Syria’s regime auctions off land of the displaced

Displaced Syrian men check the destruction at a poultry farm in Idlib. (AFP/File)
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Updated 31 December 2020

Syria’s regime auctions off land of the displaced

BEIRUT: Many Syrians forced from their homes by their country’s brutal, decade-old war are now shocked to discover that their family farms have been taken over by regime loyalists and cronies.
Rights groups and legal experts say local authorities in parts of northwest Syria recaptured by regime forces have staged auctions to effectively “confiscate” fertile land and punish opponents.
One refugee, 30-year-old Salman, said he always knew it would be difficult to return to the family plot in Idlib province he abandoned during an offensive a year ago by the Syrian regime forces.
But whatever hopes he still had to return one day were all but crushed when he learned the rights to cultivate the land had been sold off to a complete stranger.
“What right does someone have to come and take it?” the refugee, who asked to use a pseudonym, told AFP by phone from Greece where he illegally moved a few months ago.
Salman said he used to plant lentils, barley and black cumin on the 37 acres of land he owns with his brothers, earning up to $12,000 each harvest.
He discovered through a post on social media that the rights to the land were being auctioned off.
“We were shocked,” he told AFP. “This land was left to us by our ancestors and we want to pass it down to our children.”
Several other Syrians displaced from southern Idlib and adjacent Hama and Aleppo provinces told AFP that they too have had their plots expropriated.
Some learned about it through social media advertisements run by the regime-affiliated Farmers’ Union in Idlib or through acquaintances still living nearby.
In October, the Farmers’ Union said that it was auctioning off the right to use and cultivate plots owned by Syrians “who don’t reside in government-controlled areas.” Victims found they were being blamed for their misfortune.
The union said the original deed-holders were “indebted” to Syria’s Agricultural Cooperative Bank (ACB), which offers loans to farmers — including those who are now finding it impossible to settle dues from outside government-controlled territory.
The land owners who spoke to AFP all denied having outstanding payments.
“It’s just an excuse,” Salman said.
Other auctions are being organized by regime-linked local security committees, without any mention of outstanding debts, said opposition watchdog group The Day After and war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Assad’s Russian-backed forces have over the past three years pushed deeper into Syria’s last major opposition bastion in the northwest.
Their latest offensive in early 2020 forced nearly a million people out of their homes, according to the UN. Only 235,000 have returned since a cease-fire took hold in March.
Grappling with a deep economic crisis compounded by Western sanctions, Damascus is looking to make use of fertile land to boost agricultural production.
Rights groups, including Amnesty International, have condemned the land expropriations in former rebel strongholds.
“The land auctions exploit displacement for economic benefit,” said Diana Semaan, Amnesty’s Syria researcher.
Authorities, she said, are “seizing lands illegally and in violation of international law.”
In November, an Aleppo security committee said it was taking bids for plots in reconquered villages, according to documents obtained by The Day After activist group and the Observatory.
Amir, a displaced 38-year-old from Aleppo, said he was informed less than two months ago by his former neighbor that authorities were taking offers for his 20 acres of land there.
Amir asked the neighbor to bid on his behalf, but he declined.
“Someone who has relatives with intelligence services in the area” won the bid, said Amir, a father of five who now makes less than $2 a day picking olives in Idlib.
According to judge Anwar Mejni, a member of a UN committee tasked with overseeing the drafting of a new Syria constitution, the land auctions are “a kind of punishment.”
“The auctions may not transfer ownership of the land, but they violate the rights” of original owners to access and cultivate them.
Another issue, said Mejni, is that “there is no legal framework” governing the auctions.
Even if the ACB indeed organized them to settle debts, he said, this “should be done under the supervision of the judiciary.”
Another farmer, Abu Adel, abandoned his village in Hama back in 2012 as battles raged nearby but continued to visit his plot until regime forces seized his area last year.
The 54-year-old hired people to tend to it while he is away, but in July an “affiliate” of a local security committee won rights to use it in an auction.
They “are all part of the same clique,” Abu Adel said. “It’s a facade.”

