Archive for August 29th, 2014

UN: Armed group detains 43 peacekeepers in Syria

August 29, 2014

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — An armed group detained 43 U.N. peacekeepers during fighting in Syria early Thursday and another 81 peacekeepers are trapped, the United Nations said.

The peacekeepers were detained on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights during a “period of increased fighting between armed elements and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces,” the office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement. It said another 81 peacekeepers are “currently being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah.”

The statement did not specify which armed group is holding the peacekeepers. Various Syrian rebel groups, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, have been fighting the Syrian military near the Golan Heights. On Wednesday, opposition fighters captured a Golan Heights crossing point on the disputed border between Syria and Israel.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the 43 detained peacekeepers are from Fiji and are thought to be in the southern part of the area of separation. The 81 troops from the Philippines had their movements restricted.

“The situation is extremely fluid. Obviously, we are very concerned,” Dujarric said. “We are dealing with non-state armed actors,” he said. “The command and control of these groups is unclear. We’re not in a position to confirm who is holding whom. Some groups self-identified as being affiliated with al-Nusra, however, we are unable to confirm it.”

The statement said the United Nations “is making every effort to secure the release of the detained peacekeepers,” who are part of UNDOF, the mission that has been monitoring a 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel after their 1973 war.

Philippines military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said in a statement later that Syrian rebels demanded that the Filipino troops surrender their firearms, but the soldiers refused. “They did not surrender their firearms as they may in turn be held hostage themselves. This resulted in a stand-off which is still the prevailing situation at this time,” Zagala said.

Israel captured part of the Golan in the 1967 Mideast war and subsequently annexed the area in a move that is not internationally recognized. Syria retained the rest of the territory. The Security Council condemned the detention of the 43 peacekeepers and the restriction of movement of the other 81 and called for their immediate release. A rapidly drafted press statement blamed “Security Council-designated terrorist groups” and “members of non-state armed groups.”

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned the detainment of the U.N. detachment. “This is a force that is responsible for peacekeeping around the world, and certainly we don’t think they should be a target of these type of efforts,” Psaki said.

In June, the U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the intense fighting between Syrian government and opposition fighters in the Golan Heights and demanded an end to all military activity in the area. Syrian mortars overshooting their target have repeatedly hit the Israeli-controlled Golan, and U.N. peacekeepers have been abducted.

Thursday’s statement noted that UNDOF peacekeepers who were detained by armed forces in March and May were later safely released. As of July, UNDOF has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.

But the Philippine government last week said it would bring home its 331 peacekeeping forces from the Golan Heights after their tour of duty ends in October, amid the deteriorating security in the region.

In June 2013, Austria said it was withdrawing its 377 U.N. peacekeepers from the Golan Heights. Croatia also withdrew in 2013 amid fears its troops would be targeted.

Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed.

UN says Syria refugees top 3 million mark

August 29, 2014

GENEVA (AP) — The civil war in Syria has forced a record 3 million people out of the country as more than a million people fled in the past year, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday.

The tragic milestone means that about one of every eight Syrians has fled across the border, and 6.5 million others have been displaced within Syria since the conflict began in March 2011, the Geneva-based agency said. More than half of all those uprooted are children, it said.

“The Syria crisis has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.

Syria had a prewar population of 23 million. The recent surge in fighting appears to be worsening the already desperate situation for Syrian refugees, the agency said, as the extremist Islamic State group expands its control of broad areas straddling the Syria-Iraq border and terrorizes rivals and civilians in both countries.

According to the agency, many of the new arrivals in Jordan come from the northern province of Aleppo and the northeastern region of Raqqa, a stronghold of the group. An independent U.N. commission says the group is systematically carrying out widespread bombings, beheadings and mass killings that amount to crimes against humanity in both areas.

The commission investigating potential war crimes in Syria said on Wednesday that the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad likely used chlorine gas to attack civilians, who are bearing the brunt of a civil war that has killed more than 190,000 people and destabilized the region.

