TIME Iraq

Iranian Intervention in Iraq Would Be Risky

APTOPIX Mideast Iraq
Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Basra, Iraq on June 16, 2014. Nabil Al-Jurani—AP

If Iran comes to the assistance of the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government it could fan further sectarian violence

As U.S. President Barack Obama considers his limited options in Iraq, the United States is considering holding talks with Iran later this week on how to counter the militant threat. Both the U.S. and Iran have said they will provide qualified military support to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, should he request it, a turn of events that could suddenly see the two foes fighting on the same side. But while such an alignment might improve the relationship between the U.S. and Iran going forward, Iranian military assistance in Iraq carries substantial risks. Done improperly, it could inflame sectarian tensions or even start an all-out war in the region.

The rapid advance of the Sunni militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), into Iraq’s Sunni-dominated north was a result partly of local dissatisfaction with the Shi’ite-dominated central government in Baghdad. Iraq’s Sunni minority, which had ruled Iraq for decades until the fall of the Sunni dictator President Saddam Hussein in 2003, still seethes with resentment over what they see as their loss of power and dignity. Many dismiss Maliki as an Iranian stooge, set in place to advance Shi’ite interests in the name of a greater Iranian plot to extend Iran’s influence across the region. “Iranian troops operating in Iraq will confirm everything the Sunnis have always suspected, that the Maliki regime is an extension of Iranian power. So it will become a self-fulfilling dynamic,” warns Peter Harling, Middle East Project Director of the International Crisis Group.

The closer ISIS gets to the Iraqi capital, and the sacred Shi’ite shrine of the Mosque of the Golden Dome in the city of Samarra, the more likely Iran will feel that it has no choice but to intervene. Iranians, says Philip Smyth, an expert on Shi’ite militias at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees ISIS “as an existential threat to the Shi’ite population of Iraq, and are trying to grab the bull by the horns.” When ISIS’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq, attacked the shrine in 2006 it unleashed a spasm of sectarian violence that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis of both sects, and left more than four million displaced.

But an Iranian military presence would not only alarm Iraqi Sunnis, it would be a major affront to the U.S.’s Sunni allies in the Gulf, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. “When you start seeing Iranian aircraft, [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] forces on the ground, Iranian advisors training the Iraqi military, it could easily devolve into a regional conflagration,” says Smyth. “It’s not like Riyadh wants to back ISIS, but what are they going to do when they see a mobilization like this, and no other outside force to quell it?”

Baghdad-based independent politician Ali Mehdi Jawad Al-Dabbagh, a former spokesman for the Maliki government, says Iran has an important role to play. “No one should be blocked from helping Iraq, especially not Iran,” he says. But Al-Dabbagh believes that all assistance be funneled through the Iraqi government. He says that accounts of Iranian trainers and troops on the ground in Iraq are “just rumors,” but he does worry about the visible presence of Iranian trained and funded proxy militias in the country. Left to their own devices, and not controlled by the government, they could further provoke Sunnis. Al-Dabbagh believes the militias should be used judicially, for the protection of the Samarra shrine, for example. “The shrine cannot be attacked. That would absolutely ignite a huge sectarian war. So it is in everyone’s interest that the shrine be protected, and I think Sunnis would agree also.”

But Iran’s possible role has already evolved beyond Samarra. ISIS must be stopped, says Smyth. The U.S. may not be willing to intervene militarily, but it may not have a choice. The U.S., he says, cannot afford to let Iran take the lead in stopping ISIS. “Both [Iran and ISIS] are bad for American policy and American interests in the region.” Sectarian war, however, will be bad for all concerned.

TIME Iraq

ISIS Claims Massacre of 1,700 Iraqi Soldiers

New claims circulated on the radical militant group's Twitter and social media accounts purport to detail mass graves and brutal killings, in a gruesome propaganda campaign

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In a series of tweets and shocking photos posted to their social-media sites, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is boasting to have slaughtered 1,700 Iraqi soldiers in the past week as the militant Islamist group continued its blitzkrieg toward Baghdad.

The alleged massacre, as well as the body count, has not yet been verified, but if proved true it would be the single largest act of mass killing in a war that now spans Syria and Iraq. Even if exaggerated, the claims are potent propaganda designed to terrify their opponents and pre-empt resistance as the al-Qaeda-inspired group consolidates control in Iraq’s Sunni areas.

It also may be designed to inflame sectarian tensions, all but demanding a response from the country’s Shiite militias in an effort to launch a sectarian war that could end up redrawing the map of the Middle East.

The photos, some 60 in all, start with rather benign images of loot — ammunition, Humvees, trucks and weapons — captured from Iraqi army bases that were abandoned by fleeing soldiers. It appears that they were taken over the past week in Salahuddin province. Tikrit, the principal city (and former President Saddam Hussein’s hometown) was captured by ISIS on June 12.

