Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, September 8th, 2010
Anyone interested in the Peace Talks should watch this al-Jazeera show: Empire looks at the Israeli-Palestinian talks and asks what it will take to reach the promised land. Rob Malley, John Mearsheimer, Nabil Shaath. Once the first seven minutes are over, they get down to a very interesting discussion of the realities and strategies of each side. Skip to 7 minutes into the show. See Philip Weiss for commentary on the video.
Syria droughts devastate crops, livestock: UN
By Rim Haddad (AFP)
DAMASCUS — Four consecutive droughts since 2006 have triggered “significant losses” of crops and livestock in Syria, mostly in the northeast of the country, a UN official said on Tuesday.
Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food said who has been in Syria since August 29, said the droughts have left Syrians reeling and are having serious effects beyond purely economic ones.
“As a result of recent droughts … between two and three million” Syrians are now “living in extreme poverty in the country,” compared to 2.02 million in 2003-2004, Schutter told a news conference in Damascus.
He added, without elaborating, that this figure “remains tentative.”
Schutter said that “since 2006, four consecutive droughts have affected Syria, with the drought in 2007-2008 being particularly devastating.”
“The losses from these repeated droughts have been significant for the population in the northeastern part of the country, particularly in the provinces of Al-Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor and Al-Raqqa,” he said.
“In total, 1.3 million people have been affected, 95 percent of which live in these provinces and 800,000 of which were severely devastated,” he added.
In June, the World Food Programme started delivering food aid to nearly 200,000 people in those three provinces in the second such initiative since the United Nations launched a plan last year to combat the effects of the drought.
“The situation is really bad” in northeast Syria, WFP official Selly Muzammil said in June.
Schutter said those most affected are “small-scale farmers,” and that the situation of many “further worsened in 2010 as a result of the yellow rust disease affecting the soft wheat production.”
Meanwhile, small-scale herders have lost around 80-85 percent of their livestock since 2005, he said.
Schutter noted that the droughts force many families to migrate to urban areas, leaving behind unattended farm land while their children dropped out of school as families tried to ends meet.
The United Nations estimates more than a million people have left the northeast, with farmers simply not cultivating enough food or earning enough money to sustain them.
Fifty thousand families are expected to leave rural areas for urban ones this year, compared to 29,000-30,000 in 2009.
Schutter said the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in Syria after the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq was “another stress placed on Syria.”
He also spoke of the “decrease of water table levels in Syria” and described that as “a serious source of concern.”
Wheat production, a key strategic resource, is believed to have fallen this year to 2.4 million tonne from from 4.1 million in 2007, while consumption has risen to 4.0 million tonnes annually, the ruling party’s newspaper Al-Baath reported in June.
“We are going to import wheat for the third consecutive year,” the daily said.
Elie Elhadj writes on Syria’s Water Problems:
For a clearer picture of Syria’s water problem, it ought to be noted that Between 1988 and 2000 the Syrian government spent, I estimated a few years ago, $15 billion on irrigation projects of different kinds. Despite this, however, reliance on capricious rainfall was not reduced and food self-sufficiency unrealized, despite false claims to the contrary.
In 1989, wheat production was 1 million tons; in 1995, it jumped to 4.2 million tons; in 1999, it dropped to 2.7 million tons; and in 2007, it increased to 4.1 million tons. Estimates for 2008 were around 2.5 million tons, and for this year 2.4 million tonnes.
Why was the reliance on rain water not reduced? Because huge resources were invested where the return was meager. The Tabqa Dam, for example, failed to achieve its targets. The plan was for the dam to increase the irrigated surface in the Euphrates Basin by 640,000 hectares by 2000. However, by 2000, only 124,000 hectares were irrigated in this salt-affected and drainage-poor Basin. Gypsum in the soil caused the irrigation networks to collapse. In the Euphrates Basin, 43 percent of the land was identified by the World Bank as having drainage problems or potential to develop problems in the future.
The World Bank concluded that Syria’s government “will need to recognize that achieving food security with respect to wheat and other cereals in the short-term as well as the encouragement of water-intensive cotton appear to be undermining Syria’s security over the long-term by depleting available groundwater resources.”
