad will not give up power in a political solution, adding: "Who still believes that Assad wants to become an ordinary person outside the government? I believe that his allies Iran and Hezbollah are stronger than him today even inside Syria. They would never allow him to give up power. I wish I could say that the negotiations being discussed in Moscow and elsewhere might bring peace, but we’ve already seen how Assad responds to negotiations."

"It is a lie to say that Assad fights terrorism. Assad says this, but the Syrian opposition are in fact the ones fighting terrorism. Assad strengthens the terrorists by weakening the opposition through barrel-bombs. If a truly binding peaceful solution were reached, the opposition would triumph because the Assad regime can not survive without the military option."

"The Syrian opposition never carried out massacres against Alawite civilians. But after all this time without a political or military solution, there are real extremists like ISIS on Syrian soil who wish to slaughter all the Alawites. As a result, Alawites are beginning to say ’Enough. We no longer wish to kill other sects for Bashar al-Assad.’ Assad also appears to be facing more and more problems recruiting fighters and soldiers. For this reason, I hope the Free Army and the moderate opposition will reconstitute themselves, because this is the only way to bring Bashar al-Assad down."

Syrian Jews and the Opposition

Do Syrian Jews operate within Syrian opposition political bodies? And do they have any role in international forums to defend the cause of the Syrian people? Shlomo says: "Many Syrian Jews have great feelings of sympathy with the Syrian Revolution. I am here and playing a positive role. If they can also play a positive role, they should be included. We may be the smallest minority inside Syria, but in the Free Syrian lobby in the United States, there is a definitely a major role for us to play."

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