The photos go on to show a grim slide show of men described in taunting captions as soldiers caught “trying to flee the battles in civilian clothing.” Bloodied corpses stain the ground in at least five different locations, and several of the photos document firing squads garlanded with the black ISIS flag preparing to kill scores of handcuffed men packed in shallow graves.

“Liquidation of the herds of the Safavid arm,” states one caption, a reference to an Iranian dynasty and, by extension, Shi‘ites. “They are lions with the weak, but in wars they are ostriches,” says another caption laid over a group of terrified, handcuffed men forced to stand with their heads bent toward their knees. It is a message designed to capitalize on Sunni resentment over the hardhanded tactics of the Shi‘ite-dominated government in Baghdad. The carnage goes on for 25 frames; in some it looks as if the militants are killing their victims with brand new weapons, possibly the soldiers’ own guns — if they are indeed soldiers.

ISIS’s media wing has long used propaganda to intimidate its opponents and draw recruits, both in Syria and Iraq. The organization, which started as al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2003, expanded into Syria as the conflict took shape there, and eventually changed its name to better reflect its overarching goal: an Islamic caliphate spanning the region and ruled by a radical interpretation of Islamic law. Al-Qaeda has since repudiated the group for its extreme tactics.

Just a few weeks prior to ISIS’s march on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which fell on June 10, the group’s media wing released a similarly gruesome video. Titled The Sound of Swords Clashing, the hourlong video depicts a series of vicious executions of Iraqi soldiers and officers. It went viral in Iraq, according to a new report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, and may have been designed to threaten members of the Iraqi armed forces before the militant advance into northern Iraq.

If 1,700 soldiers or Iraqis were indeed killed, the released photos show only a fraction of the dead, raising some skepticism among human-rights investigators. “We’re trying to verify the pics, and I am not convinced they are authentic,” Erin Evers, the Human Rights Watch researcher in Iraq, told the New York Times. “As far as ISIS claiming it has killed 1,700 people and publishing horrific photos to support that claim, it is unfortunately in keeping with their pattern of commission of atrocities, and obviously intended to further fuel sectarian war.” Nor have Iraqi officials confirmed that a massacre took place.

A true documentation of a horrific war crime, or a slickly produced piece of propaganda that amplified scores of dead into thousands, either way the photos will have their intended effect: terror and a call to arms. ISIS alone will never be able to capture all of Iraq, but if the country descends once again into sectarian war, its ultimate goal will be that much closer. “Sectarian civil war is the enabler,” says Jessica Lewis, an ISIS expert at the Institute for the Study of War. “They want to set conditions in Iraq that look like Syria so they can set up an Islamic state.”

— With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut

TIME Iraq

Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds Leap into Battle in Iraq, Risking a Split

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014.
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014. Reuters

ISIS's advance on Mosul was just the beginning. Now the country risks fracturing along ethnic and sectarian lines

As fighters from an al-Qaeda inspired and staunchly Sunni Islamic militant group closed on more Iraqi cities in its march towards Baghdad, Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric issued a call to arms at Friday prayers.

“Citizens who are able to bear arms and fight terrorists, defending their country and their people and their holy places, should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy purpose,” Sheik Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai told his congregants in statements broadcast across the country.

Meanwhile, in the semi-autonomous northern enclave of Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish militias cemented control over the contested town of Kirkuk, taking militarily what they had long fought, and failed, to gain politically. Suddenly Iraq appears on the brink of a violent ethno-sectarian divide between Sunnis, Shi’ite and Kurds that poses the greatest security risk that the country, and the region, has seen since the U.S. invaded in 2003.

“We are seeing the state of Iraq disintegrate before our eyes,” says Feisal Amin Rasoul Istrabadi, Iraq’s former envoy to the U.N. and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University. “We seem to be headed now for a truly sectarian civil war.”

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, whose name alone indicates the breadth of its goals, has gained control of an estimated 10 percent of Iraq’s territory since its lightning strike on the northern city of Mosul earlier this week. The group’s leaders indicate that they want nothing less than complete domination of Iraq and the eradication of its Shi’ite majority, which they deem apostates. In a direct threat to Shi’ites, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohamad al-Adnani urged his fighters in a radio address on Thursday to march on the “filth-ridden” Shi’ite-city of Karbala and on “Najaf, the city of polytheism” — and home to Shi’ism’s major center of learning.

But ISIS’s blitzkrieg to Baghdad isn’t based on military prowess alone. Many of the Sunni tribes in the areas around Mosul and Tikrit, which ISIS captured a day after taking Mosul, backed the militants out of a deep-seated resentment for the Shi’ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. In fact, many Iraqis say that ISIS played a relatively minor role, and that without Sunni support they wouldn’t have been able to gain any traction at all.

