TIME Syria

Cancer Wages Its Own War Against Syrian Refugees

A higher rate of cancer among Syrian refugees is forcing doctors, patients and humanitarian organisations to make difficult decisions about who does, and does not, receive care

It was just before Syrian civilians started rising up against their government in 2011 that Fayhaa al-Dahr, 22, from the northern city of Raqqa, noticed a strange swelling in her neck. Doctors advised surgery to excise the tumors growing on her vocal chords, but even though Syria has one of the best government-subsidized medical systems in the Middle East, the operations and the follow-up treatment would be expensive.

To pay for al-Dahr’s care, her father sold some land than had been in the family for generations. When another tumor appeared, he sold more land. By the time the third tumor was taken care of, there was no more land to be sold, and the uprising had turned into a war that made it impossible for al-Dahr to travel to the capital for her chemotherapy appointments. When a rocket destroyed her home in December, al-Dahr and her family saw no choice but to take refuge in neighboring Lebanon. At least there, they believed, al-Dahr could continue her treatments. They were wrong.

Lebanon is host to some 1.1 million Syrian refugees, part of an exodus of 2.9 million seeking shelter from a war that has claimed more than 160,000 lives and has wrought untold damages to the middle-income country. Unlike refugees fleeing conflicts in Africa, where diseases of poverty such as diarrhea, malaria or cholera take their toll, Syrian refugees are afflicted with chronic and costly illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The international humanitarian agencies that provide for refugees the world over simply do not have the funds to treat these diseases, leaving many, like al-Dahr, without access to proper medical care. Her cancer has metastasized, and she now has a tumor in her upper thigh so excruciating, she says, “I am living on painkillers.”

A recent study published in The Lancet Oncology journal documented a high demand for cancer treatments among refugees from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria, with host countries and refugee organizations struggling to find the money and the medicines to help. Cancer, writes Dr. Paul Spiegel, Chief Medical Expert at United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is likely to play a much greater role in refugee care going forward. “Cancer diagnosis and care in humanitarian emergencies typifies a growing trend toward more costly chronic disease care. Something that …. is of increasing importance because the number of refugees is growing.”

As it is, the UNHCR warned on July 3 that the organization had received only 30 percent of its $3.74 billion budget for Syrian refugee programs for this year, a shortfall that would see many vital programs, including health care, slashed.

Al-Dahr’s doctor in Damascus had warned her of the consequences of missing chemotherapy appointments, and when she first arrived in Lebanon, she did try to continue her treatment. But the costs—$1,900—were twice what she paid in Damascus. Her family was able to borrow enough cash to pay for one round in January, but when her Lebanese doctor called a few weeks later to remind her of her follow up, she knew she couldn’t afford another session. “He was very worried about me, and called several times to beg me to come, but there was nothing we could do and nothing he could do.” The doctor may have been willing to volunteer his time and expertise, but the drug and hospital costs are immutable.

“It’s a sad story,” says Dr. Dr. Elie Bechara, an oncologist in Beirut who works with other doctors to treat refugees pro-bono. “We are overwhelmed by these cases from Syria. Sometimes we are standing still, watching, and we are not able to help them. It is frustrating.”

Lebanon boasts some of the finest medical facilities in the Middle East, but nearly 90% are privately run, and most of them are for profit. UNHCR has spent tens of millions of dollars on treatment for refugees at private hospitals, but funds are limited. With the rising number of refugees — 1.5 million, a third of the Lebanese population, are expected to have registered by the end of the year — costs too will rise, forcing UNHCR to choose between funding emergency care and primary health clinics that can save thousands of lives and spending thousands of dollars to save one life.

Last year UNHCR covered medical treatment for 41,500 refugees in Lebanon, but each of those cases was judged on specific criteria: the cost of the intervention against the chances of a positive outcome. “It’s a horrible decision to have to make,” says Spiegel. “If there is a poor prognosis, we can’t go that route. It doesn’t mean the patients won’t get treatment—they may search elsewhere, and sometimes embassies or private donors step in—but we can’t afford to help where there is no hope.”

Palliative care, at least, is not that expensive, adds Spiegel. “We never say, ‘There is nothing we can do, go away.’ We just say we can’t treat the cancer but we will treat the consequences.” Al-Dahr falls into that category. Instead of chemotherapy, she gets painkiller injections at her local pharmacy, and she tries not to dwell on her illness. “When you don’t know what is going to happen, it is better to stay in the present,” she says. “Thinking about the future only brings more problems.”