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UN Security Council to vote on extending Syria cross-border aid

Updated 07 July 2022

UN Security Council to vote on extending Syria cross-border aid

  • The UN resolution permitting aid deliveries across the Syrian-Turkish border at Bab Al-Hawa has been in effect since 2014
  • Nearly 10,000 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid passed through Bab Al-Hawa last year

UNITED NATIONS, US: The United Nations Security Council votes Thursday on extending its authorization of aid transfers across Syria’s border without approval from Damascus, with Russia seeking a six-month prolongation while Western nations want a full year.
The UN resolution permitting aid deliveries across the Syrian-Turkish border at Bab Al-Hawa has been in effect since 2014, but is set to expire on Sunday.
Norway and Ireland, two non-permanent members of the 15-country Security Council, have drafted a resolution that would extend the authorization until July 10, 2023.
Nearly 10,000 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid passed through Bab Al-Hawa last year, bound for the rebel-held Idlib region in northwestern Syria. It is the only crossing through which aid can be brought into Idlib without navigating areas controlled by Syrian government forces.
The resolution, which was obtained by AFP, calls on “all parties to ensure full, safe and unhindered access by all modalities, including cross-line, for deliveries of humanitarian assistance to all parts of Syria.”
Russia, a veto-holding Security Council member and ally of Damascus, has hinted in recent months that it would oppose an extension, having already forced a reduction in the number of allowed border crossings on the grounds that it violates Syria’s sovereignty.
According to diplomats, Russia ultimately put its own draft resolution on the table, which includes an extension of six months.
In an attempt to persuade Moscow, Norway and Ireland have inserted several amendments touching on the transparency of humanitarian shipments, possible contributions to Syria’s reconstruction, and on the need to develop aid deliveries via government-controlled territory.
Russia has long called for the West to participate in Syria’s reconstruction, but some council members, most vocally France, have refused until political reforms have been enacted.
However, during a Security Council meeting in June, a majority of countries — including the United States — offered support for financing so-called “early recovery projects” in Syria.
In this vein, the resolution by Norway and Ireland calls for “further international initiatives to broaden the humanitarian activities in Syria, including water, sanitation, health, education, and shelter early recovery projects.”
By Wednesday evening, few diplomats dared to predict whether the additions would be enough to convince Russia to agree to a full-year extension.
But some told AFP that a last-minute compromise was possible, by making the six-month extension renewable for an additional six months practically by default.

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Sudan protesters take to the barricades again

Updated 07 July 2022

Sudan protesters take to the barricades again

JEDDAH: Protesters in Sudan took to makeshift street barricades of rocks and tires for a seventh day on Wednesday as military leader Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan fired the last civilian members of the country’s ruling council.

Burhan, who seized power in a coup last October, has vowed to “make room” for civilian groups to form a new transitional government after he disbanded the ruling Sovereign Council, which he chairs. The council’s members said they had received no formal notification and were surprised to discover that their official vehicles had been taken away.

Protesters have demanded a restoration of the transition to civilian rule despite repeated crackdowns by the security forces, who have in recent days fired live bullets, launched barrages of tear gas canisters and deployed water cannons. At least 114 people have been killed in the crackdown since October.

The transitional government uprooted by Burhan last year had been forged between the military and civilian factions in 2019, following mass protests that prompted the army to oust dictator Omar Bashir.

Sudan’s main civilian alliance, the Forces for Freedom and Change, said Burhan’s latest move was a “giant ruse” and “tactical retreat.” They also called for “continued public pressure,” and protesters returned to the streets of Khartoum on Wednesday.

Democracy campaigners say the army chief has made such moves before. In November, a month after the coup, Burhan signed a deal with Abdalla Hamdok, the prime minister he had ousted in the power grab and put under house arrest, returning him to power.

But many people rejected that pact and took to the streets again, and Hamdok resigned in January warning that Sudan was “crossing a dangerous turning point that threatens its whole survival.”


United Arab Emirates cuts red tape to attract digital businesses

Updated 06 July 2022

United Arab Emirates cuts red tape to attract digital businesses

  • UAE aims to make it easier for digital companies to incorporate
  • Sets a target for 300 digital companies to incorporate within a year

DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates is cutting red tape to make it easier and quicker for digital companies to incorporate, the latest economic policy announcement as the government seeks to further diversify the economy away from oil revenues.

Trade minister Thani Al Zeyoudi, flanked by executives from many state-linked entities, on Wednesday announced the changes that include better access to the financial and banking system.

“We want to show digitally enabled companies from Europe, Asia, the Americas, that the UAE is the world’s best place to live, work, invest and scale,” the minister told reporters, setting a target for 300 digital companies to incorporate within a year.