“The fall of Mosul was not brought by ISIS,” says Istrabadi. “Blaming ISIS alone overlooks the fact that the movement had much broader support from Sunnis that have been disenfranchised since 2003,” when the United States overthrew Sunni strongman Saddam Hussein, reversing decades of Sunni dominance. ISIS, he says, exploited the dissatisfaction of Sunnis who have long complained that Maliki’s government has monopolised power for his sect.

“What the Shi’ites see as a conspiracy, the Sunnis see as a revolution,” says Hoshang Waziri, an Iraqi analyst based in Erbil who has written extensively about the country’s sectarian divides. “What is going on in Mosul, and Tikrit and Baiji [all cities that fell to ISIS this week], is a rejection by the Sunnis of the new Iraq under Shi’ite rule.”

In Iraqi Kurdistan, a region that has enjoyed autonomy for two decades, the tensions fall along territorial lines. Where the Iraqi forces failed to confront ISIS, dropping their weapons and shedding their uniforms as the militants approached, the Kurdish militia, known as the peshmerga, triumphed in battle. An extremely disciplined and effective fighting force, the peshmerga was able to protect several towns from ISIS’s advance. They also benefited from the Iraqi army’s retreat, claiming long disputed territory in the name of shielding it from ISIS’s reach. The peshmerga now hold Kirkuk, an oil city officially controlled by the Iraqi government, but claimed by Kurds as their historic capital. It is unlikely that they will ever give it up. “Some Kurdish politicians see this as the perfect moment to declare independence,” says Waziri. And they may be better off, he adds, given what is going in the rest of the country. “This isn’t really a Kurd, Sunni and Shi’ite war, this is a war between Sunnis and Shi’ites, one that the Kurds do not want to get involved in. The best solution for this crisis at this point would be to build three different states.”

The idea of dividing Iraq along ethno-sectarian lines dates almost all the way back to its formation at the end of World War I, when the country was carved out of the former Ottoman empire. In 2006, it had a resurgence, when then Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, and now Vice President, Joe Biden suggested in a New York Times op-ed essay that semi-autonomous sections should be created along sectarian lines. “The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab — room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.” A year later Biden pursued the theme, telling the senate on April 24, 2007, that then President George W. Bush’s centralized plan for Iraqi governance would set Iraq up with problems for years to come. “The most basic premise of President Bush’s approach, that the Iraqi people will rally behind a strong central government headed by Maliki, in fact, will look out for their interests equitably, is fundamentally and fatally flawed. It will not happen in anybody’s lifetime.”

Back then, a plan for Iraq’s federal-style division hammered out among all the parties could have worked. But now, as all three sides gird for war, and the United States plans to move an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf, it may be too late. “The partition has already happened,” says Iraqi analyst Hiwa Osman. “If putting Iraq back together comes at the price of the people’s blood, let it go. If keeping the country intact means more mass graves, genocides and war, I say, to hell with Iraq.”

TIME Iraq

5 Things You Need to Know About the Militant Advance on Baghdad

IRAQ-UNREST-SECURITY
Iraqi policemen listen to a briefing inside a military base in the capital Baghdad, on June 11, 2014, after the declaration of a state of emergency by the government. Ahmad Al-Rubaye—AFP/Getty Images

As militants take terrain from the Turkish border with Syria to Baghdad, this is what you need to know about their plans

It took five days for an extremist splinter group of al-Qaeda to occupy the city of Mosul, one of the biggest cities in Iraq and 250 miles north of Baghdad. A day later the group, once known as al Qaeda in Iraq, and now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria to reflect its broader role in the region, advanced on former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. A 60-vehicle convoy of ISIS units rolled into Baiji on Wednesday to take the country’s largest oil refinery. In each instance the Iraqi security forces dropped their weapons and melted away, effectively ceding nearly a third of the country to a militant organization so extreme that even al-Qaeda has repudiated it. Meanwhile ISIS is cementing control over a large swath of eastern Syria. As the militants push towards Baghdad, here are the five things you need to know about ISIS’s advance.

1. Despite the $25 billion spent by the U.S. to train and equip the Iraqi Army, it’s not fit to fight a war

Corruption, fear and divided loyalties have hollowed out the Iraqi army over the past several years. Even before these recent attacks, the Iraqi Army was losing some three hundred soldiers a day due to defections, deaths and injuries, according to a recent investigation by the New York Times. Once ISIS arrived on the scene, soldiers disarmed en masse, an indication that mid-ranking commanders either supported the militants’ advance because of tribal connections, or may have been bought off. And American assistance, based on the United States’ experience in Iraq, may have focused too tightly on counterinsurgency training, even as ISIS evolved into a full-fledged paramilitary force capable of fighting a conventional war.