Given the funding shortages, cases like al-Dahr’s are likely to become more common, says Spiegel. “Syria is our biggest and most expensive operation to date, and there is a question of how long donors will continue supporting it as things get worse. If we continue like this, there will be more like this woman who will not be able to receive treatment.”

Like a cancer patient with a poor prognosis, Syria is starting to look like a hopeless cause, and thus less likely to receive aid.

With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Anjar, Lebanon

TIME Iran

A Side Effect of Iranian Sanctions: Tehran’s Bad Air

An overview of Tehran, July 7.
An overview of Tehran on July 7, 2014 Kiana Hayeri for TIME

Air pollution has decreased significantly since sanctions were temporarily lifted in January. As Iran and the U.S. attempt to hammer out a comprehensive nuclear deal before the July 20 deadline, the capital city’s newly cleaner air hangs in the balance 

When the U.S., the U.N. and Europe implemented, in 2010, one of the harshest sanctions regimes ever seen globally to curb Iran’s suspected development of a nuclear-weapons program, it was widely expected that the country would soon fall to its knees. Instead, Iran absorbed the blow, and though weakened, has managed to keep its economy afloat.

The sanctions all but stopped international financial transactions, limited military purchases, reduced the import and export of petroleum products and significantly curtailed trade — but you wouldn’t know it by walking the bustling streets of Iran’s capital of Tehran. According to economist Saeed Laylaz, Iran imported $3 billion worth of European luxury cars last year, triple the number before sanctions. Grocery stores are packed with all kinds of American products: from Coca-Cola to Snickers candy bars to Duracell batteries, while electronics shops even in small towns proudly display the full range of Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Apple products — even the iPhone 5S. The sanctions didn’t hurt Iran, say Iranians; they merely amplified an economic crisis wrought by government mismanagement in the preceding years.

About the only place where the impact of sanctions is visible is in the skies above Tehran. Iran may have the fourth largest proven petroleum reserve in the world, but it refines little of its own product, depending instead on imports of fuel from Europe. Sanctions cut those commodities off, sharply reducing supplies of gasoline. In order to keep Iran’s 26.3 million cars, trucks and motorcycles on the road, government officials were forced to convert petrochemical factories into ad hoc refineries, an expensive and inefficient process that produces a low-grade fuel choked with pollutants.

The results were devastating. Already home to some of the world’s most polluted cities, Iran saw a dramatic increase in the air pollution that contribute most directly to ill health, according to a worldwide World Health Organization assessment released in 2013. It is impossible to definitively link the impact of sanctions to the rising rates of childhood asthma cases and lung disease documented by Iran’s Health Ministry over the past four years — the concurrent increase in car ownership may also play a role. But when some sanctions, including those on the import of gasoline, were lifted in January under an interim agreement that proffered relief in exchange for substantial negotiations over the scope of Iran’s nuclear program, the impact was visible.

In June 2013, the pollution in Tehran was so bad that the mountains surrounding the capital could not even be made out from the 13th floor of a hotel popular with journalists in the city center. A year later, however, the last vestiges of winter snow could be spotted high on the mountains to the north of the city. “Sanctions significantly contributed to pollution, and particularly the kinds of pollution that are damaging to health,” says Rocky Ansari, an economist and sanctions expert at Cyrus Omron International, a firm that advises international companies on investing in Iran. Even before the sanctions were lifted, he says, the government was working on improving refining capacity in the country, but the international decision to clear the way for increased imports of refined fuel was a huge boost. “Now that hardly any petrol from petrochemical factories is being used, the pollution has reduced, and already people can breathe better air.”

That may be the case, but many Iranians are still holding their breath. The interim agreement ends on July 20, and a comprehensive deal that limits Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons in exchange for a permanent lifting of sanctions is still in doubt. Iran says its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes, but a long history of subterfuge when it comes to international inspections has raised doubts about the country’s true intentions. The U.S. wants to see a sharp reduction in Iran’s ability to enrich nuclear fuel to weapons grade; Iran says it will not submit to overly onerous limits on its nuclear energy program.

