TIME Syria

Syria’s Assad Prepares for Sham Elections Despite Endless War

Portraits of President Bashar Assad seen in Damascus during the previous presidential elections in May 2007.
Portraits of President Bashar Assad seen in Damascus during the previous presidential poll in May 2007. Hassan Ammar—AFP/Getty Images

President Assad won the last election in 2007 with 98 percent of the vote, in a process that can hardly be called free or fair. If he runs again in the upcoming election, it would dim the prospects of U.N.-backed peace talks to end the country's bloody civil war

For the past forty years, voting in Syria has been a pretty straightforward process. In 2007, the most recent presidential poll, the ballot asked one simple question: Should Bashar Assad stay in power for another seven-year term? Voters could check a green circle marked yes, or a red circle marked no. In at least one polling station in Damascus (though anecdotal evidence points to a wider distribution) election officials even made the act of checking optional. Instead, they offered a stack of forms pre-marked in Assad’s favor. Anyone who wanted to vote against him simply had to ask for an unmarked ballot—in front of an array of police officers and intelligence agents. “Not once in the whole day did I see someone vote against Assad,” says Siraj, a 28-year-old Syrian military defector now living in Beirut, Lebanon, who was helping his father run the local polling site that day by passing out ballot papers. “If you asked for an unmarked ballot, all eyes would be on you.”

In 2007, Assad won the referendum with 97.6 percent of the vote. With his second term drawing to a close on July 17, a new election is likely to be called in the coming weeks, though this time around it won’t be a simple yes or no vote. Electoral reforms, voted in by parliament two years ago, now allow multiple candidates to run for president for the first since Assad’s father took power 44 years ago. Few believe that it will make any difference at all. “I’ve seen how voting works in Syria,” Siraj tells TIME, asking to go by one name to protect family still in Damascus. “Assad will win no matter how many names are on the ballot.”

Not only are the upcoming elections likely to be meaningless in a country where three years of war have driven nearly half the population from their homes and taken an estimated 145,000 lives, they also threaten to undermine any chance of a political negotiation that might lead to peace. A presidential campaign with Assad in the running directly contravenes a UN-backed peace process based on the establishment of a transitional government leading to free and fair elections. “I very much doubt that a presidential election and another seven-year term for President Bashar Assad will put an end to the unbearable suffering of the Syrian people, stop the destruction of the country and re-establish harmony and mutual confidence in the region,” U.N. peace mediator Lakhdar Brahimi told the U.N. General Assembly on March 14.

Assad has yet to formally announce his candidacy, coyly stating in various media appearances that it is up to the Syrian people to nominate him. But in government-controlled areas, election preparations are in full swing. In Homs city, rubble-strewn neighborhoods are being cleaned and plastered with posters of the President and banners pleading for him to run. In Damascus shopkeepers have painted their rolling shutters with the colors of the regime’s flag while car processions waving flags and blaring music glorifying Assad make the rounds. Posters proclaiming that “Eyelids will not sleep until you elect the ophthalmologist,” in reference to Assad’s pre-presidential career have sprouted in affluent areas (the phrase rhymes in Arabic). Yet for all the election fanfare, and the fact that Parliament has cleared the way for competition, not a single opposing candidate has emerged. The risks are simply too high. Twenty-seven-year-old Damascus resident Hind doesn’t expect to see any real candidates put their name forward. Anyone who runs against Assad, she says, via Skype, will be doing it just for appearances’ sake, “to keep up the spectacle and make-believe.”

Even if a serious contender were to emerge, stringent requirements make it all but impossible to enter the race. Candidates must win the support of 35 members of the pro-Assad Parliament, and they must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years, a stipulation that automatically knocks out even officially tolerated opposition members, all of whom have spent time in exile at one point or another over the past decade. Both parents must also be Syrian, and foreign spouses are not permitted. “I have not personally seen any candidates [come out], and I don’t think we will see any because the conditions are literally incapacitating,” says Damascus resident Mazen, 24, reached by Skype. Neither Hind nor Mazen would allow their full names to be used, for fear of a backlash by Syrian security forces.