But it’s not just a failure by the Iraqi military. ISIS has capitalized on widespread Sunni dissatisfaction with Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated central government. And the group’s superior fighting skills, honed in years of fighting against the Americans in the Iraq war, and more recently in Syria, has drawn funding and would-be jihadis from around the globe.

2. The Turkish citizens taken hostage in Mosul are in serious trouble

It’s not looking good for the 49 Turkish citizens taken from the country’s consulate in Mosul, or the 31 Turkish truck drivers who were also kidnapped. Turkish officials are talking to militants in Mosul about freeing their citizens, but Turkish media are also reporting that ISIS has demanded a $5 million ransom for the truck drivers. Kidnappings for ransom are ISIS’s bread and butter, and they drive a hard bargain. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a Turkish television network that “any harm to our citizens and staff would be met with the harshest retaliation,” but as long as ISIS has control over Mosul, any kind of rescue attempt would be impossible. Even a prisoner exchange is unlikely: When ISIS takes a town, the first thing it does is fling open prison doors in hopes of regaining old recruits or attracting new ones. There is unlikely anyone left ISIS would be willing to trade for, and those officials may have little more to offer than threats that will be hard to back up.

3. ISIS may not be part of al-Qaeda anymore, but it still poses a threat to the United States

The split between ISIS and al-Qaeda is largely philosophical. Both seek to build an Islamic caliphate, but ISIS thinks this is best achieved through hard power, by taking terrain militarily and then enforcing Islamic law. Al-Qaeda’s leadership prefers to create a community of like-minded converts first, through displays of power. Either way, both groups seek expansion, and will use ungoverned terrain to train foreign recruits that could eventually turn those battlefield skills on Western targets. It may have already happened: last month Saudi Arabian officials arrested an ISIS cell accused of plotting attacks against the kingdom, and it is thought that the man accused of killing four in a gun attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels fought with ISIS in Syria.

4. ISIS is unlikely to take over all of Iraq

Even if the militants had the manpower, they wouldn’t be able to hold that much territory for long. And unlike the Iraqi Army, they don’t have an air force. But they could incite a sectarian war, paving the way for success in the long term. “Sectarian civil war is the enabler,” says Jessica Lewis, an ISIS expert at the Institute for the Study of War. “They want to set conditions in Iraq that look like Syria so they can set up an Islamic state.” It may already be working: Shi’ite leaders have responded to ISIS attacks on Shi’ite targets with calls to form defense militias.

5. This newfound focus on Iraq doesn’t mean Syria is off the hook

Institute for the Study of War

ISIS’s vision for an Islamic caliphate modeled upon the early days of the Islamic empire straddles the border and erases colonial-era lines in the desert. Even as one ISIS wing took Tikrit, another wing encircled the city of Deir Ezzor across the border in Syria, cementing its control over Syria’s oil-rich eastern province of the same name. Lewis’ map of ISIS sanctuaries paints a vivid picture of ISIS’ future caliphate, and a current stronghold that not only threatens Baghdad, but the region.

TIME Iraq

Extremists in Iraq Continue March Toward Baghdad

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An image grab taken from a propaganda video uploaded on June 8, 2014, by the jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) allegedly shows ISIL militants firing from the back of a vehicle near the central Iraqi city of Tikrit. AFP/Getty Images

Militant Sunni forces are taking territory with lightning speed, moving toward the ultimate goal of establishing a new Islamic Caliphate

As Islamist extremists captured Tikrit, a major city in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, just a day after taking Mosul, analysts offered sobering assessments of a fundamentalist militant force whose ambitions may no longer be the stuff of fantasy.

Hardened by years of battle in neighboring Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is routing the forces of a modern nation-state and gathering land with the ultimate goal of establishing an alternate form of governance, an Islamic caliphate.

“This is not a terrorism problem anymore,” says Jessica Lewis, an expert on ISIS at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. “This is an army on the move in Iraq and Syria, and they are taking terrain.”

In capturing Tikrit, famed as the hometown of Saddam Hussein, Islamist militants whom the secular dictator had not tolerated were moving south down Iraq’s main highway toward Baghdad. Lewis cited reports that Abu Ghraib, the city just to the west of the capital, was also under assault from ISIS forces that have held Fallujah and much of Ramadi since January.

“We are using the word encircle,” Lewis tells TIME. “They have shadow governments in and around Baghdad, and they have an aspirational goal to govern. I don’t know whether they want to control Baghdad, or if they want to destroy the functions of the Iraqi state, but either way the outcome will be disastrous for Iraq.”

