UN: Major Idlib offensive could spark worst catastrophe of 21st century

Residents of the Idlib province flee toward the Syrian Turkish border on September 10, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 11 September 2018
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UN: Major Idlib offensive could spark worst catastrophe of 21st century

  • Russian and Syrian warplanes resumed their bombing campaign last week
  • Idlib is the last major stronghold of active opposition to the rule of President Bashar Assad.

The UN’s new humanitarian chief warned Monday that a large-scale military operation against the opposition-held Syrian province of Idlib could create “the worst humanitarian catastrophe” of this century. “There needs to be ways of dealing with this problem that don’t turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century,” Mark Lowcock said in Geneva.
His remarks came as Syrian troops, backed by Russia and Iran, massed around the northwestern province ahead of an expected onslaught against the largest opposition-held zone left in the country.
Since 2015, Idlib has been home to a complex array of anti-regime forces: Secular fighters, radicals, Syrian terrorists with ties to Al-Qaeda — and their foreign counterparts.
It is home to some 3 million people — around half of them displaced from other parts of the country, according to the UN.
Foreign terrorists now face a fight to the last to hold onto Idlib, their final bastion.
Lowcock acknowledged that “there is a large number of fighters there, including terrorists from proscribed organizations.”
But he stressed that “there are 100 civilians, most of them women and children, for every fighter in Idlib.”
“We are extremely alarmed at the situation, because of the number of people and the vulnerability of the people,” he said, warning that “civilians are severely at risk.”

Detailed planning
A major military operation in Idlib is expected to pose a humanitarian nightmare because there is no nearby opposition territory left in Syria where people could be evacuated to.
While appealing to the warring sides in Syria to avoid a catastrophe, Lowcock said the UN and other aid organizations were all doing “very detailed planning” to be able to respond quickly in the case of a major assault on the province.
“We very actively preparing for the possibility that civilians move in huge numbers in multiple directions,” he said.
He said that the UN had plans to reach up to 800,000 people who might be displaced, and were bracing for around 100,000 people to move into regime-held areas and some 700,000 to initially flee within Idlib.
The UN’s World Food Programme, he said had already prepositioned food stocks for some 850,000 people for the first week or so of any large-scale operation.
“It is a very major preoccupation for us,” he said.
The non-Syrian combatants in Idlib include fighters from Uzbekistan, Chechnya and China’s ethnic Uighur minority who cut their teeth in other wars but then swarmed to Syria to take up the cause.
The threatened assault by the regime could deprive the few thousand left of their last stronghold in their adopted homeland.
“These are people who cannot be integrated into Syria really, under any circumstances, who have nowhere to go and who may just be ready to die in any case,” says Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“So they’re a real stumbling block to any solution,” said Heller.
In a bid to avert an assault, the top three power brokers in Syria’s war — Russia, Iran, and Turkey — agreed on Friday to work together on “stabilizing” Idlib. But they revealed few details.
A major obstacle to a substantive agreement, observers say, is the fate of terrorists in the province, including foreign hard-liners.


Palestinian schools strive to modernize classrooms

Updated 19 September 2018
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Palestinian schools strive to modernize classrooms

  • Schools in the Palestinian territories have traditionally emphasized memorization and obedience over critical thinking and creativity
  • Palestinian educators now hope the use of technology and the arts will create new opportunities in a society that has produced large numbers of unemployed college graduates