Those setting up in the UAE, home to financial center Dubai and oil-rich Abu Dhabi, would have visas issued sooner and be offered attractive commercial and residential leases, he said.

As other governments step up national efforts to increase renewable energy sources and move away from fossil fuels, the UAE is rolling out a series of initiatives to double the economy to $816 billion by 2030.

“We want to show that we are here to help; from commercial licenses and work visas, to opening bank accounts, finding office space and the perfect place to live,” Al Zeyoudi said.

United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Al Zeyoudi gestures during an interview with Reuters in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, June 30, 2022. (REUTERS)

Some company executives complain about the bureaucracy involved in setting up a business, including in hiring international staff in a country where citizens are a minority.

Still, the UAE’s Dubai has established itself as the region’s premier business hub and is already home to many multinational corporations and international businesses.

But regional competition has intensified as Saudi Arabia takes steps to re-mold itself as a leading financial and tourism center under the leadership of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“We’re moving from a regional hub to a global hub,” Al Zeyoudi said. “We’re competing with the big, big boys now.”


Sudan’s Burhan relieves civilian members of the sovereign council from duties

Updated 06 July 2022

Sudan’s Burhan relieves civilian members of the sovereign council from duties

  • Army would not participate in internationally led dialogue efforts to break its stalemate with the civilian opposition

CAIRO: Sudan’s military leader General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan issued a decree relieving the five civilian members of the sovereign council from their duties, a statement on the council’s telegram account said on Wednesday.
Burhan said on Monday the army would not participate in internationally led dialogue efforts to break its stalemate with the civilian opposition, and urged political and revolutionary groups to start talks to form a transitional government.


Israeli forces kill Palestinian in West Bank arrest raid

Updated 07 July 2022

Israeli forces kill Palestinian in West Bank arrest raid

  • At least 50 Palestinians have been killed since late March, mostly in the West Bank

JERUSALEM/RAMALLAH: The Israeli military said it shot and killed a Palestinian man during an arrest raid near the city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday.
The army said that during one of a series of raids carried out across the Palestinian territory, its troops fired at a suspect who attempted to escape arrest in the village of Jaba.
“The force gave medical treatment to the suspect, but later pronounced him dead,” the army said. It said the incident was under investigation.
The Israeli military said its forces were conducting counter-terrorism operations across the West Bank and had arrested 24 suspects.
“I heard Israeli forces shouting at a man, asking him to stop before I heard eight shots fired,” said a Palestinian Jaba resident, who asked not to be identified.
The Palestinian Health Ministry issued a statement saying it received confirmation of the death of Rafiq Riyad Ghannam from the agency that coordinates affairs with Israel. Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency, said the 20-year-old man was severely wounded during clashes in the village.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said that Israel was “preceding President Biden’s visit by more field executions and escalation of aggression against the Palestinian people.”
Biden is expected to meet separately with Israeli and Palestinian leaders before he heads to Saudi Arabia on his July 13-16 trip.
Ghannam was the second Palestinian from Jaba killed in recent days. On Sunday the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said 19-year-old Kamel Abdallah Alwaneh died a day after he was shot by Israeli troops. The army said soldiers came under attack “during routine security activity near the town of Jaba” and shot a man suspected of throwing a firebomb.
The Israeli military has carried out near-daily raids in Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank following a series of deadly attacks by Palestinians earlier this year that killed 19 Israelis, with several of the attackers coming from the Jenin area.
Dozens of Palestinians have been killed in these Israeli army raids. Most of the dead were alleged to have opened fire on Israeli forces or hurled stones or firebombs at them. The dead also include at least two apparent passersby.
Palestinians were also angered this week by the results of a US investigation into the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who had been shot during an Israeli raid in Jenin last month.
The US State Department said on Monday Abu Akleh was likely killed by Israeli gunfire which was probably unintentional. The Palestinian investigation concluded she was shot deliberately, an allegation that Israel denies.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and the Palestinians seek it as the heartland of a future state. Israel considers the West Bank as the biblical and historical heartland of the Jewish people.
Almost half a million Israeli settlers live in dozens of West Bank settlements scattered across the territory, alongside around 3 million Palestinians who live under Israeli military rule.
The Palestinians and much of the international community consider Israel’s West Bank settlements a violation of international law and an obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the decades-long conflict.
(With AP and Reuters)