TIME Syria

Murdered Journalist Sought to Give Voice to the Voiceless

American freelance journalist Steven Sotloff during a work trip in Manama, Bahrain, Oct. 26, 2010.
American freelance journalist Steven Sotloff during a work trip in Manama, Bahrain, Oct. 26, 2010. Mazen Mahdi—EPA

People who knew American reporter Steven Sotloff say he was evenhanded and driven to report on the humanitarian dimensions of the conflicts in the Middle East

Right from the start of the Syrian civil war, in March 2011, reporting from inside the country meant facing an unusually high level of danger. And as the country’s Arab Spring–inspired uprising morphed into a bloody, sectarian-tinged stalemate, the risks to journalists working there grew. That didn’t stop reporters like Steven Sotloff, who is believed to have been beheaded by the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria after spending more than a year in captivity, from risking their lives to tell the stories of Syrians trapped in the middle.

Sotloff leaped into the tumult of the Middle East with a passion for reporting the details of daily life in the middle of momentous change. He referred to himself on Twitter as a “Stand-up philosopher from Miami” and was known as an “easy-going, jovial and kind-hearted guy,” according to one of his closest friends, Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation. Barfi says he and Sotloff shared a love for U.S. sports teams as well as the Middle East, and often worked together as the Arab Spring took off in 2011. Sotloff, says Barfi, was drawn to the Middle East not by the wars and the battles, but by the opportunity to “give a voice to the people who didn’t have one. He always wanted to bring out the humanitarian aspect of a story.” That desire led Sotloff to Yemen, where he studied Arabic, and to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Turkey and eventually Syria. His stories focused on small human details rather than epic battles. And he was never content to take the obvious tack, notes Barfi. “He always said there were two sides to every story, and he was not ready to condemn a person without hearing what he had to say.” Sotloff, says Barfi, wasn’t just interested in getting a big interview: “He wanted to understand what made a man tick.” That desire took him to places few journalists would visit, and turned into powerful stories that brought distant conflict to life.

Sotloff grew up in Florida and attended boarding school in New Hampshire, where he got his start as a journalist while working for the school newspaper. He returned to Florida to go to university, where he continued with journalism at one of the University of Central Florida’s student newspapers. He left in 2005 to pursue journalism full time, moving to the Middle East to learn Arabic. Dedicated as he was to the events buffeting the region, he never lost touch with his favorite hometown team, tweeting frequently about the Miami Heat. At one point he wondered out loud on Twitter: “Is it bad that I want to focus on #syria, but all I can think of is a #HEATFinals repeat?”

Sotloff was a committed reporter, eager to get to the source of stories. He was careful but was rarely frightened of the dangers of reporting in the Middle East. He knew where the red lines were, says Barfi, who also served as the Sotloff family spokesman while Sotloff was in captivity. Sotloff knew militants who had gone on to join ISIS, says Barfi, and he had heard enough about the group to avoid them. It was one of the few subjects he wrote about from a distance. “He knew about ISIS and the dangers they posed for Westerners and Syrians, that was one of the few topics he wouldn’t touch in person.”

Sotloff’s parents and supporters elected to keep his kidnapping out of the news in the hopes it would aid his release. But on Aug. 19, ISIS released a video of the beheading of American journalist James Foley; the video showed Sotloff kneeling in the desert and the ISIS member who appeared to have executed Foley said that Sotloff could be ISIS’s next victim. A week later, Shirley Sotloff, his mother, issued a video plea to ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to “grant amnesty” to her son.

Her request went unmet. In the video of Sotloff’s beheading, Sotloff describes himself as “paying the price” for the U.S.’s decision to strike ISIS targets in Iraq. It was most likely a statement made under duress, says Barfi. “Steve would never subjugate himself to making such a statement against the United States if he weren’t coerced into it.” Referring to reports that Foley may have been waterboarded while in captivity, Barfi suggests that Sotloff likely received the same treatment. “We know the torture these guys were subjected to.”