The massive numbers of Syrians fleeing the civil war has stretched the resources of neighboring countries and raised fears of violence spreading in the region. The U.N. estimates there are nearly 35,000 people awaiting registration as refugees, and hundreds of thousands who are not registered.

International Rescue Committee President David Miliband said the Syrian refugee crisis represents “3 million indictments of government brutality, opposition violence and international failure.” “This appalling milestone needs to generate action as well as anger,” he said, calling for more aid to Syria’s overburdened neighbors and for civilians still in the country.

The refugee agency and other aid groups say an increasing number of families are arriving in other countries in shockingly poor condition, exhausted and scared and with almost no financial savings left after having been on the run for a year or more. In eastern Jordan, for example, the agency says refugees crossing the desert are forced to pay smugglers $100 per person or more to be taken to safety.

Lebanon hosts 1.14 million Syrian refugees, the single highest concentration. Turkey has 815,000 and Jordan has 608,000.

Jordan’s king pushes to expand military, intelligence authority

Osama Al Sharif

August 25, 2014

On Aug. 14, the Jordanian government announced that it would ask parliament to approve two constitutional amendments giving the king sole authority to appoint the head of the armed forces and director of the kingdom’s General Intelligence Department (GID). Almost three years ago, in October 2011, in response to public protests calling for political reforms, King Abdullah II had approved a number of constitutional amendments that curtailed some of his powers and allowed for the creation of a Constitutional Court and an Independent Elections Commission.

These reforms were hailed as a major step toward full constitutional monarchy. Jordan’s version of the Arab Spring was largely peaceful and bloodless, and Abdullah was able to project himself as a champion of political reforms that would lead, according to statements made in June 2011, to the formation of parliamentary governments. That promise remains to be fulfilled.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front (IAF) boycotted the 2013 legislative elections, and other political parties performed poorly, failing to fill the vacuum. Weak and unpopular, the parties’ presence in the current Lower House, comprised mostly of independents, is modest. The government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour, appointed by Abdullah in October 2012, was supposed to include elected deputies as a precursor to the formation of parliamentary governments. To date, however, Ensour has failed to fulfill that pledge, probably due to royal objections.

It is clear that Abdullah instructed Ensour to handle the two constitutional amendments. Under the current constitution, the government recommends the appointees for head of the armed forces and GID director, and the king approves them through royal decree. The king had asked the prime minister on Aug. 12 to “activate” the Ministry of Defense, whose portfolio has been handled directly by the prime minister for decades. In effect, the portfolio will now be managed by a civilian or a retired army officer. The king said the new ministry will handle “political, economic, legal and logistical duties related to national defense … and nonmilitary services … while allowing the armed forces to dedicate its time to professional military duties.”

The government is rushing the two amendments through parliament, which has been convened in an extraordinary session. The timing and reasons for the amendments, described by Ensour as important reforms that will enhance Jordan’s democratic process, were not made clear. Pundits rushed to explain the surprise move. Clearly Abdullah is looking to expand his authority, making sure that the decision to appoint and fire the heads of two very sensitive institutions remains his alone.

Critics of the move did not waste time making their points. In general, they saw the move as a violation of the constitution and a derogation of the general mandate of the government. A number of retired army officers issued a statement denouncing the action, describing it as “an attack on the constitution and a challenge to the will of the people, who are the source of all authorities.”

Mohammad al-Hammouri, a respected constitutional expert and former justice minister, wrote on Aug. 19, “Giving the king exclusive powers to appoint the heads of the armed forces and GID constitutes an abrogation of the parliamentary system and a coup against the constitution, effectively turning Jordan from a constitutional monarchy to a presidential monarchy.”

He added that the Jordanian system of government is based on the principle of separation of powers, with the people being the source of authority. He added that the only exclusive power that the king has is to prevent amendment of the constitution, while the authority to run the state’s domestic and foreign affairs is tied directly to the Council of Ministers.

Omar al-Atout, a lawyer, published an article on Aug. 14 accusing the government of “committing the crime of undermining the regime.” He wrote that the amendments aim at “implicating the monarchy by making the king directly responsible for any mistakes committed by the security institutions … and by demoting the king from being a judge over all branches of government to a mere player.” He accused “frivolous boys” at the royal court of standing behind such ideas while reminding the prime minister that the first article in the constitution defines Jordan’s system of government as a parliamentary monarchy.

