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Syria’s Golan Heights – a new flashpoint in the war?

Photos from Golan and West Bank trip Feb 21-29 2016 638

On a recent visit to Syria’s Golan Heights I overheard an unexpected conversation. At the Quneitra Viewpoint, an Israeli guide was telling a group of American tourists that the Israeli Defense Force had just upgraded the threat of conflict here on the border from ‘low’ to ‘moderate’. The reason, he said, was that Israeli intelligence had calculated, following the success of pro-Assad operations in the northern Idlib area, that the field of conflict was now likely to move here to the south. Israel would act immediately, he said, to destroy any heavy weaponry Hezbollah might move into the area. ISIS has also recently become active close to the border, allying itself with the local Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade.

Israel views the Syrian civil war as a gift, its chance to persuade the US administration to recognise its 1981 annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights. Pronounced illegal under international law and unrecognised by any country, Israel has simply ignored all condemnation and incrementally taken control of the Heights. My recent From Our Own Correspondent piece on the Golan, broadcast on 10 March, produced the predictable Israeli attacks.

But Israel  does not get everything  its own way. Four Syrian Druze villages continue to thrive defiantly on the Golan, their populations slowly increasing despite the fact that intermarriage is rare and they can only be born into the faith. The Israeli press likes to make much of the Druze increasingly taking up Israeli citizenship but in reality very few do.

Here is the text as broadcast:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072hlvz (starts at 19.12 minutes)

“Standing in a peaceful spot high on the volcanic cone of Mt Bental, I am gazing across into war-torn Syria. It is a surreal experience. But this is the Golan Heights – where anything is possible.

Photos from Golan and West Bank trip Feb 21-29 2016 653

Beside me is a bizarre hilltop cafe called Coffee Annan  – after Kofi, the former UN Secretary General  –  staffed by enthusiastic Israelis from the nearby settlement of Merom Golan,  Israel’s first to be built on the Heights. They are selling beer and pizza along with local pomegranate liqueur and skin creams.

Sharing the vantage point are busloads of Israeli tourists and a couple of blue-capped UN observers stationed here to patrol the ‘ceasefire’ line, while rising above the whole conflict is Mt Hermon, whose snow-covered summit  still lies inside Syria. Israel controls a listening post bristling with antennae lower down.

In the car park, I meet the cheerful Abu Miqdal, an elder from the Syrian Druze community, with a magnificent moustache and the distinctive black baggy trousers that mark him out as one of the enlightened ‘uqaal, a spiritual level attained only with the wisdom of age. He’s here to earn a bit of money in retirement by selling the famous local honey; he lives in one of the four Syrian Druze villages now cut off on the Golan.

“Down there in Quneitra is where I was working as a Maths teacher,” he explains philosophically, pointing at the now destroyed town, “When the Israelis captured it, I fled back up here to Buq’ata. Now the border crossing is closed, and our apple and cherry orchards are farmed by the kibbutz of Ein Zivan.”

Education is tremendously important to the Druze, a proud religious minority living mainly in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon. Amal Alamuddin, now wife to George Clooney, was born a Druze and typifies the community’s talent.

Syria’s ruling Assad family was good to the Golan Druze, and earned their loyalty by allowing them to study free of charge at Syrian universities even after the ‘67 war, giving them a small monthly stipend. The Quneitra crossing was opened to allow several hundred students a year to continue their courses. The current war has put an end to that, so many now go to Germany instead.

Interrupted by periodic explosions from the direction of Damascus, Abu Miqdal and I exchange poignant memories of the Syrian capital, where he studied for four years.  “Although the Israelis pressurize us, we will never give up our Syrian nationality,” he assures me. “This war will end one day and our families will be joined again.”

His certainty is admirable but the realities on the ground are different. In the 35 years since its annexation of the Golan, Israel has built over 30 settlements here, 30 wineries with names like Chateau Golan, and devised nature reserves to market its tourism potential. It has built a ski resort on Mt Hermon and laid out hiking trails beside the waterfalls of Baniyas, ancient City of Pan.

Photos from Golan and West Bank trip Feb 21-29 2016 678

Israeli maps increasingly show the Golan as theirs, making it ever harder to remember that under international law all this is Syria, whose border once reached right down to the eastern shore of Lake Galilee.