Sotloff and I reported together briefly in Bahrain in February 2011, as Bahraini citizens first rose up in protest against their government. He was generous with his contacts and was eager to share stories of people he had encountered while reporting. Proficient in Arabic, he even helped translate for reporters with rival organizations. We stayed in touch via email over the years, especially once he started writing pieces for TIME, but we never met in person again. The last time I heard from Sotloff, he had just returned from Libya, where he had managed to interview seven of the Libyan security guards who had been on duty at the U.S. mission in Benghazi on the night of the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. It was a journalistic coup, and he produced an excellent account of the events of that night that contributed to the national conversation about the events in Benghazi. But Sotloff fretted that the politics of the issue had taken away from the personal accounts. “I should have written a feature piece about one of the guards and his emotions,” he told me in an email. For Sotloff, getting those personal stories was what journalism was all about. And, as for any reporter, the only way he could get them was by being on the ground.

TIME Libya

Libya Faces the Prospect of Civil War as Regional Powers Choose Sides

A damaged aircraft is pictured after shelling at Tripoli International Airport, Aug. 24, 2014.
A damaged aircraft is pictured on Aug. 24 after shelling at Tripoli International Airport Aimen Elsahli—Reuters

U.S. officials say the UAE and Egypt were behind airstrikes on Islamist militants in Tripoli, raising fears that a regional proxy war inside Libya could worsen as neighboring militaries get involved

Airstrikes don’t usually come with a calling card. After all, the intended targets usually know who their enemies are. But in Libya, a series of fighter jet strikes on Islamist militias fighting for control of Tripoli’s airport couldn’t have come from their traditional rivals—Libya’s fractious militias may be well armed and powerful, but none have an effective air force. On Monday, unnamed US officials confirmed to media outlets what many Libyans had already feared: the country’s neighbors are starting to choose sides in a conflict that is rapidly descending into civil war.

Sunday’s airstrikes, as well as an earlier attack on Aug. 18, were launched by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with assistance from Egypt, U.S. officials told the BBC and the New York Times. Both countries vociferously deny the claims, but to experts and scholars who closely follow regional politics, the denials ring hollow. With radical Islamist forces gaining ground in Libya, says Ronald Bruce St. John, an independent scholar and author of five books on the country, neighboring countries fear for their own stability—particularly in the wake of recent gains in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). “It’s not there yet, but if Libya moves to an ISIS-type state, every one of its neighbors will feel threatened.” And not just immediate neighbors. Many countries in the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to the UAE, are threatened by their own internal Islamist uprisings. The fear is that an Islamist success in Libya could inspire stronger movements at home.

Ultimately, the airstrikes were a failure: the Islamist-aligned militia retained control of the airport. But the consequences for Libya, and the region, could be devastating.

From the first days of the uprising against Col. Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya’s neighbors sought to influence the outcome by supporting different factions within the opposition. Qatar and Turkey, more comfortable with Islamists in general, backed radical militias with weapons and financial support. Others backed tribal militias over ideological ones.

Now that Gaddafi has fallen and a fledgling democratic state has taken his place, those militias are battling for political influence, the country’s vast oil wealth and lucrative smuggling routes. Increasingly, they are backed by their former regional sponsors, who want a say in Libya’s political future, and are willing to go to great lengths to ensure it, says Professor George Joffe, a research fellow specializing in North Africa and the Middle East at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. “The fact that UAE has attacked Tripoli means that in effect the proxy war has become the real war.”

But it is not just a question of Libya’s spoils. The regional power struggle unfolding inside Libya is one part of the post-Arab Spring conflict between secularist autocrats and the Islamist groups that would overthrow them.

The problem is that none of Libya’s militia groups are poised to bring security, establish stability or protect democratic gains. The leader of the principal anti-Islamist militia, former general Khalifa Hifter, attempted to take power by force in May, hardly inspiring confidence in his support for democratic governance. “Much of this is about economics pure and simple: the control of smuggling networks, oil production facilities [and] airports,” notes Frederic Wehrey of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The militias are not necessarily ideologically different but many are mafia-like groups that have allied with key tribes and regions.”

Had militia infighting stayed local, there was always the chance of local resolution, adds Joffe. Military interference by regional actors escalates the tensions and raises the stakes. “No longer do you have a dispute between two militia groups,” says Joffe. “Now you have two states confronting each other indirectly, and they are not going to listen to what locals say about reconciliation, so the real danger is that Libya becomes a open war.” There is widespread agreement that Libya will require some sort of international intervention to solve the internal conflict between militia groups. Now that regional actors are taking sides, resolution will be harder to reach.