Despite such strong legal objections, it is clear that the royal court is seeking to secure strategic objectives in pushing the amendments. Mohammad Abu Rumman, a political commentator, provided one possible explanation when he wrote in the daily Al-Ghad on Aug. 14 that the royal move aims at “redefining the role of the monarchy in Jordan” and that the king is pushing toward the formation of parliamentary governments “but not until he secures some guarantees … by withdrawing sovereign key decisions from governments and placing them in his hands to protect the country’s security and to prevent key positions from being influenced by political wrangling.” He also said that the suggested amendments will “clash head on with the philosophy of the system of governance and the spirit of the constitution, where the king enjoys full immunity from direct responsibility.”

Abu Rumman’s explanation echoes that of others who believe the king is about to engage Jordanians in a new political experiment through parliamentary government. The legislature is yet to pass a new political parties’ law, and the government has promised to make substantial changes to the controversial election law next year.

Despite vocal opposition from a number of deputies, the lower house of parliament is likely to approve the two amendments in a special session as early as this week. Deputy Tamer Bino told Al-Monitor the amendments “affect the identity of the political system in Jordan,” reminding colleagues that former GID directors had been convicted of corruption in the past and sentenced to jail. He said, “If this happens again, then who will bear the final responsibility?”

Minister of Political Affairs Khaled al-Kalaldeh told Al-Monitor that both the chief of the General Staff of the armed forces and GID director will be under the oversight of both the executive and legislative branches, regardless of the proposed amendments. Deputy Jamil al-Nimri said that the amendments were “unnecessary and based on unrealistic fears,” arguing, “The general mandate of the government could have been saved by maintaining the current system of appointment.” He told Al-Monitor that Jordan should get ready for full parliamentary government and even party-led governments in the future.

It is clear that the controversial amendments will be approved and that the king’s powers will be increased in contrast to the reformist course adopted during the height of the Arab Spring. Apologists say this will pave the way for the creation of full parliamentary governments in the near future, but how this will affect the evolution of Jordan’s monarchy remains an open question.

Source: al-Monitor.


In Zaatari refugee camp, early marriage often trumps school

Mishelle Shmulovich

August 22, 2014

MAFRAQ, Jordan — Rahaf still giggles when she talks about her husband. Newly married to another resident of Zaatari, the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, the 16-year-old from Daraa carries a picture from their wedding day under her dress, “just above her heart,” she says.

“I’m lucky. He’s Syrian, too,” she gushes. Her husband, Gassem, is 25 and the couple hopes to have children soon.

Such is the case for other Syrian girls living in Zaatari: The path of marriage trumped the option of going to school.

“I wanted to go to school,” she says, “but my father didn’t let me. He didn’t think it was safe. He’d say, ‘What’s the use? It [the degree] will be useless when you go back home.’”

But with the Syrian civil war in its fourth year, the fleeting promise of returning to Syria any time soon dwindles each day.

Zaatari is no longer temporary. It’s home.

Today, 80,428 people live in Zaatari, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which administers the camp in conjunction with the Jordanian government. Unofficial sources put the number of Zaatari residents higher, closer to 120,000.

According to UNHCR, approximately 57% of the camp’s population is under 18 — and that percentage is growing. On average, 11 babies are born at one of the camp’s medical clinics each day, and Syrian families with children continue to pour across the border seeking safety in Jordan.

To cope with the ballooning numbers of children in the camp, the Jordanian Ministry of Education, together with UNICEF and partner agencies, opened three schools, which run double shifts — girls come in the morning, boys in the afternoon. Hind Omer, a UNICEF education specialist, told Al-Monitor that three more are set to open in the fall.

Last year, 18,000 children enrolled in Zaatari’s schools. With school set to start Sunday, UNICEF is expecting an increase of 4,000 children — to 22,000 students — according to Omer.

That number is a victory, because it would mean that two-thirds of the school-age population in Zaatari goes to school.