There was little argument on that point on Wednesday among the American specialists who came to know the country well during the almost nine years U.S. forces remained there, yet faced no opposition as militarily organized as ISIS. The Sunni extremists at the time were known to the U.S. military as AQI, for al-Qaeda in Iraq.

“They were great terrorists,” says Douglas Ollivant, a former Army Cavalry officer who later handled Iraq for the White House National Security Council. “They made great car bombs. But they were lousy line infantry, and if you got them in a firefight, they’d die. They have now repaired that deficiency.”

Like other analysts, Ollivant credits the civil war in Syria for the striking improvement in battlefield ability. “You fight Hizballah for a couple of years, and you either die or you get a lot better,” he says. “And these guys got a lot better.”

Lewis, who was a U.S. Army intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls ISIS “an advanced military leadership.” “They have incredible command and control and they have a sophisticated reporting mechanism from the field that can relay tactics and directives up and down the line,” he said. “They are well-financed, and they have big sources of manpower, not just the foreign fighters, but also prisoner escapees.” In Mosul, many of the estimated 1,200 prisoners released as the city fell were thought to be Islamist militants.

“They are highly skilled in urban guerrilla warfare while the new Iraqi army simply lacks tactical competence,” says Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, who monitors jihadist activity for the Middle East Forum. In a battle that is fought largely on sectarian lines — Iraq’s government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has championed the country’s Shiite majority — Iraqi officials have solicited Shiite militias to engage the ISIS, “though they prove to be equally incompetent,” al-Tamimi adds.

Ollivant, now a fellow at the New America Foundation, says that despite the thunderclap of Mosul’s collapse after only four days of fighting, it’s not yet apparent how formidable ISIS really is. The windfall of military materiel left behind by fleeing Iraqi forces—especially simple weapons and ammunition, because they do not require complex maintenance—are significant, but less so than the group’s operational depth: “Is it holding what it’s taking or is it just kind of sweeping through and moving on to the next thing, leaving only a skeletal force behind, that would be easy enough to push out,” says Ollivant. “Or is it strong enough to hold the territory it’s taken? Those are the two options. One is embarrassing, the other is catastrophic.”

But if ISIS can in fact hold the area it has overrun, it may well be able to fulfill its stated mission of restoring the Caliphate, the governing structure for the Sunni Muslim world that inherited authority from the Prophet Mohammed. “This is of great significance,” according to an assessment released Wednesday by The Soufan Group, a private security company. A restored Caliphate will attract “many more disaffected young people … from all over the Muslim world, especially the Middle East, lured by nostalgia for al-Khulafa al-Islamiya (the Islamic Caliphate), which remains a potent motivator for Sunni extremists.”

Restoring the Caliphate was the stated goal of Osama bin Laden in creating al-Qaeda, but the terror group has never operated militarily. “It’s ISIS that will build the Caliphate, not al-Qaeda,” says al-Tamimi.

The entire concept of the Caliphate remains obscure to most Westerners. It has not existed since the Ottoman Empire (which claimed dominion over the world’s Muslims) was pulled apart after World War I. The European powers divided the Middle East into their preferred system of governance–nation states–though that arrangement lately seems under threat, especially in Syria and Iraq.

Thomas Ricks, who covered the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq for the Washington Post and named his bestselling account of the subject Fiasco, says the current crisis in Iraq was set in motion over a decade ago. “I think that the U.S. invasion fundamentally unbalanced Iraq, and the Middle East,” Ricks tells TIME in an e-mail. “By removing Sunni power in Baghdad we increased Iran’s influence in the country–and so provoked a Sunni backlash. Big picture, I think we may be seeing the beginning of the re-drawing of the map, this time done by residents of the region instead of by British and French diplomats.”

With reporting from Hania Mourtada in Beirut

TIME Syria

Don’t Expect Assad’s Prison Amnesty Pledge to Amount to Much

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A woman holds a picture of re-elected Syrian President Bashar Assad as she celebrates in Damascus after he was announced as the winner of the presidential election on June 4, 2014. Joseph Eid—AFP/Getty Images

The unexpected announcement that Syria's prisoners would be granted amnesty in the name of national cohesion is a welcome step, but human-rights groups, and former prisoners, are skeptical

A sweep in Syria’s presidential election last week, no matter how roundly denounced as fraudulent by the U.S. and other Western powers, seems to have put President Bashar Assad in a magnanimous mood. On June 9 state TV announced a general prison amnesty, in which Assad promised to commute death sentences to life imprisonment, reduce jail terms and even pardon those accused of joining “a terrorist organization” — regime-speak for members of the armed opposition.