TIME Ukraine

Did the Passengers Suffer? 6 Key Questions on MH17 Crash

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014.
An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

How Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 might have been downed in Ukraine, and how investigators will figure out who might have done it

Both sides in Ukraine’s ongoing civil conflict accuse each other of having shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with a missile, killing all 298 passengers and crew members. United States, Ukrainian and Russian intelligence officials agree that the plane was felled by an advanced surface to air missile, but not on who fired it. The results of the investigation could have far reaching consequences. If it was pro-Russian separatists—as President Obama suggested it might have been Friday—all eyes will be on Russia, which is already facing international opprobrium, and American sanctions, for backing the rebels. Below, six key questions answered about the scope of the investigation, and whether or not the passengers on board knew what was coming.

1. What kind of weapon might have been used?

According to U.S. intelligence officials the plane was most likely hit by a SA-11 Buk launcher, a Russian-made, medium range, radar-guided surface-to-air missile system, though other factors, such as a possible terror attack, will have to be taken into account. “Investigators will have to rule out the possibility of an on-board explosive device,” says John Borkowski, managing Director of the UK-based aviation consultancy MSP Solutions. “It’s highly unlikely, but we won’t have a full picture of what happened until we know for certain what did not happen.” To that end, he says, investigators will be screening passenger manifests even as they inspect the detritus on the ground.

That shouldn’t be a significant issue. While no investigation in a conflict zone is easy, the rebel groups holding the area have said they will grant access. At the crash site investigators will be looking for explosive residue. If the engines alone were targeted, that would indicate that the missile in question was a heat seeking missile, and not the radar-guided Buk. Investigators will also want to know more about the missile’s trajectory. In cases like this, says I.H.S. Jane’s Missiles & Rockets editor Doug Richardson, investigators will reassemble all the gathered plane fragments in order to figure where the warhead was when it exploded. “That will help predict from which direction the missile came.”

2. Who will have jurisdiction when it comes to the investigation?

With a Malaysian airline flying an American-built plane holding 173 Dutch citizens crashing on Russian-backed rebel held territory in Ukraine, there will be plenty of parties vying for control. The incident occurred in Ukrainian airspace, so legally Kiev should be in charge. But the Russians and the rebels are not going to want to see their rivals leading an investigation that could end up implicating Russia. More likely it will be a joint effort, says Borkowski. “Overall responsibility goes to Malaysia, but the Dutch will want to be involved, and the Europeans will want to help. It will be a collaborative effort, under the joint jurisdiction of Kiev and Malaysia.”

3. How will investigators figure out who fired the missile?

Assigning blame won’t be easy, says Justin Bronk, a research analyst at U.K.-based security analysis firm the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. The Ukrainians, the Russians and the Russian-backed rebels all have access to Buk missile systems. But figuring out who pulled the trigger is where the United States can play a role. “The most crucial bit of evidence will come from American satellites,” says Bronk. The U.S. does not say, but it is widely assumed, that its satellites can pick up a missile’s infrared trail and follow it all the way back to its source. “A satellite fix on where the launcher was when the missile was launched is the only way to rebut rebel claims that they didn’t do it,” says Bronk. The problem is that the U.S. may not want to reveal the full capacity of its satellite network, so investigators will still need to focus on material evidence to back up their claims. Even then it will be difficult to prove whether or not the rebels were supplied directly by Russia, or if they obtained the launcher through a third party.

4. Both “black boxes” have been recovered. How important are the flight recorders?

While information gathered from cockpit communications and flight data will help fill in the gaps, the cockpit recorders are unlikely to shed much light on who launched the missile. “Black boxes are useful when you don’t know why the airplane crashed,” says Bronk. “But they won’t pick up a missile coming in at Mach 3, and they won’t tell us what we really want to know, which is who fired it.”

5. Could anyone have tampered with the evidence in the early hours after the crash?

Rebels in the area may have tried, says aviation consultant Borkowski, but it’s not so easy. “Crash experts know what they are looking for, and it would be quite difficult to completely eradicate evidence.” The real concern is the propaganda angle. Within hours of the crash, Ukrainian officials said they had intercepted purported phone calls between commanders and rebels in the field, first exulting over the downing of what was thought to be enemy aircraft, followed by disbelief and then anguish when they realized their mistake. Ukrainian activists also cited similar accounts on rebels’ social media accounts. Though the original blog posts and tweets had been removed, screen grabs of the footage were reposted online. The information could be used to reconstruct the narrative of a terrible mistake, but it is impossible to rule out fabrication.