The temporary agreement can be extended by up to six months, a point raised by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on the sideline of talks in Vienna on July 13. “If we can reach a deal by July 20, bravo, if it’s serious,” he told reporters, according to Reuters. “If we can’t, there are two possibilities. One, we either extend … or we will have to say that unfortunately there is no prospect for a deal.” Should the talks fail, as with several previous attempts to strike a deal, the U.S. is likely to lead the call for even tougher sanctions, risking more conflict in a region already in turmoil — and further darkening the skies above Tehran.

— With reporting by Kay Armin Serjoie / Tehran

TIME Iraq

An American Attack on ISIS in Iraq Could Mean Retaliation Back Home

Al-Qaeda inspired militants stand with captured Iraqi Army Humvee at a checkpoint belonging to Iraqi Army outside Beiji refinery some 155 miles north of Baghdad, June 19, 2014.
Al-Qaeda inspired militants stand with captured Iraqi Army Humvee at a checkpoint belonging to Iraqi Army outside Beiji refinery some 155 miles north of Baghdad, June 19, 2014. AP

For the moment, the militant group has focused on expanding its reach in Syria and Iraq. But U.S. attacks could bring its gaze Westward, and with thousands of foreign jihadis among its ranks, it has the ability to exact revenge.

As fighters affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group seized Iraq’s biggest oil refinery on Wednesday, the government formally asked the White House to respond to the miltants’ threat with airstrikes. The Obama administration has so far hesitated to do so, troubled by the lack of good intelligence on the ground and uneasy about the impact military force might have on a brewing conflict with deep sectarian overtones — though President Barack Obama announced Thursday the U.S. is sending 300 special forces to Iraq in an advisory, non-combat role.

But there’s another issue worth considering: the threat of violent blowback against the U.S. at home. For the moment, ISIS, which has fighters in Syria and Iraq, is focused on expanding its territory on both sides of the border. But an American attack on ISIS could turn the group’s wrath Westward, and it already has the means to retaliate on American shores.

Between an estimated 10,000 to 11,000 foreign fighters have joined the fight against President Bashar Assad in neighboring Syria, some 3,000 of whom have passports that allow them unfettered access to the U.S. and Europe. Most Westerners fighting in Syria say they want to defeat Assad and build a new nation based on the laws of Islam, but their governments fear they could be radicalized and persuaded to return home to attack Western targets.

While there have been several arrests of Europeans, Australians and Americans accused of fighting with or attempting to fight with terrorist groups in Syria, so far no plots against the West originating in Syria have been discovered. (The gunman accused of killing 4 at a Jewish museum in Brussels on May 24 had recently returned from fighting in Syria, but he appears to have been previously radicalized). But that could change rapidly if the United States attacks ISIS fighters directly: In January, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi warned “Jews and crusaders” against encouraging more moderate groups to take on his organization in Syria: “Very soon you will be in direct confrontation, Allah permitting.”

ISIS fighters from across Europe are bringing in new recruits via social media, causing great concern. According to security officials from several European nations, about 400 British, 100 American and 700 French combatants, among others, have already joined the fight, turning what some may consider a distant war into an immediate threat at home.

“No one should be in any doubt that what we see in Syria and now in Iraq in terms of ISIS is the most serious threat to Britain’s security that there is today,” Prime Minister David Cameron told journalists Tuesday. “The number of foreign fighters in that area, the number of foreign fighters including those from the UK who could try to return to the UK is a real threat to our country.” Cameron also warned Parliament this week that British fighters in Syria and Iraq pose “a greater threat to the UK than the return of foreign jihadists or fighters from the Afghanistan or Pakistan region.”

And the threat isn’t just to the UK. British citizens, of course, can easily travel to the U.S. There are now volunteers in Syria from almost every country in Europe, according to a recent report by the Soufan Group. In early June, Spanish authorities discovered a cell of Islamist militant recruiters in Melilla who they said had been sending volunteers to join insurgencies from Mali to Syria.

It’s unclear just how many Westerners, if any, joined ISIS on its blitzkrieg through northern Iraq, though at least two Danes and a Frenchman died in ISIS offensives in the north of the country earlier this year. There have been accounts of foreigners among the ISIS troops taking Mosul in last week’s attack, but most were described as having North African, non-Iraqi Arab or Chechen accents. ISIS’s Iraq campaign, which utilized the tactics of conventional war rather than guerilla-style suicide attacks, may have required seasoned jihadis over untrained but committed novices from the West.

