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This week's window on the Middle East - October 1, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Qatar’s Plan B for Syria: a wise choice? Also, the tables are turning against Libya's 'thuwar' as revolution fades.

Arab Awakening
1 October 2012
  • Qatar’s Plan B for Syria: a wise choice?
  • From revolutionaries to militia: the tables are turning against Libya’s ‘thuwar’
  • The Gulf’s cupcake entrepreneurs
  • Tunisian schizophrenia over women
  • The Arab world’s “Call me Doctor!” complex
  • Why the Moroccan regime is still ignoring pro-change voices
  • Examining the US-Jordan relationship
  • The not-so-strange case of the lost potato field of Jibata Al-Khashab
  • Qatar’s Plan B for Syria: a wise choice?

    By Michael Stephens

    This week Qatar once again brought itself into the spotlight through the actions of its two most powerful men, the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, and the Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani. In a televised interview with CNN the Prime Minister announced that there was a Plan B for Syria stating ''You need to make safe haven areas…  That would require a no-fly zone.” Less than 24 hours later his Emir stood in front of the UN General Assembly to announce that ''It is better for Arab countries themselves to intervene out of their humanitarian, political and military duties and do what is necessary to stop the bloodshed.''

    These statements were nothing if not bold assertions of policy, but their boldness seems a little out of place. It is clear of course that the policy elites in Doha had given these two announcements considerable thought and energy. These were rational calculations made to maintain Qatar’s position in the Arab world and also to advance a solution to the Syrian problem which has now dragged into a tragic stalemate of carnage and bloodshed.

    But here lies the rub, both a No Fly Zone and an Arab led intervention force will be fiendishly difficult to put into practice. Very few militaries in the world would openly risk exposing their aircraft to Assad’s air defences, which are still of sufficient capability to pose a severe threat. As such a massive strike over days would be required to remove all air defences prior to the establishment of an NFZ. This would require the United States to be involved, but it has so far shied away from any possible military action in Syria. Furthermore it is highly unlikely such an action could be enforced without a Security Council resolution. And we all know what will happen there.

    As for the Arab countries leading an intervention, such an authorisation will at least require the backing and support of the Arab League. Egypt’s President Morsi has already indicated that he does not support an external intervention in Syria, so it is unlikely a consensus between the most powerful Arab states can be reached.

    There is no doubt that this new policy track is risky, Qatar must now attempt to force through a course of action on both the NFZ and the question of Arab action or risk looking like its diplomatic influence is  fading. Qatar although extraordinarily rich is not a great military power and cannot deliver the punch to back up its words: it must rely on others to deliver that blow instead.

    The point to note is that the Qataris already know all of this, so it begs the question: why given these constraints have they still pushed forward with this new line of thinking? Once again I have no doubt that the Emir in particular sees advocating military intervention as genuinely moral, that it is a universal good to remove Assad from power as soon as possible. Secondly the sense of frustration with the ongoing operation to assist the rebels is tangible. Almost every body I speak to who is close to these activities seems tired, and jaded, believing the operation to be what the American military might term a SNAFU. This sense of disappointment seems to have stung the Qataris into action to try to rectify matters and inject a renewed sense of urgency into multilateral activities in Syria.

    The real question is not about Qatar however, but Saudi Arabia. Should Riyadh feel sufficiently bold (which would be very out of character) to mobilise and follow Qatar’s call for action, then a real substantive shift might take place. Indeed Saudi’s vastly superior technological capabilities could end the conflict quickly should it wish to mobilise its more capable units. Although Saudi forces are largely untested in war it is doubtful Assad’s forces could withstand a full scale Saudi offensive launched from Jordan.

    This may well be the key to understanding what Qatar is doing. The Qataris are trying to drag Riyadh into a more assertive posture that produces a genuine sense of threat among Syrian decision makers. Backed by Jordan and possibly the UAE this would create a coalition that could force Assad into submission. The conflict is military at the end of the day, and it cannot presently be solved by political means. The Qataris understand this, and so does everybody else.

    Perhaps the Emir was simply saying what we have all been thinking but have been too afraid to say.