If applied with the same sweeping generosity as the announcement suggests, the amnesty could result in tens of thousands of prisoners being released back into Syrian society. But families with loved ones in prison may want to temper their expectations a little bit longer, warn human-rights groups. Previous amnesties fell short of their promise, and presaged an even greater crackdown on human rights. And ambiguities in the wording of the current amnesty offer, including several nonspecified exemptions, could mean that many remain behind bars for years to come.

“Let’s see what happens on the ground first,” says Neil Sammonds, Syria researcher for Amnesty International. “If this is carried out, then of course it will be welcome. Still, it only goes a small way to addressing the concerns we have about the numbers in Syria’s prisons, their access to lawyers, their adequate medical care, their right not to be subjected to torture and the prompt investigation of those accused of torture.”

According to state television, Justice Minister Najem al-Ahmad said the decree had been issued in the name of “social forgiveness [and] national cohesion,” as “the army secures several military victories.” In short, it’s a gesture meant to consolidate support as the regime readies for new military assaults on areas still out of government control.

It could also assuage a significant problem: massive prison overcrowding. It is unclear, exactly, how many Syrians are currently under some sort of detention. Former U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who stepped down in May, said in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel over the weekend that Assad “knows that there are 50,000 to 100,000 people in his jails and that some of them are tortured every day.” Whatever the numbers, the conditions for those who do end up in detention are abysmal.

Antigovernment activist Samer — who asked not to be identified by his full name for security reasons — estimates that there are about 10,000 detainees in the central prison in Homs, his hometown and Syria’s third largest city. “It’s overcrowded,” he told TIME via Skype. “The space is too small for the number of prisoners they are holding there.” Bilal Ghalioun, who escaped from detention in Homs in April, described jail cells packed so tight that “we couldn’t even sleep on our backs; we had to crush together on our sides,” in a recent interview with TIME.

On paper, the amnesty offers a pardon to foreign fighters who have joined the rebels aligned against Assad, as long as they identify themselves within 30 days. Army deserters have 90 days to hand themselves in, and those over the age of 70 or suffering from incurable diseases would be released. Traffickers of drugs and weapons will have their terms reduced, the amnesty promises, and even kidnappers will be let go as long as their victims are freed.

But as far as human-rights advocates can tell, the new amnesty only refers to prisoners who have been formally charged in Syria’s courts. That means the untold thousands who are under illegal detention, either with the military, the intelligence services or the shadowy paramilitary groups that have sprung up in the past few years, may not be affected at all.

“The criminal-justice system in Syria is an elastic band, it can be stretched or tightened however the security or judicial forces decide best suits their needs,” said Sammonds, of Amnesty International. Ghalioun, who survived torture, starvation and abuse for two years in various detention centers in Homs, was never formally charged with a crime. That made his eventual escape easier — his family was able to bribe a prison official — but others like him are unlikely to see freedom under Assad’s new amnesty.

With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut

TIME Afghanistan

Behind the Scenes of Bowe Bergdahl’s Release

Captured US Solider
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in an undated image provided by the U.S. Army. U.S. Army/AP

Asked whether the Taliban would be inspired by the exchange to kidnap others, a commander laughed. “Definitely."

In the days and hours leading up to the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl last week, his Taliban captors in Pakistan prepared for a big send-off. Those selected to physically hand Bergdahl over to U.S. officials at a pre-arranged location on the other side of the border in Afghanistan rehearsed the messages they wanted to convey to the American people. A videographer was assigned to cover the event, for propaganda purposes. And those closest to Bergdahl commissioned a local tailor to make him a set of the local tunic and trousers in white, which, given as a gift, denotes a gesture of respect.

“You know we are also human beings and have hearts in our bodies,” a senior Taliban commander affiliated with the Haqqani network, which was holding Bergdahl captive, tells TIME. “We are fighting a war against each other, in which [the Americans] kill us and we kill them. But we did whatever we could to make [Bergdahl] happy.”

The commander, who has been known to TIME for several years and has consistently supplied reliable information about Bergdahl’s captivity, is not authorized by his superiors to speak to the media, so he has asked not to be identified by name. The commander spoke to TIME by telephone from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan.

Bergdahl, who was the only known remaining U.S. prisoner of war from the long conflict in Afghanistan, had learned basic Pashto during his incarceration and had made several friends among his Taliban captors, according to the commander. The tunic set, along with the woven scarf that can also be worn as a turban, but is draped across Bergdahl’s shoulders in the Taliban video documenting his release, was a parting gift designed to demonstrate no personal ill will, says the commander: “We wanted him to return home with good memories.”

Bergdahl’s release, as part of the first prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Taliban in 13 years of war, was the culmination of a two-and-a-half-year process marred by Taliban intransigence and Afghan government meddling that eventually saw the near simultaneous transfer of five top-level Taliban officials from detention in Guantánamo Bay to a form of house arrest in Qatar. The outcome has sparked fierce criticism from Republicans in Congress.