To opposition members leading the anti-Assad revolt from exile, the proposed elections, with all their hubris and constraints, are a charade. “The only unknown about this election is whether Bashar will get 97 or 98 percent of the vote,” says Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian opposition, based in Washington D.C. What is clear, warns Shahbandar, is that if Assad does go through with his putative election, “he will be signaling the regime’s unwillingness to go back to the negotiating table, and slamming the door shut on any chance of peaceful resolution for Syria.”

—with reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut

TIME Syria

For Syrians, Social Media Is More Useful than the U.N. Security Council

Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp on Jan. 31, 2014 in Damascus.
This photo taken at Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus in Jan. 2014 went viral and was later displayed on billboards at New York’s Times Square. UNRWA—Getty Images

A damning new report shows a U.N. Security Council resolution has done little to provide humanitarian relief to Syria's besieged, beleaguered civilians, even as a social media campaign for one town manages to crack regime resolve

According to a scathing internal assessment inadvertently leaked to the media, last month’s United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the use of siege warfare in Syria, where an estimated 220,000 people had been cut off from basic food and health supplies as part of an ongoing campaign to starve citizens into submission, has achieved little results. On February 22, Security Council Resolution 2139 called for the Syrian government, as well as armed opposition groups, to immediately open access for the delivery of desperately needed aid. The passage of the resolution was hailed as a hopeful sign of progress and promised relief from the “chilling darkness” that had fallen over the Syrian people.

Of course residents of Yarmouk, one of the besieged towns cited in the original resolution, don’t need a report to spell out what they already know: that the little aid that has managed to trickle through in the wake of the resolution makes a mockery of U.N. resolve. “We can’t call this living,” says Mahmood Nasar, a 24-year-old anti-regime activist, via Skype from inside Yarmouk. “People are not living. They are psychologically and physically drained.” Still, the aid that did manage to break through may have had more to do with a serendipitous photo and a massive social media campaign than any finger wagging from the U.N.

The report, the first of a series of monthly assessments on the resolution’s implementation, notes that the numbers of Syrian civilians under siege have hardly changed. The report goes on to detail government obstruction to the delivery of vital humanitarian aid, from “unanswered” requests for convoy approvals to a “lack of internal communication… resulting in denial of access or delays at checkpoints, and continued insecurity.” Medical assistance in particular has been singled out, according to the report. “Since the adoption of the resolution, medical supplies have been removed by government officials from [humanitarian aid] convoys … which would have assisted around 201,000 people.” The government of President Bashar Assad “has ramped up its campaign of dropping barrel bombs into residential neighborhoods of Aleppo city, [making] no effort to distinguish civilians from military targets.” The report is equally vociferous against elements within the armed opposition, who are keeping some 45,000 Syrians under siege as a bargaining tactic.

Not only does the report offer a bleak assessment of the situation in Syria, which is described as a country whose “cities and villages have been reduced to rubble;” it is an oblique indictment of the U.N. and the Security Council, which has so far been unable to force the Syrian regime, or the rebels for that matter, to respect the sanctity of human life. “Frustration applies to a lot of places in Syria,” says Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA] that is overseeing the delivery of aid to Yarmouk, a former Palestinian refugee settlement on the outskirts of Damascus that has been under siege for nine months. “In Yarmouk the situation is beyond imagination. We have women dying in childbirth for lack of medical care, widespread reports of children with malnutrition and people starving, and eating animal feed to survive; all this in the capital city of a UN member state in the 21st century. It beggars belief.”

But unlike many other cities and towns mentioned in the report, Yarmouk is at least seeing some assistance—UNRWA has been able to deliver 9000 aid parcels, containing enough basic food to feed a family for 10 days, in the past two months. That probably has more to do with a viral social media campaign that cast a harsh light on government intransigence than any harshly worded U.N. statement, raising further questions about the efficacy of a politics-plagued international body whose veto-wielding members are divided over Assad’s right to rule.