    From revolutionaries to militia: the tables are turning against Libya’s ‘thuwar’

    By Rhiannon Smith

    Shortly after Libya was officially liberated from Colonel Gaddafi back in October 2011, the spirit of revolution was in the air. The sight of young men in mismatching military uniforms manning check points with Russian rifles slung casually over their shoulders and cigarettes hanging out of their mouths was a sight which inspired pride, confidence and solidarity from swathes of the Libyan population. The ‘thuwar’ (revolutionaries) were seen as the heroes of the hour. They were giving up their time, security and often lives in order to protect the newly liberated Libyan state. They were a tangible indicator that the revolution and its gains were being defended at all costs.

    Fast forward nearly a year to the present day and the same men can be seen lounging by checkpoints, blocking roads, or increasingly, brandishing their weapons to demand their rights as ‘thuwar’, the defenders of Libya’s revolution. Over the last few months some fighters have gone back to civilian life, some have been assimilated into the fledgling National Army and Police forces and the rest have stayed within their close-knit brigades. These brigades, or militias as they are now being labelled, have either been brought nominally under the control of the Ministries of Defence and Interior, or have been left on the periphery to do as they please.

    In a state fractured by war, awash with weapons and hampered by decades old suspicions about the police and army, the ‘thuwar’ were crucial in maintaining a semblance of security during the early days of new Libya. However events have moved on and as the state has attempted to exert more control over Libya, the role of these onetime rebels and revolutionaries has been called into question. These armed men think, act and make demands on the basis that they are revolutionaries, yet there is no longer a revolution to be fought.

    Libya now has an elected congress who have a mandate to lead their country through the next stage in its transition. The moment they took power, the unofficial mandate of the ‘thuwar’ to protect the revolution should have been terminated. The situation may not be ideal but the outcome of the revolution was the 200 elected representatives who now make up the National Congress. They may be successful, they may not, but they should be given a fair chance to do their job and try to lead Libya to calmer waters. To do this effectively they need Libya’s armed forces to do their bidding and implement their decisions.

    However, as has been made starkly obvious over the summer months, many ‘thuwar’ have no intention of submitting to the will of the elected government, nor of giving up their mantle of ‘defenders of the revolution’.  Sufi shrines were destroyed with the support of the Supreme Security Council, (a Ministry-controlled brigade), members of the SSC threatened to blow up a hotel over grievances with the government and the American ambassador to Libya was killed in an attack allegedly led by Libyan brigade Ansar al-Sharia. Instead of protecting the road to Libya’s future, these brigades are now the biggest obstacle preventing the country from moving forward.

    Reports of extrajudicial killings, torture and detention without trial have become all too familiar in post conflict Libya, yet it is the same ‘thuwar’ who apparently fought for freedom, human rights and an end to repressive rule who are now the ones imposing their own reign of tyranny. Some are flagrantly abusing the human rights of others while demanding their own rights at gunpoint. Once the heroes of the story, they have now become the villains.

    If these thuwar-turned-militiamen need proof that they have lost their popular support, the 30,000 to 40,000 people who came on to the streets of Benghazi on Friday, September 21, to demand the end of militia rule should be enough. That night four brigades were driven out of their barracks by protesters and subsequently disbanded by the army. The following day an agreement was made between political and military figures and militia leaders to disband unruly militias and bring the rest fully under government control.

    However, implementing this agreement will not prove easy. These militias have spent the last year commanding power and influence often through intimidation and persuading them to give up these privileges will be tough, especially as they are all armed. There is also a worry that while smaller rogue brigades will be disbanded, larger ones will remain relatively unaffected. The prime minister-elect Mohammed Magriaf has said army commanders will be put in charge of all brigades including the two major forces in Benghazi, 17th February and Libya Shield. These brigades, like the SSC in Tripoli, are already nominally under government control but remain largely autonomous. Many complaints in recent months have centred around the apparently separate and increasingly Islamist agendas of these brigades.