So dispirited was Bergdahl with the process, says the commander, that he didn’t even believe his captors when they announced his pending release. Bergdahl had been there once before, in March 2012, when negotiations were so close that he had already been handed over to senior members of the Taliban council in Afghanistan conducting the talks. When they collapsed, Bergdahl was shuttled back to Haqqani captivity in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas along the border. “That’s why he didn’t trust us this time when he was told about his likely release,” says the commander.

It is not entirely clear what made the negotiations more successful this time around, other than the sense of urgency triggered by Bergdahl’s apparent declining health and U.S. plans to significantly reduce military troop numbers in Afghanistan over the next couple of years. For the Taliban, it doesn’t matter. They see the exchange as an unmitigated victory. “Our talks finally proved successful for the prisoners’ swap,” says the commander. “We returned our valued guest to his people and in return, they freed our five heroes held in Guantánamo Bay since 2002.”

Another senior Taliban commander, who is close to the senior Taliban leadership based in Kandahar, Afghanistan and Quetta, Pakistan, and is close to the negotiations, describes scenes of intense jubilation among the Taliban leadership and their supporters. Candies and sweet pastries are being passed around, he says, speaking to TIME via telephone from the Kandahar area. Those close to the leadership and the detainees are feasting on “whole goats cooked in rice” — a special meal usually reserved for celebrations. “I cannot explain how our people are happy and excited over this unbelievable achievement.” (He too has been known to TIME for several years.) “This is a historic moment for us. Today our enemy for the first time officially recognized our status.”

The news of the detainees’ release, says the commander from Kandahar, spread like a wildfire. “Besides our field commanders and fighters, our leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is so happy and is anxiously waiting to see his heroes,” he says.

There was some disgruntlement among Taliban ranks over the terms, admits the Kandahar commander. Some members wanted a ransom payment for Bergdahl, in addition to the release of the Guantánamo detainees. But the leadership prevailed. “We told them that these five men are more important than millions of dollars to us,” he says. He was more tolerant of complaints from Taliban foot soldiers who pointed out that for all the celebrations surrounding the officials’ release, there was no reward or recognition for the Taliban fighters who captured Bergdahl in 2009. But that’s not likely to get in the way of future attempts to kidnap American soldiers, across all ranks.

Asked whether the Taliban would be inspired by the exchange to kidnap others, he laughs. “Definitely,” he says. “It’s better to kidnap one person like Bergdahl than kidnapping hundreds of useless people. It has encouraged our people. Now everybody will work hard to capture such an important bird.”

— With reporting by Mushtaq Yusufzai / Peshawar

TIME Afghanistan

Taliban Commander: More Kidnappings to Come After Bergdahl Deal

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl waits in a pick-up truck before he is freed at the Afghan border
U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl (C) waits in a pick-up truck before he is freed at the Afghan border, in this still image from video released June 4, 2014. Al-Emara/Reuters

Behind the Scenes of Bowe Bergdahl’s Release

A Taliban commander close to the negotiations over the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl told TIME Thursday that the deal made to secure Bergdahl’s release has made it more appealing for fighters to capture American soldiers and other high-value targets.

“It’s better to kidnap one person like Bergdahl than kidnapping hundreds of useless people,” the commander said, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “It has encouraged our people. Now everybody will work hard to capture such an important bird.”

The commander has been known to TIME for several years and has consistently supplied reliable information about Bergdahl’s captivity.

The U.S. agreed on May 31 to exchange five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for Bergdahl, America’s only living prisoner of war. Following the deal, the outpouring of relief by those who had long lobbied to “Bring Bowe Home” was soon eclipsed by accusations and recriminations as Republican lawmakers accused the administration of making a dangerous precedent.

“What does this tell terrorists?,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz said on ABC’s This Week the day after Bergdahl’s release. “That if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorist prisoners?”

With reporting by Mushtaq Yusufzai / Peshawar

TIME Syria

Tales of Torture Go Unheeded in Syria

Syria War Crimes Evidences
This undated photograph made available in a January 2014 report by the Carter-Ruck law firm, commissioned by the Qatari government, shows evidence of alleged torture and execution at the secret jails of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. It is part of an archive of 55,000 images said to depict 11,000 dead bodies photographed over the last two years and leaked to Syrian opposition forces by a Syrian military photographer. Carter-Ruck—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

An interview with a victim of the regime's torture machine shows the dark side of an all-but-guaranteed Bashar Assad victory in this week's election

One of the most terrifying memories Bilal Ghalioun has of his two-year detention in a Syrian prison never happened directly to him. But the fear that it might turned his life, already plagued by daily beatings and torture with electrical shocks, into a nightly plea that God would take his life before he awoke.