In a way, though, that doesn’t matter. ISIS, whose regional ambitions are reflected in its name, does not acknowledge the border that divides the two wings of its campaign. An attack on ISIS targets in Iraq is the same as one on ISIS targets in Syria. If Baghdadi or one of his lieutenants calls for revenge on the West, he is likely to find many willing — and able — volunteers.

TIME Iraq

Why Iraq’s Awakening Councils Can’t Save the Country From al-Qaeda This Time

A member of the U.S.-backed Neighborhood Patrol Awakening Council stands guard in the Sunni Adhamiya district north of Baghdad in 2008.
A member of the U.S.-backed Neighborhood Patrol Awakening Council stands guard in the Sunni Adhamiya district north of Baghdad in 2008. Wathiq Khuzaie—Getty Images

Iraq's Sunni tribes helped defeat al-Qaeda in 2008. This time around they are likely to stay on the sidelines

When al-Qaeda militants attacked Iraq’s al-Askari Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shi‘ite Islam, in 2006, it unleashed a savage, sectarian war that saw tens of thousands of Iraqis dead and hundreds of thousands injured and traumatized. Shi‘ite militias responded by torturing and executing Sunnis, and Sunni groups aligned with al-Qaeda embarked on a series of brutal suicide attacks across the country. Al-Qaeda ruled Iraq’s so-called Sunni Triangle, spanning the distance between the Syrian border to the northwest, down the Tigris and nearly to Baghdad. It took more than 130,000 U.S. troops, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi security forces, and the recruitment of Sunni tribes into a unified movement backed by American funding to calm the country and tame al-Qaeda.

Well, al-Qaeda is back, this time in the far more virulent incarnation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), an offshoot so vicious that it has been denounced by al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan. But this time around ISIS’s rampage through Iraq is supported by some of the very same Sunni tribes that were used to defeat al-Qaeda in 2008. With Sunnis feeling alienated and resentful at what they see as the central government’s pro-Shi‘ite policies, it is unlikely that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shi‘ite, will have any of the same tools left at his disposal to quash a movement that threatens to tear the country apart.

On Monday night, 44 Sunni prisoners being held in the mixed Shi‘ite-Sunni town of Baquba were reportedly executed by their Shi‘ite jailers with gunshots to the head, a crime reminiscent of the worst days of the 2006 sectarian bloodletting. Even as al-Maliki tried to soothe tensions in a televised address to the nation, saying on Wednesday that his government was “regaining the initiative and striking back,” his Shi‘ite-dominated army is unlikely to take back Mosul and other Sunni towns without help.

Even before the sectarian bloodletting of 2006, U.S. military forces had quietly begun supplying and training local Sunni tribal militias in Anbar province to take on al-Qaeda in Iraq. That program eventually grew into a countrywide Sunni Awakening Movement largely credited with reducing al-Qaeda influence on a local level and bringing the sectarian war to an end. The groups were essentially paid by the U.S. government to patrol neighborhoods, fight insurgents and not to fight U.S. or Iraqi forces. The Iraqi government, then led by al-Maliki, took on responsibility for the movement in 2008, and promised to pay the roughly 50,000 members. Later al-Maliki’s government tried to disband what it feared might become a sectarian militia by promising to absorb about a quarter of the members into the army, and providing vocational training and employment to others. The promises were rarely fulfilled, engendering even more resentment among the tribes. “The councils kicked al-Qaeda out in 2008, but Maliki never rewarded those people,” says Erbil-based analyst Hoshang Waziri. “He kept their salaries and he marginalized the tribes. The Sunni have the sense that they have been cheated by Maliki. They feel they have been discriminated against.”

Even if al-Maliki wanted to reconstitute the movement, he would have a hard time convincing Sunnis that he would follow through this time, says Fakri Karim, editor in chief of Iraq’s Al Mada newspaper. “No one trusts Maliki and his promises after he lost his credibility and revealed he won’t keep all the promises he made,” Fakri says in an email to TIME.

Stability in Iraq will ultimately depend on those disgruntled Sunni tribes, says Waziri, but he doesn’t see how al-Maliki will be able to rally their support anytime soon: “It’s too late to think we can depend on another Awakening movement.”

Ultimately, Iraq’s Sunnis are likely to tire of their temporary allies in ISIS, particularly as that group moves to enforce its draconian interpretation of Islamic law, or if it launches another bloody campaign of violence in its attempt to take the rest of the country. But by the time the tribes genuinely rise up in disgust at ISIS’s handiwork, Iraq may have already been lost.