    There is a danger that over the next few weeks, the weaker more volatile brigades will be disbanded while the influential brigades that represent the real threat to Libya’s future will remain untouched. As congress men and women in Benghazi pointed out on Thursday, it is the fact that separate brigades still exist that is the problem. Whilst their autonomous command structures still exist, it is unlikely that the government will be able to eliminate outside influence and ensure that orders are followed accurately. All brigades must be disbanded and their members assimilated into the army or police as individuals. If this happens, Libya can begin to build the foundations of a strong, obedient national army and police force. However it is remains to be seen whether there is any carrot attractive enough to persuade these powerful militias to relinquish their control, and if not whether the Libyan state can wield a big enough stick to force them to follow their instructions.

    The Gulf’s cupcake entrepreneurs

    By Hasan Tariq Al Hasan

    I still remember waving off an old friend at the airport more than five years ago as she left Bahrain to pursue her undergraduate studies abroad. Eighty-thousand dollars and a bachelor’s degree later, she decided a few months after her return to open her own cupcake business. When I learnt the news, I honestly thought the idea was a joke. It turns out, the joke was on me.

    Little did I know that selling cupcakes in the Gulf is big business. A number of local, homegrown cupcake shops and businesses have sprouted throughout the Gulf countries over the past few years, hacking at Khaleeji teenage girls’ slimness diets and gnawing at their fat budgets. What most often starts as an innocent attempt to perfect the dark art of bringing these sugary treats into existence in one’s own kitchen evolves into a tiny home business. Before you know it, with the aid of social networking and hoards of under-achieving Instagram junkies, the home business metamorphoses into a self-sustaining, successful bakery. Several can be unmistakably spotted with ease in shopping malls throughout the Gulf, largely thanks to the eye-blinding spectrum of flashy colors proud owners have chosen to decorate their stores and booths.

    The phenomenon has also had its social ramifications. Cupcakes have made their way into social etiquette, and now constitute acceptable commodities in the age-old tradition of exchanging gifts. Cupcake entrepreneurs - as I like to call them - have become role models, and sadly, pictures of customizable cupcakes have become all too common a sight on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

    On a more serious note though, young, educated Khaleeji girls faced with the real prospect of unemployment have often alarmingly turned to satisfying the insatiable cravings of cupcake fanatics as one among several other ways of keeping busy, earning money and achieving some social notoriety. A productive occupation seems discouragingly hard to find, given the region’s considerable youth unemployment levels. Reports claim that in Saudi Arabia, unemployment among 15-19 year olds was as high as 27.3% and up to 28% for those belonging to the 20-24 age category for the year 2012. In the UAE, youth unemployment was estimated at 12.1%, more than three times the general unemployment rate. In Kuwait, reportedly about 64% of the unemployed in 2011 were under 29 years of age.

    To make matters worse, the problem of youth unemployment seems to affect females disproportionately in spite of their higher levels of education on average. In Bahrain, according to the 2010 census women constitute around 60% of Bahrainis enrolled in higher education. A 2010 report by the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education claims women represent 56.6% of all university students in the Kingdom.  Yet, despite these revealing figures, women suffer more from joblessness and are said to constitute up to 75% of job seekers in Saudi Arabia.

    In the Gulf, it is all too easy to succumb to the temptation of catering to the population’s excessive tendency to consume as opposed to engaging in innovative entrepreneurship with an exportable added value. Already as it stands, a large portion of the Gulf’s merchant elites are hardly more than parasitic businessmen, benefiting from cheap imported labour, heavy government subsidies and spending, protection from outside competition and the absence of taxation. The incentive to innovate, as opposed to the incentive to recycle oil money, thus hardly ever stands a chance.

    These cupcake sweatshops – alongside the plentiful fast food chains, doughnut bakeries, and so on – do nothing to help improve public health in Gulf countries where lifestyle diseases such as heart problems, high levels of cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure are rampant. One article for instance cites Kuwait as the world’s second most obese country, highlighting the increasing popularity of the gruesome practice of “stomach stapling” as a means for locals to keep their weight under control. The story in the rest of the Gulf is unfortunately not very different.

    Most likely, the GCC-wide cupcake spree will eventually die down. But until a serious desire to implement far-reaching policies aimed at decreasing youth and particularly female unemployment, encouraging meaningful entrepreneurship and creating a greater public health awareness, young women will likely keep on selling their souls to please the overweight and the borderline diabetic, as opposed to putting their skills and education to good use.