UNRWA’s Yarmouk campaign, which has been built around a now-iconic photo of teeming masses surging over an apocalyptic scene of destruction to reach a food distribution point, has drawn international attention in a way that few other scenes of Syrian suffering have. The photo was displayed simultaneously on massive electronic billboards in New York’s Times Square and Tokyo’s Shibuya district, and was tweeted, “liked” and shared some 38.5 million times. Celebrities from Alfonso Cuarón to Hugh Grant, Sting, Annie Lennox and Hanif Kureishi joined in to call for humanitarian access. Gunness doesn’t claim that a photo broadcast appearing on the Times Square Jumbotron changed the regime’s calculation overnight, but social media did play a role, he says. “The parties know they are being scrutinized. We have plenty of anecdotal evidence that the social media campaign is being felt on the ground. The fact that we now have a humanitarian corridor open for aid says a lot about what has been achieved.”

It also says a lot about the herculean efforts necessary to move the Assad regime to act. Gunness admits that what little UNRWA has been able to force through to the 18,000 starving residents of Yarmouk is but “a drop in the bucket.” The UNRWA food parcel, he says, “is barely enough to stave off malnutrition.” Even with all the tweets, celebrity endorsements and worldwide attention, only a fraction of Yarmouk’s residents have received aid, let alone achieved the freedoms called for by the Security Council. “The U.N. resolution is not about keeping people one millimeter from the brink of starvation and destitution. We want the full realization of all their needs,” says Gunness.

That may take a while. In order to forestall an inevitable veto from Security Council member Russia, which backs the Assad regime, the resolution’s stated response for noncompliance was watered down to a less threatening “further steps” to be debated in a subsequent meeting. Further steps that of course risk another Russian veto. As long as Russia has an interest in keeping Assad in power, Syria’s other cities under siege my have to hope for their own social media campaigns to crack the barriers to aid.

—with reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut

TIME Syria

Syrian Forces Reclaim Historic Crusader Castle From Rebels

A government soldier looks out over the renowned Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers near the Syria-Lebanon border after forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad seized the fortress on March 20, 2014.
A government soldier looks out over the renowned Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers near the Syria-Lebanon border after forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad seized the fortress on March 20, 2014. Sam Skaine—AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian army laid siege to some 500 rebels holed up inside for weeks, echoing tactics used by the 13th-century Islamic Mamluk dynasty, when it finally took control of the castle from European knights

The gray stone crusader fortress Krak des Chevaliers has dominated the principal road from the ancient Syrian capital Damascus to the sea for 900 years, changing hands multiple times over the centuries as rival armies have vied for its strategic location. On Thursday the Syrian army retook the hilltop citadel, 25 miles from the city of Homs, from a ragtag group of rebels who had held it for nearly two years. By Thursday evening the two-starred flag of President Bashar Assad’s government flew from the ramparts. Regime forces were well on their way towards reclaiming a swathe of territory linking Damascus to the coastal province of Latakia, forming the backbone of what could eventually be a rump state governed by Assad’s forces should the country fracture along sectarian lines.

For weeks the Syrian army had laid siege to some 500 rebels holed up inside, echoing tactics used by the 13th century Islamic Mamluk dynasty when it finally wrested control of the castle from the Knights Hospitaller, who built it 130 years before. This most recent siege ended with a bout of intense clashes that finally succeeded in driving the rebels out. Pro-government television stations showed Syrian soldiers exploring the castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, accompanied by the sound of celebratory gunfire.