TIME Iraq

Is al-Maliki the Man to Save Iraq?

Obama Meets With Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki At White House
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, in Washington, on Nov. 1, 2013 Getty Images--Olivier Douliery

Embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki holds the key to a solution in Iraq. But is he willing to use it?

It’s not often that the White House and Tehran are on the same page, but when it comes to Iraq, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are practically on the same paragraph. As disgruntled Sunni fighters aligned with al-Qaeda’s offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), take town after town in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, both countries are pushing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a solution. Rouhani has urged al-Maliki to work with Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds to defeat the extremists, while Obama has conditioned American assistance on al-Maliki’s willingness to include all of Iraq’s religious and ethnic groups in governmental policymaking.

“I want to make sure that everybody understands this message,” said Obama in a July 13 address. “The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together.”

But so far al-Maliki, a Shi‘ite, has resisted reaching out to his political opponents, focusing instead on directing a military response and recruiting young Shi‘ites for sectarian defense militias. “Obama and Rouhani should know better,” says Iraqi political scientist Saad Jawad, who is now a 
senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ Middle East Centre. Al-Maliki “can’t be the mediator. He is the problem.”

ISIS’s rapid advance in Iraq’s Sunni areas has as much to do with resentment over al-Maliki’s Shi‘ite-centric policies as with military might. ISIS, whose fighters only number in the low thousands according to most estimates, has been joined by other radical Sunni groups, as well as disgruntled tribal leaders and former members of Saddam Hussein’s ousted regime. Many of them reject ISIS’s Islamist agenda, but they hate al-Maliki even more. In the eight years he has been in power, al-Maliki has failed to win over Iraq’s Sunnis, which make up about 35% of the population and who flourished under Saddam’s rule.

If Iraq is to survive the militant threat, al-Maliki must do everything possible to win back Sunni trust, former Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih tells TIME via email. “The conflict, on a fundamental level, is a struggle between moderate Sunnis and the extremists. ISIS [and] al-Qaeda cannot be defeated by Shi‘ites alone, nor by Kurds — it cannot be defeated by the U.S. or Iran for that matter. It can only be rooted out by Sunnis standing up against the threat posed by extremists.”

But it may be too late, says Jawad. Al-Maliki’s heavy-handed crackdowns on Sunni protests over the past few years have alienated many, and his refusal to grant economic concessions to the semiautonomous Kurdish area has raised additional hackles. “He can’t reach out to any of these groups, because no one will believe him anymore. He is inflexible, and he has created problems with all the different groups — the Sunnis, the Kurds, other political parties — that he is unable to solve,” says Jawad.

It’s unclear why, exactly, al-Maliki has been so slow to reach out — particularly if his two greatest backers, the U.S. and Iran, are insisting that he make amends. His party’s recent win in April’s elections earned him a third term, but he didn’t have enough support to form a government. Instead he has cobbled together a coalition of extreme Shi‘ite parties that have made the Sunni, Kurdish and secular parties even more wary. Jawad argues that power has gone to al-Maliki’s head and that he will do anything to maintain it, even at the risk of losing the country in the process.

“He thinks he has the support of the majority of the people, which is simply not true,” says Jawad. “And he thinks that those who are against him are against him on a purely sectarian basis, which is also not true. They are against him because he failed.”

Al-Maliki is also paranoid, says Jawad, and doesn’t trust anyone outside a close circle of advisers. He also believes that his army, and Iraq’s Shi‘ite defense militias, will be able to stop the militant tide before it reaches Baghdad. It probably will — ISIS and its allies can’t advance beyond Sunni reservoirs of support — but the militants could also launch a bloody sectarian war. The only thing that will save Iraq now is a political reconciliation that spans the country’s ethnosectarian divide, says Feisal Amin Rasoul Istrabadi, Iraq’s former envoy to the U.N. and now the director of Indiana University’s Center for the Study of the Middle East.

“The army does have to make a stand and stanch the bleeding, but the solution has to be political, not military. The Sunnis have been disenfranchised, and the Shi‘ites, if they want to govern a united Iraq, will need a new leadership that understands this. One that is willing to broker the political compromises and engage in genuine power sharing.”

The question now is whether or not al-Maliki can be that leader.

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

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.

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