    Tunisian schizophrenia over women

    By Kacem Jlidi

    Tunisia has long been known for its advanced stand regarding women’s rights, thanks to the Personal Status Code, a series of Tunisian progressive laws aimed at instituting equality between women and men in a number of areas.  However since the moderate Islamic party Ennahda topped the election results this time last year, the burning question within Tunisian society and abroad is whether Tunisia will regress in this regard or not.   

    The Rights and Liberties Committee within the elected National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) has drafted a controversial article that features women as complementary to men and not equal:

    ‘The state guarantees the protection of women and supports their position, considering them as men’s partners in building the nation, and their role within the family. The state guarantees equal opportunity between men and women to assume different responsibilities. The state guarantees the elimination of all forms of violence against women.’

    Thankfully, the NCA bowed to pressure from members of civil society and women’s rights activists and inserted gender sensitive terms ensuring equality instead of complementarity in the future Constitution.

    On the 56th anniversary of the promulgation of the Personal Status Code, women took to the Mohamed V avenue near downtown Tunis to remind lawmakers that their rights are not up for negotiation. Yet, in the midst of all this, a Tunisian young woman is raped by three policemen in Tunis. It is alleged that the young lady was with her fiancé in their car one late night earlier this month when a police patrol blackmailed the guy to let them two of them rape the young girl, while a third took her fiancé to a nearby ATM in an attempt to extort money from him. Of course this caused a huge outcry against the police. A YouTube video named ‘they raped me and you’re still silent’ is part of the campaign to restore the rights of this young lady, supported by a flash mob, public statements and widespread debate, despite the taboos involved.

    Bochra Bel Haj Hmida, the victim’s lawyer explained today, however that two procedures - a rape case and a molestation case would be pursued in parallel: ‘My client is the plaintiff for the first rape. But during the hearings of the parties, the judge considered that another crime had been committed, and sent the young woman and her fiancé before another judge for molestation’, explains Bel Haj Hmida to Le Courrier de l’Atlas.  The policemen have alleged that they had found the couple in an, ‘immoral position’ in the car – a claim later repeated in a statement by Tunisia’s Ministry of Interior.

    It is predicted that the young lady’s hearing on October 2 will cause much more agitation throughout Tunisia. The situation challenges the supposedly independent judicial court system in several ways, at one and the same time to protect the rights of this young lady, verify the molestation accusations, and reform a police institution that remains largely on track with its old and inhumane practices.

    The Arab world’s “Call me Doctor!” complex

    By Amro Ali

    Once when a Saudi diplomat whom I knew greeted me as Ostaz (Mr) and I replied in kind with Ostaz, he shouted “Doctor!” I was taken aback at the response. Did I miss something here? The Arab world’s social fixation with ‘doctor’ titles can really be burdensome if at times comical.

    When Egypt’s TV satirist Bassam Yousef opened the floor for questions following his opening peroration, a number of Egyptian audience members started off with, “I’m doctor so and so”. Yousef remarked, “we seem to have a lot of doctors in the house today” to the laughter of the audience. At a Cairo conference on the Arab uprisings earlier this year, a female Egyptian academic pleaded with the audience during question time in what was only a semi-joking manner: “I worked so hard for my PhD, so the least I can ask of people is to call me doctor.”  This was cringe-worthy, given the number of overseas academics in the session who could not care less if you addressed them as doctor.

    Yes I can hear the cries already, “This happens all around the world, not just the Middle East!” Sure, the old guard of scholarly circles in Italy and Germany get irked if you fail to address them as such, but it is on the wane. I’m no blind egalitarian that believes titles should be done away with. There is a time and place for titles, such as first meetings, formal ceremonies, application forms and business cards. I’ll use it more out of respect for an elder than anything else.

    But we are talking about the abuse of the title ‘doctor’ to the extent that it even makes it into people’s signature, caller ID’s. Merely registered PhD candidates get called doctor, and the expectation that the title confers upon someone is an all-knowing command of any subject. You hear statements like, “I have a PhD in veterinary science, but I do know a bit about the changing Middle East socio-political landscape”.

