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The Key to Damascus Could Lie at the Borders
A group of six men listen as voices crackle through a walkie-talkie. They are sitting in a farmhouse in the north of Lebanon less than a kilometre from the Syrian border. The sound of gunfire and shelling in the distance sporadically punctuates the atmosphere. One of the group returns to the room after taking a [...]
A group of six men listen as voices crackle through a walkie-talkie. They are sitting in a farmhouse in the north of Lebanon less than a kilometre from the Syrian border. The sound of gunfire and shelling in the distance sporadically punctuates the atmosphere. One of the group returns to the room after taking a telephone call. “Good news from the battle,” he exclaims with a smile.
The men are all in, or related to members of, the opposition’s Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is fighting fierce battles for control of a number of villages and the surrounding countryside on the other side of the border. “A military leader for Hezbollah has been killed in Zara’aat along with the head of Syrian intelligence from al-Qusayr,” he continues to tell the group. Earlier in the day the men also received news that at least 13 Hezbollah fighters had been captured and detained inside Syria.
Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shia militia-cum-political party that is the predominant force in Lebanon and it has remained a staunch ally of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad throughout the uprising. The Syrian opposition and its supporters in Lebanon have long suggested that Hezbollah is actively helping Assad quash the rebel forces, but the party has always denied any direct involvement.
However, the ambiguity surrounding the deaths of a number of Hezbollah fighters, including some highly ranked commanders in recent weeks has aroused accusations to the contrary. With the death of two senior military commanders in August and September the party stated that they had been killed performing their “Jihadi duty”, but did not say where.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah finally made a televised appearance on Thursday evening in which he categorically denied that the commanders had fallen in Syria, while also denying the capture of the 13 Hezbollah fighters.
“The Syrian Army is weak along the border now and Hezbollah is scared that the FSA will take control of all of it,” says Abu Ahmad, a combatant for the FSA on the Lebanese side of the border. He was fighting less than five kilometres from the Lebanese border in Zara’at the day before in a battle that is primarily about securing supply lines.
The FSA needs to maintain routes for the flow of refugees and injured fighters out of Syria while medicine, fuel and weapons move in the opposite direction. The routes from northern Lebanon to the Syrian town of Qusayr, via villages such as Zara’at and Jousi, are particularly important as the rebels in the war-ravaged city of Homs largely rely on them for ammunition and weapons.
Similarly, the army’s ability to hold territory is dependent on its supply lines from the heart of the country. “We have managed to cut their most important routes,” says Abu Ahmad. “They desperately need food and munitions and that is why there is such a tough battle for the villages across the border.”
Refugees and FSA fighters within Lebanon claim that Hezbollah has been using Housh as-Sayed Ali, a district on the border under their control just north of the town Hermel, to provide supplies to the Syrian army and send in fighters to buttress its debilitated forces. They say that the party’s fighters are firing across the border from Lebanon into Syria so as to pincer the FSA between the Syrian Army’s artillery fire from the mountains in the east and to cut their escape routes back into Lebanon.
In his televised speech Sayyed Nasrallah denied Hezbollah had sent fighters into Syria but conceded that members of the party have been fighting there on their own volition in order to protect their homes and families. The border area is essentially undefined, with many Lebanese citizens’ homes and farms falling within Syrian territory. Nasrallah claims Hezbollah supporters living there were attacked, harassed and some even killed by the FSA. While many have fled, others stayed to fight.
The justification is technically plausible but does not bode well for stability at the border. That Hezbollah members are fighting inside Syria with the support, if not the command, of the party hints at how Syria’s trauma is increasingly threatening to Lebanon’s vulnerable security.
Masheree’a al Qa’a, a strip of farmsteads along the border to the east of Housh as-Sayed Ali, is all but devoid of its native inhabitants. “Over the past six to seven months as the conflict has moved onto and over the border the families have all fled,” says Abu Mohammad, a philosophy teacher from Zera’aa living in one of the farm houses with his family.
He made the journey to Lebanon once the army started its aerial bombardment of his hometown and he now lives with his extended family in one of the farmhouses approximately one kilometre from the border. Of his two sons fighting in the FSA, one has been detained by the Syrian Army, and the other smuggles supplies to the FSA.
While standing on Abu Mohammad’s rooftop in Masheree’a al-Qa’a a house on the border can be seen burning. There had been a fierce battle between the FSA and the Syrian Army in the area earlier in the day, so the army set fire to the building once night had fallen.
“We moved to the relative safety here, but it is all relative. The first house on the border we moved to was shelled and I was injured and now we have moved here, but there is often cross border fire and you can see where we were recently hit,” he says pointing to where fist sized chunks of concrete have been ripped from the building. A local resident joins the conversation saying at least ten Lebanese civilians have been killed in cross-border attacks in the area over the past year.
