In Jabal al-Zawiya, near Idlib
In Jabal al-Zawiya, near Idlib
Omar Abdullah

Four years into Syria's conflict, cannabis has become an unlikely key source of financing for a number of groups in the opposition-held north. It's used mostly to buy weapons.

Jabal al-Zawiya in the province of Idlib is a mountainous area close to the Turkish border. Once famous for growing olives, it is now used to grow pot. Farmers here say the plant grows quickly, and yields higher revenues than olives.

Most villages in Idlib province are living off the spoils of goods smuggled between Syria and Turkey, and many basic commodities available for purchase here now come from Turkey, too.

"We don't have jobs anymore," says Ahmad, a 31-year-old marijuana farmer from the town of Maarret al-Numan. "We have no land, no trade, nothing. If it wasn't for smuggling, we'd starve to death." He adds that many of his fellow villagers have already started growing cannabis in a bid for financial survival.

Ahmad and his family once harvested olives; they shifted to growing cannabis one year ago, when other sources of income ran dry. But now he says that Jabhat al-Nusra and allied armed rebel factions are raiding farms like his, arresting anyone who grows hash because they believe that growing a drug like weed is forbidden by Islamic law.

To defend themselves, farmers say they pay local fighters from more moderate groups to protect their farms and then transport the crop into Turkey, through a series of well-concealed smuggling routes. The success of the trade has been a lucrative boost to those brigades, who have come to specialize in smuggling cannabis.

Farming in fear

Residents of Harim, another Idlib town, are too scared to name the extremist faction that they say destroyed 20 tons of cannabis in the outskirts of the town last month.

Abu Riyadh, a farmer from the Haff Sarja village who now grows cannabis on half of his land, says that the umbrella group Jabhat Thowar Souria unofficially oversees all marijuana growing in the province, skimming from its profits. He says its fighters protect farms and convoys that smuggle the cannabis into Turkey, then charge farmers up to 60 percent of the profits.

"If we sell it all, the profit would be about 7 million Syrian Pounds $40,000 per month," says Abu Riyadh. "The fighters would take around 4 million."

He says that even if a smuggling mission is unsuccessful, the Front still forces farmers to pay the fee.

One Front fighter who protects Abu Riyadh's farm says that as fees climb, some villagers are protecting their farms themselves, without paying for help from his brigade. He adds that fighters hired individually to cover a farm can make as much as $500 per month, while when a group is hired, the money goes to the Front's leaders, who distribute it as they see fit.

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Society

How The Top Collector Of Chinese Art Evades Censors In New Hong Kong Museum

Swiss businessman Uli Sigg is the most important collector of Chinese contemporary art. In 2012, he gave away most of his collection to the M+ in Hong Kong. Now the museum has opened as the Communist Party is cracking down hard on freedom of expression. So how do you run a museum in the face of widespread censorship from Beijing?

''Rouge 1992'' by Li Shan at the M+ museum

Maximilian Kalkhof

The first test has been passed, Uli Sigg thinks. So far, everything has gone well. His new exhibition has opened, visitors like to come, and — this is the most important thing for the Swiss businessman — everything is on display. He has not had to take an exhibit off the list of works.

The M+ in Hong Kong is a new museum that wants to compete with the established ones. It wants to surpass the MoMa in New York and Centre Pompidou in Paris. Sigg, a rather down-to-earth man, says: “There is no better museum in the whole world.” That is very much self-praise, since Sigg’s own collection is central to the museum.

The only problem is: great art is often political; it questions the rulers. Since the Chinese Communist Party has been cracking down on critics and freedom in Hong Kong, the metropolis is a bad place for politics and art. So how did the collection get there?

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