    One particularly galling afternoon, an Arab professional continually addressed his own wife as doctor at a barbeque. I did not know what the Arabic equivalent of “Get a room was” and thought it might be a safer alternative to examine the possible multiple uses of those rotating skewers. A baffling scene unfolded when in a room of a dozen Saudi, Egyptian, Palestinian and Jordanian doctors, everyone referring to each other as doctor made it difficult to keep track of who was referring to whom.

    Randa Abou-Bakr, a professor and head of the Department of English Literature at Cairo University claims the need to keep titles to establish cordial teacher-student relations but adds, “I just feel it’s awkward when my colleagues or some casual acquaintance address me so [as doctor or professor]. I find it ridiculously formal. In Egypt, or at least at Cairo University, there are some departments with more ‘liberal’ traditions than others. In our department…the relationship between colleagues is rather casual.”  However, take a stroll through the grounds of the hard sciences in the Arab world, and you hear the title doctor thrown around so much you would think it was an emergency ward with injured patients seeking the nearest help possible.

    People who overemphasise their titles set off alarm bells for me.

    One Kuwaiti delegate informed me of his wish to undertake doctoral studies. When I enquired into his research interests, he could not convey any compelling motivation and the only thing I understood was the “prestige” it entailed and the “promotion” he would receive just to be called “Doctor.”  From having counselled hundreds of Gulf students studying in Australia in the past, this was a tell-tale sign that a student might be at high risk of plagiarism and ghost-writing when they commence their programme. The Saudi “DOCTOR” diplomat was the end-result: he received his PhD from a British university but could hardly write a coherent English sentence.

    In fairness, they are responding to the social structures of their societies that puts the love of research in the back seat so that wasta (connections), symbolism, and stature take first precedent. I’m pinning my hopes on the younger generation who don’t seem to exhibit the same rigid and formalistic expectations as their older peers. An overarching shift in the mindset is needed to return scholarly pursuits to the humility and curiosity that characterised the Arab spirit of enquiry for centuries.

    Titles were certainly the norm, but there was also modesty. Unlike one engineering professor at an Egyptian university who told my friend’s class: “There is God in the heavens, and there is me on Earth.” Makes you almost want to insult him, by, wait for it, calling him by his first name.

    And if you think this is confined to academia, spare a thought for gym-goers. At an Alexandrian gym, the instructor was peeved that I did not address him as “captain”, turned his back and walked away.

    Why the Moroccan regime is still ignoring pro-change voices

    By Jamal Elabiad

    Rachid Taoussi is the new coach of the Moroccan football team. I was shocked by the news simply because I naïvely thought , like most Moroccans, that Badou Ezzaki would surely be the successor of Eric Gerets, the coach whose salary was and still is among the state’s top secrets.

    One of the reasons why Badou Ezzaki’s candidacy was ignored is because he is wellknown for not allowing anyone to meddle in affairs related to his job as a football coach. For instance, when he coached the lions of Atlas for four years (2002-2006), Badou Ezzaki turned down many Moroccan senior officials’ requests to accept certain players in the Moroccan football team.

    However, the most important reason why Badou Ezzaki was not selected is because he is the coach that Moroccans recommend for this job. They have so far created many Facebook pages in support of this popular demand, due partly to the positive results he achieved with the Lions of Atlas in Tunisia, the country where the African Cup of Nations was organized in 2004. 

    This is not the only Moroccan demand that the ruling establishment has refused to meet. For the Moroccan regime, responding favorably to popular demands is a sign of weakness, not strength. Think, for instance, of the regime’s narrative regarding the reforms it announced three weeks after Moroccans hit the streets in protest against corruption, unemployment, and poverty.

    When the regime decided to undertake various political changes, including constitutional reform, our, but out of choice. The regime was about to make those political reforms, and the fact that they were unveiled shortly after the outbreak of the Moroccan Spring was mere coincidence.

    In democratic regimes, meeting people’s needs and demands means, among other things, that social and political reforms aren’t always top down. They are sometimes the other way around. There are times when the people know better than the government what works and what doesn’t for them.

    However, in autocratic regimes, such as that of Morocco, reforms are always top down. It’s only the ruling elite that has the right to make reforms, and all the voices asking for change must be silenced or ignored. Autocratic regimes believe that the people are not mature enough yet to propose workable reforms and to know what serves their interests best.