The houses closest to the border have almost all been shelled or burnt to the ground and smugglers and fighters only make the journey to the frontier under the cover of night for fear of sniper fire. “The Syrian regime’s forces destroy the houses along the border so the FSA fighters can’t take refuge there or use them for their snipers,” says Ahmad Fliti, municipality official from the Lebanese border town Arsal.
The FSA’s use of the Lebanese border areas to offer refuge to its fighters and run smuggling operations destabilises the region and traps the Lebanese Army in an implacable bind. However, if Hezbollah is being drawn into the affray across the frontier, the repercussions threaten to be far more disruptive.
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Asia: Saving Grace of Global Economy?
Developing countries – relegated to the sidelines of the West-led postwar expansion – have emerged as the saving grace of the global economy against a backdrop of calls for a new economic model that can ease the ravages of globalisation and address the lack of confidence in market-based systems. Indeed, supporting economic growth in developing [...]
Developing countries – relegated to the sidelines of the West-led postwar expansion – have emerged as the saving grace of the global economy against a backdrop of calls for a new economic model that can ease the ravages of globalisation and address the lack of confidence in market-based systems.
Indeed, supporting economic growth in developing countries in a way that expands domestic productivity and stimulates global demand has been a core message at the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) underway in Tokyo this week.
Financial leaders and influential policymakers have also identified the importance of investment in infrastructure and technology transfer in order to boost sustainable growth in developing economies.
“The envisaged global superhighway has not realised enough growth in the world,” said IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, pointing out that economic expansion is currently being recorded mostly in developing countries.
Speaking at a discussion on globalisation here, Lagarde says the key economic challenge today is the trend of decreasing job opportunities for youth, suggesting that nations can help each other in meeting these challenges.
“I fear an intergenerational conflict if our financial model leaves increasing debt for the younger generation,” she warned.
Western economies in particular have been hit with massive unemployment among the younger generation. Unemployment rates are as high as 50 percent in countries such as Spain and Greece, both dealing with severe austerity plans imposed by global financial lending institutions.
But Asia, by contrast, has been recording expansion. China, Asia’s growth engine, has shown an average annual 10 percent GDP growth over the past decade and is now the world’s second largest economy.
But even that expansion is slowing down as Asia and Africa feel the impact of slow demand in the West, a situation that has raised new fears of further global recession.
In a statement after a meeting Thursday, the Group of Twenty Four, comprising rapidly developing and emerging economies, stressed the importance of a significant mobilisation of resources and investment, especially in infrastructure.
It also called for strengthening existing financial architecture and institutions, but said it anticipated a large funding gap given the scale of needs.
“We are seriously concerned about the fragility of the global economic and financial situation, particularly in view of low growth and continued uncertainties and risks within the Euro area, notwithstanding the recent policy actions and the buttressing of firewalls, as well as risks from possible aggressive fiscal tightening in the United States,” the G-24 said in a communiqué released here.
“Moreover, instability in financial markets, fiscal adjustments and deleveraging by banks has impacted growth, with adverse effects on the economies of many emerging market and developing countries,” it added. “World trade growth has sharply decelerated and the flow of capital (to these countries) has become more erratic.”
Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, says the time has come when no country, business, organisation or civil organisation can think individually or in isolation. “To ease fears that point to an expanded global recession, we need to think on a global partnership base. Leadership needs to be distributed collectively,” he said.
Japan, host of the IMF-WB meetings and currently struggling with growth rates of less than three percent, has been working to play a key role in the exploration of a new economic way to go forward.
While government subsidies to companies have helped to restrain unemployment – now around four percent – Japan has also been grappling with increasing inequity since its rapid post-war economic development ended in a long recession for the past three decades.
Participants agreed that globalisation is here to stay, but that the search continues for a more inclusive model where rich countries share policymaking and technology with frontier economies to create a more balanced allocation of natural resources and achieve sustainable growth.
This means an acknowledgement of the emerging scenario where secure jobs are no longer the norm. “The young must be supported and educated to create their jobs,” Schwab said.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf explained there is an imperative need to invest in countries such as hers, where the government struggles to provide funds to empower vulnerable sectors.
“We need a new economic model that emphasizes…sustainable growth in developing countries that is based on scaling up our infrastructure that can shift the emphasis where natural resources can be secure,” stressed Sirleaf.
*This story first appeared on IPS TerraViva
Donors Urged to Tread Carefully in Myanmar
Foreign donors are rushing into Myanmar (formerly Burma), whose government has been pushing the right political buttons as part of its democratic reform process. But development planners and local activists caution that the best approach should still be ‘easy does it’. “Please (…) don’t rush in,” Khin Ohmar, coordinator of the Thailand-based Burma Partnership, said at [...]