The trends within the overall Syrian refugee community, however, are not as positive. Today, some 3 million Syrian children aren’t going to school or are at risk of dropping out, according to UNICEF.

Much of Zaatari’s success is thanks to aid agencies that have poured millions of dollars into education programs, both formal and informal, for Syrian youngsters living in or outside Zaatari. For example, the European Union, UNICEF’s biggest partner on the issue, has invested more than 30 million euros into Syrian educational programs in Jordan since the crisis began, UNICEF specialist Miraj Pradhan told Al-Monitor.

Yet, many families, like those of the newly married Rahaf, still shy away from sending their daughters to school in Zaatari, and it’s not only due to stigma.

Zaatari, which sits on arid, unforgiving enclosed terrain, has been prone to violence, theft and assault.

More than 90% of Zaatari residents are from Daraa and its neighboring villages, which was home to a conservative and devout Sunni population. Some parents worry they can’t control their daughter’s environment as well as they did in Syria. Living far from the camp’s schools adds to the danger that their daughters can be harassed along the way, one family told Al-Monitor.

Another indirect obstacle to youth education in Zaatari is that 42% of the families in Zaatari are female-headed households. In some cases, the mothers are widows; in others, the men are still fighting the regime in Syria. Especially in this context, boys are viewed as potential breadwinners for the family, making school more of a luxury than an immediate necessity.

But for Manal, a mother of four in her early 30s who was an English teacher before the war, there’s no other option besides school.

“In Syria, most kids go to school. But the classrooms here are so crowded!” she says. Still, she insists that her children must continue their education because the other alternatives, such as boredom or idleness, are even bigger threats.

“We can’t just sit here, not being allowed to leave the camp, without having anything to do,” she says. “My kids would go crazy.”

Amne, 18, has been living in Zaatari for 1½ years. During the day she goes to school — she’s finishing 12th grade this year — and then comes home to rest for two hours before heading to work at one of the camp’s reception centers.

Shy yet sharp, Amne worries about how she’ll continue her education. “I want to go to university, but it’s very difficult for us to do that here in Jordan,” she says, fixating her sky-blue eyes on the swinging tarpaulin that serves as the front door of her neighbor’s home.

For Amne and other college-age Syrians in Zaatari, university often seems like a faraway fable.

With Jordanian universities filled to capacity, and competition from other foreign nationals — such as students from the Gulf countries — for the non-Jordanian spots, Syrian refugees seeking a higher education can easily fall through the cracks, an official from the Ministry of Education told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

UNHCR’s DAFI program was created to address this very need: The program offers more than 2,000 scholarships annually so refugees can study in other countries.

But the demand for higher education among Syrian refugees continues to grow, and for young women like Amne, leaving her family to go study alone in another country isn’t really socially acceptable.

Yusuf, a soft-spoken 20-year-old originally from Daraa, was enrolled in a mechanical college in Damascus before the war broke out, which put his studies on hold indefinitely.

“I applied to the university here in Jordan,” he says, speaking from his father’s dress shop in Zaatari’s open-air market, “but I wasn’t accepted. And now I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to finish the degree.”

Even if he were accepted, the task of trying to transfer credits between Syria and Jordan isn’t seamless, Jordan’s Ministry of Higher Education acknowledged.

The ministry told Al-Monitor there is no quota on the number of Syrian students allowed to attend Jordan’s universities, but it doesn’t have any special programs for Syrian refugees either.

The cost of university tuition in Jordan, which is higher for foreigners, and the complications of leaving Zaatari — Syrian refugees need a Jordanian sponsor guaranteeing financial support to move out of the camp — in addition to the myriad costs of daily life (another problem as Syrians aren’t given work permits) make going to university in Jordan seem unrealistic, if not impossible, for Amne, Yusuf and countless others.

It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the young generation of Syrian refugees giving up on their hopes and plans when daily existence is a struggle riddled with pain and unknowns.

But that’s not the case for people with passion, says Amne. “I know there’s a way,” she says, and it’s that hope that keeps her going.

Source: al-Monitor.