    Before escaping to Saudi Arabia, Zine Abbidine Ben Ali delivered a speech to the Tunisian people saying he had understood them. He went on to say that he would meet all their demands, including an end to corruption. The Tunisians rejected his promises of reforms and decided to go on protesting until the fall of the regime. There is no question that one of the things Ben Ali understood was the fact that he never had listened to the Tunisians’ calls for reforms, but that it was too late.

    There are many reasons why the Ben Ali regime disregarded the demands of pro-reform activists before the outbreak of the Arab Spring. One is that it wrongly believed that those activists were only a minority in Tunisia and represented only themselves, but not a cross section of the Tunisian people. Regrettably, it is for this reason that many regimes in the Arab world are still ignoring pro-change voices. The Moroccan ruling establishment is only another example.

    Examining the US-Jordan relationship

    By Munir Atalla

    A question always on the mind of Middle Easterners is “what interests are the US pursuing in the Middle East?”  A common perception amongst Arabs is that America pays lip service to the people of the Middle East while really supporting a more self-interested agenda. 

    Luckily, Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney allayed all suspicion last week in a leaked video in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  He went on to show astoundingly little demographic and geographic understanding of the region by probing a hypothetical scenario where a future Palestinian State in the West Bank would somehow border Syria, and Shiite Iran would smuggle in weapons through Sunni Jordan. The banqueting governor ended by saying, “we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it”. Queue the happy conspiracy theorists whose postulations have been affirmed.  For several reasons, America’s allies in the region are shifting like pieces on a chessboard.  So many knights are dead!  The pawns have taken to the streets!  What now?

    “The United States will never retreat from the world,” said President Obama in the wake of the attack on the Libyan embassy in early September.  While the President might have meant his statement as a sign of solidarity, it came across as a threat, bringing back not-too-distant memories of imperialism and colonialism to the minds of Middle Easterners.  “America is a friend,” said Obama, arguably his thesis statement.  Joseph Massad, Associate Professor at Columbia University wrote recently that “while the Americans are pressing for an American Spring in the Arab world that will only be experienced as another American-sponsored Summer drought for the majority of the people of the region, the Arab peoples are working to transform the recent uprisings into nothing short of a cold American Winter.”

    Where is Jordan in this back-and-forth?  There is no doubt that America has a strategic alliance with King Abdullah II.  Historically, the Hashemites have been easy allies to justify.  King Abdullah II’s western education, familiarity with the English language, and secular standing make him an intuitive favourite in the eyes of the world media.  But viewed from the inside, his reign has been characterized by a prime minister retention rate so low it would be funny were it not so tragic.  Reforms have been a carrot on a stick, and the country is weathering what some are calling a “regional storm”. 

    The saving grace of the King is that his time in office has so far been bloodless.  Despite the recent passing of an amendment limiting online freedom, Washington will stand by Jordan and continue to push (lightly) for reforms while in the public eye.  King Abdullah has adopted his father’s strategy and been faithful to the United States, and will likely continue to do so.  It is no secret that the two governments are in cahoots; a fact highlighted when a security operation gone-wrong in Afghanistan saw the death of a CIA operative and a Jordanian Intelligence officer sharing the same car.  The Jordanian Secret Police are a powerful and knowledgeable partner in the American “war on terror”, and proved instrumental in the killing of Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, one of Bin Laden’s close number twos.  Although under-the-table alliances like this are public knowledge in Jordan, most Jordanians aren’t keen on the idea.

    However, the conflict does extend beyond regime versus street, a fact made clear once Saudi Arabia is factored into the equation.  The Gulf Monarchy is one of Jordan’s biggest donors, and pays large amounts of money to quell protests and stifle reform out of fear that something happening in Jordan would mean the beginning of the end for them.  This leaves King Abdullah with a difficult balancing act:  Keep the Americans happy.  Keep the money happy.  Keep the people happy.  In that order.

    The not-so-strange case of the lost potato field of Jibata Al-Khashab

    By Rita from Syria

    Articles 17 and 23 of the Charter of Human Rights state the right for all individuals to own property and have the right to decent work without exception.