Had Syria invested in low water using manufacturing industries, instead of irrigation projects to generate the forex to import high water using foodstuffs, Syria would be today, I contend, in a better position in terms of per capita GDP as well as ground water volume and quality.
Schutter …. also spoke of the “decrease of water table levels in Syria” and described that as “a serious source of concern.”
Describing the decrease of water table levels as a serious source of concern is too diplomatic.
Irrigation extractions beyond the volume of renewable water have led to negative balances in five out the country’s seven basins; thus, reducing the quantity and degrading the quality of the remaining water reserves. This situation explains the serious challenge Syria faces in providing sufficient drinking and household water to most cities, a challenge that will grow over time as cities grow, if serious and major remedial steps are not taken immediately.
Veteran Syrian director takes on Muslim “extremism”
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Tue Sep 7, 2010
DAMASCUS (Reuters) – A veteran Syrian director who has shocked audiences by portraying a religious zealot who abuses women says his popular television series could help stop an Arab slide towards extremism.
Najdat Anzour’s “What your right hand possesses,” whose heroine Leila is forced by her brother Tawfiq to wear the full veil while he has illicit affairs, is being shown on television stations during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Oman and Libya.
The 30-episode series, set in Syria and France, has attracted a wide following, as well as criticism by some Syrians who see it as unfairly targeting the highly devout — especially since its title is taken from the Koran.
Mohammad al-Buti, a government backed cleric who teaches Islamic law at Damascus University, initially described the series as a cancer and a mockery of God, though he later retracted his remarks saying he had not seen the work.
“When I film Damascus from the mountain I count thousands of green lit mosques and only a handful of theatres and cinemas,” Anzour told Reuters.
“Balance in society needs to be restored. My target is those remaining in the middle and who have not yet turned into extremism,” said the 56-year-old director of pan Arab fame.
Anzour argues for wider political freedom in the Arab world and says “wrong” interpretations of Islam cannot be allowed to dominate Arab media and television, with Saudi Arabia controlling major outlets.
“Lack of confidence in Arab regimes is opening the door to the spread of religious and extremist ideas. Our duty is to put the spotlight on the extremists to try to preserve the Middle ground. We dissect what they are saying and show that it has nothing to do with Islam ,” Anzour said.
Syrian television drama is big business by Arab standards, attracting millions of dollars in investment and adverts and vying with Egypt for audiences across the Middle East during the month of Ramadan, when new productions make their debut.
While the issues raised can stir controversy, they are usually in line with the policy of the government, which has been controlled by the Baath Party since it took power in 1963, outlawing opposition and imposing emergency law still in force.
The state, which crushed the Muslim Brotherhood as well as secular opposition parties in the 1980s, has recently made it clear that it does not favour having fully veiled women in the education system.
But the authorities have been tolerant of other Muslim religious displays and support the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shi’ite movement.
“NOT MOCKING ISLAM”
Anzour says the series does not exclusively criticise religious characters, and shows unsavoury secular figures as well.
Leila’s devout father opposes her brother dictating how she dresses, as well as his decision to whip her after he catches her with her boyfriend — despite a medical examination showing she was still a virgin.
Impervious to contradictions, Tawfiq gets a high school girl pregnant and starts an affair with a wife of an Islamist militant who died fighting in Iraq.
The series, which ends this week, shows Tawfiq espousing violence as hints of his private transgressions become known to his family. He preaches that violence should be used to make people adhere to what he regards as strict tenets of faith and that it is a duty of the faithful to topple non-Islamic systems.
“I think some were premature in their judgement. The more episodes people see the more they realise that it does not mock Islam but searches for real Islam in the society,” Anzour said.
“…Syrian society is a mural and I see these people are outside it,” he said. “Political conditions will play a main role in reversing the structure of society and the terrorist thinking that is being spread.”
Anzour’s work in recent years has focussed on religious themes, including a defence of Islam in “The ceiling of the universe,” following the outrage over a Danish newspaper cartoons depicting the Prophet. In “Passers by,” he described how Arab emigrants in Western societies could turn to violence.
In his current series, Leila eventually marries a good man and moves with her husband, who subsequently dies, to France, where she removes the veil totally but remains a devout Muslim.