While the world is distracted by ISIS and mass refugee migration to Europe,  Israel is quietly drilling for oil on the Golan, rewarded last autumn with a major find. It has recently completed a big barrier along its border with Syria similar to that on the West Bank, citing security concerns and the need to ‘bring stabilisation’ to the region.

But the Golan Druze are determined to maintain their identity and govern themselves. Ain Kinya, the smallest and most beautiful of the Druze villages, has its own local council.

Photos from Golan and West Bank trip Feb 21-29 2016 773

Numbers are steadily increasing and they are building more homes. Two Christian families live in their midst. The young Druze women I see appear free from inhibition, dressed in hot pants, ripped jeans and tight tops, strong and equal to their men.

Abu Miqdal’s generation still treasures memories of Damascus, but the Golan’s younger Druze, deprived of such cherished dreams, have found their own uniquely non-political vision of their future. Key to the Druze faith is reincarnation of souls, male to male, female to female, always into a newborn child.

They simply believe they will be reincarnated in their next lives – into the right part of Syria.”

Related articles:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0e060fea-0622-11e6-9b51-0fb5e65703ce.html#axzz47OguBDQ0

http://www.jns.org/news-briefs/2016/3/22/662aep6eruyayvxv0i95axvhzbt47n#.VvKy2uKLTIU=

http://www.timesofisrael.com/on-golan-heights-idf-fights-to-keep-israel-safe-and-out-of-syria/

https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24544-israel-prepares-evacuation-plan-for-golan-heights-galilee-settlements

The pressure is building on the Golan Heights

 

 

 

 

 

#Syria Death of a priest – What can be learnt from Father Francis’s murder in Homs?

6th century murals at Mar Elian church in the Old City of Homs, possibly the oldest in Syria [2010, DD]

12th century murals at Mar Elian church in the Old City of Homs [2010, DD]

After living peacefully in Syria for nearly 50 years and devoting his life to Christian/Muslim harmony, Father Francis van der Lugt, a Dutch-born Jesuit in his mid-70s, was dragged into his monastery garden and shot twice in the head. It happened on 7 April 2014 in the Old City of Homs, in front of two witnesses, a fellow Jesuit and a local Christian woman, who said it was carried out by a single masked gunman as a deliberate, premeditated act. A few days earlier he had been beaten up, supposedly by a rebel group. Father Francis had been instrumental in negotiating the UN-supervised ceasefire in Homs in February reported on by the BBC’s Lyse Doucet (see last of ‘Related articles’ below), but had himself refused to leave the devastated and besieged Old City, preferring to stay behind in solidarity with the 24 Christians who were either too old or too sick to leave. As leader of his flock, to leave would have felt to him like the captain abandoning ship while some of his passengers remained aboard. According to some reports he was, at the time of his death, again involved in negotiating for more besieged residents to be allowed out, something some rebel groups were said to be angry about. The siege of Homs’s Old City has become a symbol of resistance, a thorn in the side of the regime, and many rebels feel strongly that if all civilians are allowed out, the regime will simply flatten what remains in order to crush all remaining opposition.

In happier times Father Francis used to run two initiatives to help bring Syrians closer to nature and closer to each other. The first was called ‘Ard’ (Earth) and was an agricultural centre based on a hill outside Homs where young Syrians could camp, work on the land and talk freely among each other. The second was called ‘Maseer’ (Walking tour) and involved him guiding groups of young Syrians on 3 or 10 day hikes in the countryside, where they would sleep in orchards or in village schoolhouses, meeting local farmers and villagers. He was trained as a psychologist and understood well how to encourage open discussion and the free exchange of ideas. Among those who came on such hikes was the young film-maker Basil Shehadeh, whose funeral Father Francis helped organise in Homs in 2012 after the authorities refused to allow his body to be returned to his native Damascus. Father Francis’s own funeral was conducted by local Muslims who knew and loved him. He was closely integrated into the community, helping whoever was in need, Muslim and Christian alike, making no distinction.