    Abu Ali's story is typical of how the lives of ordinary Syrians have been turned upside down. Abu Ali is a simple farmer in his seventies from the town of Jibata al-Khashab located on the Syrian border with the occupied Golan Heights. All he wants is to harvest the potato crop from his field near the border fence, so that he and his family can survive the coming harsh winter. Abu Ali’s land is located entirely within Syrian territory, but the Israeli government has taken advantage of the unstable political and security conditions in Syria and in the town of Jibata al-Khashab to extend its control within Syrian territory. Due to this creeping occupation of Syrian territory, two-thirds of Abu Ali’s land now lies behind the new border fence. If this situation were not bad enough, Abu Ali can no longer access the remaining third which remains under Syrian control because Israeli border patrols threaten whoever is close by with live gun-fire.

    Israeli forces place blue barrels two hundred metres beyond its border within Syrian territory: anyone who ventures past these barrels or gets close to them they shoot him – never mind the fact that he would be within Syrian territory. Abu Ali tells me: "Now they have placed the blue barrel in the third of the land which remained to me. If it’s not harvested, the potato crop will rot after a few days. I am a farmer and if I can’t sell my crops I won’t be able to eat and keep warm in the winter because the land is my only source of income".

    Since the FSA took control of Jibata al-khashab two and a half months ago, Israel has seized nearly seven hundred square meters of Syrian land near the town, and built a monitoring post on one of the hills. The town is located in a buffer zone: under the UN-sponsored disengagement agreement signed between the two countries on 31 May 1974, the area in which Jibata al-Khashab is situated remains under civil Syrian administration. The terms of the agreement also stipulate that UNDOF, the UN peacekeeping force, should be the sole military presence in the area. However, Syrian army and security forces stormed the area on 6 July 2012 for one day and then withdrew and stationed themselves around the town imposing a suffocating siege.

    FSA fighters, with their modest military capabilities and suffering under a military siege, cannot open a new front with Israel. The latter has taken advantage and devoured more Syrian land, capturing strategically located hills. However, areas closest to the border with the occupied Golan are considered by FSA fighters to be the safest. Here, regime forces do not target the FSA fighters for fear of igniting war with Israel. This clearly puts to bed the regime myth of its being a bastion of defiance and resistance against Israeli hegemony.

    Despite the presence of UN troops, violations of international agreements continue apace. Even UN forces are at risk! FSA battalions stationed in Jibata al-Khashab threaten to strike UN positions in case they come under attack from regime forces.

    Fear shrouded the face of the Austrian soldier serving in UNDOF when I asked him about the threats they had received from the FSA. He told me that talks were ongoing with regime forces concerning their safety. One of the officers in charge of UNDOF troops said “it was important”, but added that he does not know what the outcome of the talks has been. Though the FSA have threatened to strike UN forces, they have never done so till now: not when regime forces stormed the town or even when they were bombarded with heavy artillery. The truth is UN forces are still able to move freely in the region.

    The ongoing violations of the disengagement agreement prove that UN power to deal with armed disputes in this area remains just ink on paper. It is purely cosmetic, as is the case with the entire United Nations system. However, UNDOF has been able to help Abu Ali get permission to harvest the rest of the potato crop in what remains of the little land he can access. But for the coming season - who knows? Perhaps all his land will be enclosed behind the expanding fence and he will completely lose his livelihood. Given the complex political and security circumstances in Jibata al-Khashab, as is the case in Syria as a whole, ordinary people like Abu Ali have little choice but to turn to the heavens and pray, "May God relieve this land".

    Who's getting rich from COVID-19?

    Boris Johnson's government stands accused of 'COVID cronyism', after handing out staggering sums of money to controversial private firms to fight COVID-19. Often the terms of these deals are kept secret, with no value-for-money checks or penalties for repeated failures which cost lives. And many major contracts have gone directly to key Tory donors and allies – without competition.

    As COVID rates across the country surge, how can we hold our leaders accountable? Meet the lawyers, journalists and politicians leading the charge in our free live discussion on Thursday 1 October at 5pm UK time.

    Hear from:

    Peter Geoghegan Investigations editor, openDemocracy, and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

    Jolyon Maugham Barrister and founder of the Good Law Project.

    Layla Moran Liberal Democrat MP (TBC)

    Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief of openDemocracy

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