Anzour, a Circassian who grew up in the once cosmopolitan city of Aleppo, said he was not against the veil but women should have the freedom not to wear it.
“Out of the thousands you see walking in Damascus 90 percent are now veiled. This was unthinkable several decades ago,” he said. “Are the women wearing the veil out of conviction or out of pressure by families and surroundings?”
LA Times [Reg]: LEBANON: Supporters stunned as Hariri says Syria didn’t kill his dad
2010-09-07 14:59:13.654 GMT
Praise, skepticism, betrayal, and mere confusion. The list of reactions is long in Arab media commentaries and on blogs and Web forums to Lebanese Premier Saad Hariri retracting his accusation against Syria in the 2005 assassination of his father in …
….All you have to do is read the history of Lebanon to understand that there are no solutions in Lebanon without Syria,… Officials in Lebanon cannot be against Syria,” Makdisi told AFP. “That is just not an option, and Hariri has realised that.”
Hariri initially accused his then-foe Syria of the February 14, 2005 bombing that killed his father, ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, and 22 others in Beirut, at a time when Damascus retained a tight grip over Lebanon…. on Monday, the prime minister was quoted as saying he had erred. “At some point, we made a mistake, … At one stage, we accused Syria … That was a political accusation, and that political accusation is over.”
Hariri’s retraction, which one Lebanese daily dubbed a “political bomb,” comes amid high tension in Lebanon over pending indictments by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a UN-backed probe into the assassination.
Preliminary reports by a committee of The Hague-based tribunal concluded there was evidence implicating Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services in Hariri’s murder, but there are no suspects in custody.
The tribunal is reportedly set to implicate Lebanese Shiite party Hezbollah in the murder…..
Fadia Kiwan, head of the political science department at Saint Joseph University, argues that one party stands to gain from Hariri’s political metamorphosis: Syria. “After a difficult phase from 2005 to 2007, Syria’s power is once again consecrated,” Kiwan told AFP. “This will also put Syria’s allies in Lebanon in a position of even more power. “We should have expected this position since Hariri’s first visit to Syria,” she added. “It’s a natural stop in changing his political path.”
Syria: Mobile feast
16 September 2010
Economist Intelligence Unit
Telecoms companies have been waiting for a long time for the Syrian mobile market to open up. They have finally been granted their wish
The Syrian government has approved plans for the entry of a third mobile-phone operator and for the conversion of the build-operate-transfer (BOT) contracts of the two incumbents into fully paid-up licences. The opportunity to enter one of the least developed markets in the region is likely to elicit strong interest, particularly given the recent improvements in the perception of Syria as an investment destination. It could also provide a tidy windfall for the Syrian Treasury.
The way was opened for the award of a new licence when parliament passed a telecoms law on May 18th, which provided for the creation of an independent regulator, with the discretion to issue licences, and for the transformation of the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) into a state-owned corporation. The telecoms minister, Imad Sabouni, told Al Watan, a local newspaper, that the process of awarding the licence will take between five and seven months from the issue of the tender invitation, which he said would take place in the next two weeks. The process will entail two rounds of pre-qualification followed by a public auction. The ministry has used the services of Detecon, a German consultant, to prepare the terms of reference for the new licence and to advise on the conversion of the BOT contracts into licences.
Level playing field?
The two existing operators are Syriatel, controlled by Rami Makhlouf, a prominent businessman and a cousin of the president, Bashar al-Assad (he also happens to be Al Watan’s proprietor), and MTN, a South African firm that entered the market in 2006 through acquiring Beirut-based Investcom. The BOT contracts were awarded to Syriatel and Investcom in 2001 for 15 years, with the option of extending for a further three years, and with a guarantee that no new operator would be authorised for at least seven years. They have about 9m subscribers in total, with Syriatel leading with a share of about 55%. The contracts oblige the two firms to pay a 50% share of their gross revenue to STE. This amounted to S£41bn (US$890m) in 2009, making up a significant portion of the public-sector surpluses included in general budget revenue.
Mr Sabouni said that Detecon’s studies had shown that the state would reap a better return from the sale of the licences and through a new revenue-sharing arrangement than that which it gets from Syriatel and MTN.