Who stands to gain from the death of such a man? No one has claimed responsibility. The regime has blamed ‘terrorist groups’ while the rebel opposition groups have blamed the regime – the usual scenario. We will probably never know for sure who carried out this killing and on whose instructions. But one thing is sure – Father Francis himself, as a Jesuit priest, would not have wanted his death to be avenged. It would go against all he stood for. That would mean his death was simply one more death in the equation, allowing the never-ending spiral of revenge attacks to continue – and to what end? The inevitable destruction of the country.

Much more constructive – though of course much harder – would be to try to emulate what he strove to achieve all his life – bringing people closer together and treating all in need equally. Not long ago he was quoted as saying::

“The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have”.

The best way to honour his memory would be to remember this deep belief of his in the Syrian people. Revenge would have been alien to him.

Relic of the Virgin's Belt, Umm Al-Zinnar Church, Homs [2010, DD]

Relic of the Virgin’s Belt, Umm Al-Zunnar Church, Homs [2010, DD]

19th century church frescoes in Homs, Church of the Virgin's Belt (Al-Zunnar) [2010, DD]

19th century church frescoes in Homs, Church of the Virgin’s Belt (Al-Zunnar) [2010, DD]

Related articles:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10751067/Dutch-priest-murdered-in-his-church-in-the-besieged-Syrian-city-of-Homs.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-26927068

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/07/dutch-priest-shot-dead-homs-syria

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/07/francis-van-der-lugt-dead-syria_n_5104676.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-26148194

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/23/world/middleeast/syria.html?emc=eta1&_r=0

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27155474

 

 

Russia tightens its grip on Syria

Lowering above Banias, the black basalt Crusader Castle of Marqab [DD]

Lowering above Banias, the black basalt Crusader Castle of Marqab [DD]

On Christmas Day 25 December 2013 a contract was signed in Damascus giving Russia the 25-year rights to explore, drill, produce and develop a massive offshore Syrian oil and gas field in the Eastern Mediterranean between the coastal cities of Banias and Tartous. The signatories were Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Company, Syria’s Oil Minister Suleyman Al-Abbas, and the Russian state-controlled oil company Soyuzneftegaz, represented by the Russian ambassador. The estimated costs of the deal are US$90 million, to be borne solely by Soyuzneftegaz, which is controlled by the Russian Central Bank and run by a former Russian Oil Minister. This offshore deal, covering an area known as Block No. 2 , a full 2,190 square kilometres, is the first ever to be awarded  from Syria’s offshore oil and gas reserves, which are estimated to be considerable – bigger potentially than those of Lebanon, Cyprus or Israel.

So a historic moment, and a fine Christmas present for Russia, a reward from the Assad regime for Russian loyalty. Historic for its timing, just weeks before the scheduled 22 January 2014 Geneva 2 talks aimed at solving the Syrian crisis, and historic for its sealing of Russia’s stake in Syria’s future. Syria’s Oil Minister announced that Russia would begin work immediately on implementing the deal. After all, there is not a moment to lose. Russia wants to make very sure it, and it alone, can exploit Syria’s offshore oil and gas reserves.

Then, this morning, comes the news that Russia has blocked a UN statement, sponsored by the UK, on the Assad regime’s recent air attacks on civilians in Aleppo. Russia does not want its ally condemned: it wants it protected.

There is a huge amount at stake here – potentially billions and billions of dollars. Syria’s oil production has dropped by 90% since the March 2011 revolution began, and most of its oilfields are in the eastern desert regions around Deir ez-Zour, now controlled by opposition forces. Syria’s refineries are already in the western Banias and Homs region, much more convenient for offshore rigs. The deal also includes training for Syrian staff at the state-owned Syrian General Establishment for Petroleum.

Russia knows well how to tighten its grip, and Bashar knows well how to maximise his country’s assets. They are a perfect match.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25663616

http://www.euronews.com/2013/12/25/syria-signs-deal-with-russian-firm-to-drill-offshore-for-oil-and-gas/

http://rt.com/business/syria-oil-gas-russia-795/

http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/syria-inks-oil-gas-exploration-deal-with-russian-firm.aspx?pageID=238&nID=60132&NewsCatID=348

http://sana.sy/eng/22/2014/01/02/520493.htm

http://sana.sy/eng/25/2012/08/02/434600.htm

https://dianadarke.com/2013/11/06/bashar-fiddles-while-syria-burns-the-remarkable-oil-story/

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