Foreign donors are rushing into Myanmar (formerly Burma), whose government has been pushing the right political buttons as part of its democratic reform process. But development planners and local activists caution that the best approach should still be ‘easy does it’.
“Please (…) don’t rush in,” Khin Ohmar, coordinator of the Thailand-based Burma Partnership, said at a discussion organised by civil society groups led by the Washington-based Bank Information Centre at the International Monetary Fund (IMF)-World Bank (WB) Annual Meetings in Tokyo on Friday.
Burma has been torn by civil war for more than 60 years and is yet to resolve many of its internal ethnic tensions, she pointed out. “So it’s worth it to step back and ensure that we start with the right stuff.”
“A lot of people still feel sceptical (of the civilian-led government’s promise of a people-centred government),” said Thein Swe, a Myanmar professor who works at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University and who has also worked with the Myanmar government.
“Yes, a lot of changes are coming in. (The government has started) using all the right terminology and development jargon, but on the ground the mindset remains the same,” he said. “Policymakers use the right words, but this has not trickled down to the bureaucracy.”
Ohmar and Swe spoke after officials from the WB and Asian Development Bank (ADB) said they were treading carefully for now, studying programmes to pursue or fund, through their recently opened offices on the ground.
Japan is Myanmar’s largest creditor so far, and has said it will give priority to aid to Myanmar, where elections led to political and economic reforms after the emergence of the civilian-led government of President Thein Sein in March 2011.
On Oct. 11, Japanese Finance Minister Koriki Jojima said Japan would resume yen loans to Myanmar early next year, after clearing that South-east Asian country’s loans of 500 billion yen (6.3 billion dollars) to help it get back on its feet.
In April, Japan agreed to cancel some 60 percent of Myanmar’s loans.
Tokyo will also give bridge loans to help Myanmar refinance its loans to the World Bank and the ADB that have been in arrears for a decade.
Annette Dixon, World Bank director for South-east Asia, explained that these bridge loans would give Myanmar a longer time to pay the outstanding amounts. “But Myanmar is unlikely to be eligible for debt relief,” she pointed out.
Overall, she said, Myanmar has had a “massive donor influx but very weak receptive capacity” and thus needed good donor coordination. The government has set up a foreign aid coordination committee.
The World Bank’s engagement is “very preliminary”, she explained, although the Bank has opened an office that it shares with the ADB and the International Finance Corporation, and is now recruiting staff.
“We had no country operations in the past, so we have decided we will take a step-by-step approach to ensure that our assistance in the future will be effective in addressing huge challenges ahead,” said Kunio Senga, head of the South-east Asia department at the Manila-based ADB. It is quite “premature to specify and commit to specific country programmes” at this point, he added.
Instead, the ADB has been doing economic and sector analyses and consulting stakeholders as it prepares an “interim country partnership strategy” for the next 18 to 24 months, Senga explained.
But Dixon said that the Myanmar government has undertaken radical reforms in the economic, financial and political spheres.
The government is drawing up a development plan and made public the IMF’s assessment of the economy. Also, for the first time, the government discussed the budget, passed it in parliament, and aired the whole process on national television.
The changes underway in Myanmar are “an enormous challenge for the government, which has to get an idea of the sensible sequence of how to do things”, such as combining the “need to show results quickly to its population, which has high expectations, (while simultaneously embarking) on a process that we know takes decades,” Dixon explained.
But the picture from outside can be somewhat different from realities inside the country, according to Swe. He expressed worries about experts entering the country in droves along with aid programmes, stressing, “We don’t want external-driven aid. Consultation with the grassroots community is crucial.”
In terms of foreign investments, he conceded that banks consider Myanmar the “last frontier” as it opens up. “A lot of investors are rushing in – there is big potential but we must be very cautious about what kind of investments we would like to embark on.”
Swe also said that while the government has made improvements in transparency, the fact remains that the lower house of Parliament in August rejected a motion that would have required all government officials to publicly reveal their assets. “It is shameful,” he argued.
Both Ohmar and Swe agreed that the human rights environment in Myanmar could not be separated from development plans for the country.
“The development agenda cannot be a substitute for a political settlement,” Ohmar said.
Both raised questions about the military’s continued role in the country, and said citizens need to get used to more political space and start speaking up.
“We have to make sure that the role of the military will remain a positive one,” said Swe. Under Myanmar’s constitution, the military get one quarter of seats in each chamber of Parliament.
Ohmar added that many citizens have yet to learn to speak their minds, which is a result of decades of military dictatorship.
She questioned the effectiveness of gestures like airing parliamentary discussions on television when large parts of the country have no access to electricity.
*This article first appeared on IPS TerraViva
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