The government has not yet provided details about the conversion of the BOT contracts. One option would be to oblige the two incumbents to pay the same fee as the winning bid in the auction—this would at least assure the new operator that the system is based on fair competition. Another critical question for new entrants will be the role of the regulatory authority, which is expected to start its operations in January 2011. The two operators have so far been subject to the supervision of STE.
Gulf operators keen to expand
Several regional telecoms companies have already expressed interest in taking up any opportunity to become the third operator in Syria. Bidders can be expected to include the major players in the Gulf, such as Etisalat of the UAE, Saudi Telecom, Qatar Telecom and Kuwait’s Zain, as well as the leading Turkish operator, Turkcell, which had previously been reported to be considering a bid to acquire Syriatel. There could also be some interest from Asian or Russian operators, and possibly from west European firms. Egypt’s Orascom Telecom would normally be expected to pursue an opportunity of this sort, but it could be deterred by its experience as the original partner of Mr Makhlouf in Syriatel, a relationship that quickly soured and which was eventually broken off.
Syria comes fairly low down the regional rankings for mobile penetration, according to figures provided by the International Telecommunication Union, with 44 users per 100 inhabitants (see Database, p.12). It lags behind most of its regional peers, with the exception of Sudan, Lebanon and Yemen (the figure for Lebanon is oddly low, perhaps because most mobile-phone users subscribe to networks in third countries rather than paying inflated fees for the state-owned service). To judge by comments on local news sites, Syrian consumers appear to be keen to see new entrants offering the same sort of packages and special deals that are widely available in the Gulf, and which are considerably more generous than those provided by Syriatel and MTN.
The opening up of the Syrian telecoms market is part of a wider effort to attract investment and to develop the private sector. Besides stimulating growth in the telecoms sector, it could also to provide a boost to the fledgling Damascus stockmarket, as both the incumbents and the new licensee are likely to offer shares to the public to help cover some of the costs of the fees.
FACTBOX-UN issues human rights report on Syria
07 Sep 2010, Reuters
Sept 7 (Reuters) – The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has issued a rare report on Syria, calling on the government to intensify its response to a severe drought and stop discrimination against the Arab country’s Kurd minority.
Here are key points of the report…..
– Syria receives high marks for opening its public services and education system to Iraqi refugees, of whom 150,000 are registered with the United Nations.
– The refugees, however, are not allowed to work in Syria, which drives them to the underground economy at below minimum wage salaries and exposes them to employer abuse.
– Allowing the refugees access to the formal economy would “reduce the risk” of Iraqis competing with Syrian workers because they would then be given equal pay.
RIGHT TO FOOD
– Syria has a food subsidies programme supplying 10-15 percent of food demand. In theory the system is open to all Syrians, but many families cannot register if they have a male member who did not comply with mandatory military service.
– Programme should be extended to cover lentils, chickpeas, eggs and more fruits, vegetables and dairy products for children and pregnant women. If funds are lacking, the United Nations suggests that the programme could be limited to those falling below a defined poverty line.
DROUGHT IN EASTERN SYRIA
– School enrolment in northeastern Syria fell by 80 percent as a result of internal displacement driven by the drought.
– Government is focusing on schemes to make irrigation more efficient but also on big projects that could further deplete groundwater. More help is needed for vulnerable small farmers, who could benefit from low-tech but sustainable solutions, such as rainwater gathering techniques.
– Territory held by Israel since 1967 is still home to 20,000 Syrians.
– Israeli settlers farm 80 square km (31 square miles) compared with 20 square km farmed by Syrians, although the two groups are comparable in size.
– The Special Rapporteur suspects “gross disparities” between the water usage allotted to the Israeli settlers and the Syrian inhabitants.
(For a story on Syrian treatment of the Kurdish minority, click on [ID:nLDE68619Y])
(Writing by Khaled Yacoub Oweis;
Syria treatment of Kurds “unacceptible” -UN official
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
DAMASCUS, Sept 7 (Reuters) – Syria’s denial of citizenship rights to its Kurdish minority is “unacceptable” and the government should improve their treatment to help build national unity, a high-level U.N. human rights official said on Tuesday.