Early on in his detention, Ghalioun, a movie-star-handsome 28-year-old plumber from Homs, witnessed a woman being tortured for information about a family member who had joined the uprising against President Bashar Assad. When she failed to satisfy her interrogator, he thrust her into the hands of a nearby guard, instructing him to, “let your men have fun with her.” The woman’s screams echoed through the barracks-like facility for hours after. A few days later, Ghalioun found himself in the same situation: unable to answer questions about the location of a cache of rebel weapons he had never seen. The same interrogator instructed the guards to have fun with him. So deep was his fear of rape that it was a relief when they just beat him with rubber hoses and metal rods. “We knew rape was happening, the worst was not knowing if it would ever happen to you,” he tells TIME, just a few weeks after his escape from one of Syria’s most notorious detention facilities, a military intelligence compound in Homs.

Homs has since been pacified through a series of ceasefires. And Assad, who is about to cement a third seven-year-term as President in elections that took place this week, is seeking to turn that victory into a popular mandate for finishing the war by any means possible. Short of major international military intervention on the side of the rebels, he is likely to be successful. Ghalioun’s story, told to TIME over more than three gut-wrenching hours in a Beirut coffee shop—the details have been confirmed by international human rights organizations—is a sobering reminder of just how brutal the Assad regime has been over the past few years, and how it’s likely to get worse as he attempts to consolidate power.

Ghalioun’s only crime was one of family relations. The apolitical second cousin of Burhan Ghalioun, a prominent member of the political opposition in exile, he says he never picked up a weapon, even as his neighborhood of Baba Amro in Homs collapsed under regime attack. He helped his parents run an ad-hoc medical clinic in their living room to aid residents who had been wounded in the fighting. But he was singled out for questioning, and then torture, in March 2012 because of his family name. “They wanted to know how the rebels were getting money from [the political coalition in exile].” Ghalioun says. “They wanted to know where the weapons were. They just didn’t believe that I didn’t know anything.”

For four months until he was transferred to Homs central prison, he endured ever more cruel tactics in an effort to get him to speak. “If I had known anything I would have said it,” he says. “I just wanted it to end.” His arms and legs were pulled through a car tire that was then rolled around the room while guards beat him with sticks in a gruesome version of the Victorian-era game of hoop trundling. He was hung by bound wrists from a hook on the ceiling and beaten. When he was finally let down, the plastic ties were so tight around his wrists that his guards removed them with a lighter, he says, as he shows the mottled scars. “There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the types and methods of torture that these people running the regime hellholes are willing to inflict on their detainees,” says Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International’s Syria campaign manager. “From interviews with former detainees, it seems that techniques and cruel practices are becoming ever more inventive and inhumane.”

Ghalioun’s graphic descriptions of torture at the hands of the Assad regime are nothing new. Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, in confirming his second cousin’s account, remarked in an email, “This is well known, that this is a regime that uses torture systematically.” For years, activists and human rights groups have decried arbitrary detention and torture in prisons. Human Rights Watch issued a horrifying 2012 “Torture Archipelago” report on prison abuses. And a cache of some 55,000 digital photos recently leaked by a defected military police photographer that depicts the regime’s use of starvation and extra-judicial killing in detention on a scale not seen since the Holocaust, according to a prominent war-crimes prosecutor who examined the footage.

But the accounts of the regime’s routine use of torture, illegal detention and extra-judicial killings in government detention facilities, even those released by the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, appear to have had little impact. Last week the U.S., France and 11 other members of the United Nations Security Council submitted a draft resolution that would refer the Assad regime to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity. But the resolution was vetoed by Syrian allies Russia and China in a move that rewards impunity and opens the way for further acts of savagery, according to a group of independent United Nations human rights experts. “The failure to hold those responsible for the violations to account may fuel further atrocities,” they said in a statement released on May 30.

Rebel forces, too, are accused of torture in detention, but on a far less industrial scale. Nor are they representatives of a political leadership that purports to act on behalf of all Syrians. The Syrian government denies that it detains civilians, though it does refer to all those who oppose Assad as “terrorists” worthy of being targeted, killed and captured in the name of bringing stability back to Syria. Regime representative also hold that government forces do not use torture in interrogations. Ghalioun, who eventually managed to bribe his way out of prison in April and then escape to Lebanon, has the scars to prove that they do. If the account of one man, or those of the thousands of others interviewed for human rights reports over the past three years, is not enough, Benedict of Amnesty International fumes, then why doesn’t the Syrian government open its prison doors? “If the regime wants to say this isn’t happening, they shouldn’t block UN requests to enter their detention facilities. Clearly they have a lot to hide.”

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