RAMALLAH: As the teacher pointed to the large touch screen, her first-grade classroom came alive. With the click of a link, an animated character popped up on the screen, singing and dancing as it taught the children how to read.
The day’s lesson was the Arabic letter “Raa,” and the screen displayed cartoon pictures of objects that contain the letter — desert, chair and pomegranate — as the teacher asked the children to come up with other words. The students smiled and sang along.
Just a few years ago, such scenes were unthinkable in most Palestinian classrooms. Like elsewhere in the Arab world, schools in the Palestinian territories have traditionally emphasized memorization and obedience over critical thinking and creativity.
With an eye to the future, some Palestinian educators now hope the use of technology and the arts will create new opportunities in a society that has produced large numbers of unemployed college graduates.
“The students don’t need to memorize things. They need to understand first,” said Ruba Dibas, the principal of the Ziad Abu Ein School in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “Then they need to express their understanding through writing, speaking, drawing, acting.”
Ziad Abu Ein is one of 54 “smart teaching schools” introduced last year. This year, the number tripled. By 2020, all 1,800 public schools in the West Bank are to be part of the program.
Dibas said the goal is to eliminate testing from the classroom. Instead, she said students need to enjoy the learning process to absorb information.
On a recent day, her school was buzzing with activity.
In a fifth-grade classroom, each child had a tablet and the teacher guided them through an Arabic lesson, using her own tablet to give assignments. Third-grade students went to the smart board, playing a game to learn the multiplication table.
In other classes, students drew cartoons to learn the physics of how airplanes fly. An English class did a project about evaporation.
Four third-graders recently learned about self-esteem in a lesson called “learning by drama.” They performed a short skit about a shy girl who discovers a passion for journalism and grows up to become a successful reporter.
Their teacher, Sawsan Abdat, said the children learned an important lesson that day — that they need to find what they are good at.
After initial skepticism from parents last year, enrollment at the school has nearly doubled. This year’s first grade has nearly tripled to 43 students.
“I love the school,” said Malak Samara, a 9-year-old fourth grader. “We learn and enjoy. We learn and play.”
These techniques are a radical departure from a system in which generations of students were forced to memorize information and cram for exams under the stern watch of an authoritarian teacher who in some cases would beat them with a stick if they could not complete their work.
But with the unemployment rate for new college graduates hitting 56 percent, according to the Palestinian Statistics Bureau, officials realized that something had to change.
Education Minister Sabri Seidam also introduced vocational training in grades seven, eight and nine last year to meet the needs of the market.
“Society needs singers, carpenters, cleaners, athletes, sergeants,” he said. “We can’t just produce engineers and doctors.”
Youth unemployment, particularly among university graduates, is a major problem across the Arab world. It was considered a driving force behind the Arab Spring revolutions that rocked the region in 2011.
Arab governments used to absorb new graduates, often in civil service jobs, but they can no longer afford to do that, in part because of the region’s “youth bulge.”
The private sector offers limited opportunities, leaving large numbers of young graduates unemployed throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
“There is no greater challenge facing the MENA region in its efforts to build a future based on inclusive growth than job creation,” the International Monetary Fund said in a report early this year. It noted that 60 percent of the region’s population is under 30, the world’s second-youngest after sub-Saharan Africa.
“Pressures on the region’s labor markets are rising. In the past five years, the region’s working-age population increased by 50.2 million, and 27.6 million people joined the labor force. Yet employment increased by only 25.4 million,” it said.
Others in the Mideast have tried to make similar changes. In Egypt, the largest Arab country, the Education Ministry this year is providing students with tablets, along with a new curriculum that enhances critical thinking.
The ministry said it is also trying to improve the level of instruction by increasing training and wages for teachers, building more classrooms and creating a more modern classroom through digital learning facilities. The government this year secured a $500 million loan from the World Bank to help fund the reforms.
For now, it appears too soon to say whether the reforms can make a difference.
The region’s authoritarian governments might encourage education reforms as an economic necessity but could balk in the future at efforts to nurture a new generation versed in critical thinking. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, governments in the region have increasingly stifled expression.
Schools across the Arab world face other obstacles as well. A 2015 study by the UN culture and education agency UNESCO talked about chronic underfunding, a lack of qualified teachers and increased class sizes throughout the region.
Syrian schools have been devastated by a seven-year civil war, while many schools in neighboring Lebanon have been overwhelmed by Syrian refugees. US cuts in funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees have jeopardized the school year for some 500,000 students, most of them in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And Israel’s half-century occupation of the West Bank, along with a decade-long blockade over Gaza, continues to stifle the Palestinian economy.
“Education in the Arab world is in a very bad condition. The salaries of teachers are very poor, the classes are overcrowded, and schools lack the essential infrastructure,” said Saeda Affouneh, director of the E-Learning Center at Al-Najah University in the West Bank.
She praised the changes taking place in Palestinian schools.
“But this new system faces real challenges in the Palestinian schools,” she warned. “They need to train the teachers and to provide the proper resources.”