6. Did the passengers know what happened, and did they suffer?

It’s highly unlikely, says missile expert Richardson. The Buk missile detonates just before hitting its target, releasing shrapnel in a pattern designed to cut through multiple aircraft components at the same time. “The decompression would have been quick, and the passengers would have been knocked out before they knew what was happening.”

With reporting by Mirren Gidda / London

TIME Israel

Missiles from Lebanon are Landing in Israel—But Hizballah Isn’t the Suspect

Israeli security forces stand next to damage caused by Katyusha style rocket fired from Lebanon near the border between northern Israel and Lebanon, on July 11, 2014.
Israeli security forces stand next to damage caused by Katyusha style rocket fired from Lebanon near the border between northern Israel and Lebanon, on July 11, 2014. JINI/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Lebanon's most fearsome anti-Israel militant group has stayed out of the Gaza crisis. That could change if Israel overreacts to rockets coming from Lebanon

Israel has a lot of enemies in the region, so it’s not surprising that it is taking fire from multiple sides—including from southern Lebanon, the source of at least four missile launches into northern Israel in recent days. What is surprising is that none of those attacks originated from Israel’s archenemy Hizballah, the powerful Lebanese militia that dominates the country’s south.

Some 11 rockets landed in Israeli territory. No one was hurt. At least two failed to launch, according to Lebanese military accounts quoted in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper, and one never made it into Israel. Not far from the United Nations-monitored Blue Line that demarcates the border between Lebanon and Israel, Lebanese bomb defusers. were able to dismantle two other rockets before they could be launched. All in all, the rocket attacks appear to be the work of amateurs driven to action by the Israeli attacks on Gaza, says Lebanese political analyst Kamel Wazne, and not that of an organized militant group. “If Hizballah decided to launch a war on Israel, well, Israel already knows what that looks like,” he says. (Hizballah has not commented on the attacks.)

On Wednesday July 16, the Lebanese military announced that it had apprehended two Palestinian brothers who had admitted to launching one of the attacks, as well as a Lebanese man who was implicated in the first rocket volley on Friday. Since the attacks started Friday, the Lebanese army has engaged in a concerted effort to prevent any further cross-border attacks by increasing patrols in the area and reaching out to the U.N. peacekeepers that have been in place in south Lebanon since the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah. Lebanon, including Hizballah, does not want to see another war with Israel, says Wazne. “There is a consensus in Lebanon that no missiles should be launched from Lebanese territory, and that these acts do not serve the Lebanese interest or the Palestinian cause.”

One of the three detained men appears to be affiliated with a radical Lebanese group, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya that has gained ground among Lebanese Sunni militants aligned with rebels fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Hizballah, in turn, backs Assad. The attackers, say Wazne, could have been motivated by a desire to deflect Israeli attention away from Gaza and towards Hizballah in an effort undermine the group’s support for Assad. Meanwhile Hamas, the Palestinian militant group battling Israel from Gaza, has also claimed responsibility for an attack from Lebanon, but it is not clear that it could have achieved such a feat, considering its limited presence on the ground.

All of which begs the question: why isn’t Hizballah getting involved in the Gaza conflict, which intensified on July 17 as Israel announced a ground invasion of the enclave? For a militant group whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, uses every opportunity to decry what he calls Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, Hizballah has been remarkably quiet since Israel launched its operation in Gaza a week ago. Hizballah’s standard rhetoric is that it is always ready for another confrontation with Israel, but it is just as likely that the militant group is keeping a low profile in order to better focus its efforts on Syria.

It’s not that Hizballah couldn’t handle two fronts at once, says Wazne, who has close contacts in Hizballah’s leadership. He believes the group is keeping a close eye on the events in Gaza, but as long as Israel does not attack Lebanon, it sees no need to get involved. The real risk, he cautions, is if Israel overreacts to the missiles being lobbed over the Lebanese border. Israel has met every incoming rocket with a barrage of its own into south Lebanon, but so far there has been no casualties or damages on either side. Lebanese Foreign Affairs minister Gebran Bassil threatened to lodge a complaint with the U.N. Security Council over Israel’s excessive response against Lebanon. “Someone is trying to use Lebanon as a launching pad to respond to Israel over events in Gaza. This is not the policy of the state, and it is taking measures against these sporadic groups.” he told reporters Tuesday. “But that doesn’t mean Israel can attack Lebanon.”

If it does, notes Wazne, Hizballah will be ready.

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


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


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.


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.

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