The fate of the Krak des Chevaliers, considered to be one of the world’s best-preserved crusader castles, is but one example of the damage that Syria’s three-year war has wrought on the country’s wealth of historical sites. But as a site built to withstand military attack, it may yet survive the war relatively intact, unlike Syria’s more fragile Roman, Greek and Byzantine archaeological sites. Last week UNESCO warned that Syria’s historic Muslim and Christian sites were under attack and called for an immediate halt to the destruction of the country’s historical heritage. From an archaeological preservation point of view, the military’s success may have the unintended consequence of preserving the site — at least for now.

In its attempt to take the castle during the preceding months, the Syrian military attacked the site several times with aerial bombardments, notes Emma Cunliffe, an archaeologist at Britain’s Durham University. “The main damage to the castle has come from the air strikes, so it will be protected from them now,” says Cunliffe, who specializes in historic sites under threat and recently released a survey on Syria’s cultural heritage in conflict for the Global Heritage Fund, an organization that seeks to preserve imperiled historic sites. But the citadel, with its commanding position over key transit points, and important rebel resupply lines, is unlikely to stay uncontested for long. Whether the site stays out of danger is largely dependent on the rebel’s next move, says Cunliffe, like “what ordnance the rebels have access to and whether they will fight to retake it.”

It may already be too late for the rebels. Assad’s forces have consolidated gains all along the Lebanese border, capturing the strategic town of Yabroud last Sunday as well as several other towns and villages that formed a vital support network for the rebels over the past few weeks. The capture of Krak des Chevaliers pales in comparison to the loss of Yabroud in terms of impact on rebel forces. Yet the Syrian government flag waving from a castle tower that can be seen for miles is a potent symbol of defeat that even the original inhabitants would well understand.

TIME Syria

Cancer Takes Zacharia, A Syrian Child Caught Between War And Disease

Feryal Delly, a Syrian refugee, gives water to her 4-year-old son Zacharia on March 9. Zacharia, who suffers from a brain tumor, lives with his family in a rented apartment in Halt, north of Beirut.
Feryal Delly, a Syrian refugee, gives water to her 4-year-old son Zacharia on March 9. Zacharia, who has a brain tumor, lives with his family in a rented apartment in Halat, north of Beirut. Lynsey Addario—UNHCR

The death of Zacharia Delly, a four-year-old who suffered from neuroblastoma, highlights the humanitarian tragedy and civilian impact of a brutal war—now in its fourth year—that has put proper medical care out of reach for millions of people

On March 13, TIME covered the heartbreaking story of a four-year-old Syrian boy caught at the tragic intersection of war and cancer. Last year, Zacharia Delly had been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a common childhood cancer, in his hometown of Homs. A difficult but treatable disease, neuroblastoma is best tackled with aggressive chemotherapy, and Zacharia’s doctor prescribed eight sessions, spaced two weeks apart, in an attempt to catch the cancer before it spread too far.

But the hospital in Homs had been destroyed in the fighting, like some 60% of the country’s medical facilities, according to a new report by Save the Children, and his parents were forced to take him to Damascus for treatment, a two-hour bus ride away. As the fighting intensified the road became impassable, and Zacharia missed his second session. Chemotherapy is not something that can be put on hold. If a session is missed, the cancer comes back even stronger. By the time his mother, Feryal Delly, was able to get him to Damascus, Zacharia was 20 days late. The doctor urged Zacharia’s family to move to Damascus to ensure regular treatments, but with no money, no jobs, and five children to take care of, it was impossible.

Zacharia returned to Homs, and the road to Damascus closed again. Desperate to make the next appointment on time, Delly packed up her family for Lebanon, where she hoped to find better hospitals. The move across the border took several days, and by the time they arrived, in December, it was already too late. The cancer took Zacharia’s eyes, his ability to walk, and it moved to his brain. The doctors in Lebanon could do little more than ease his pain.

On March 17, Zacharia died, one small struggle lost among the hundreds of thousands of lives taken by a war that shows no mercy, no logic and has no end in sight.

TIME Syria

The Cost of War: Syria, Three Years On

Men hold up a baby saved from under rubble, who survived an airstrike in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus
Men hold up a baby saved from under rubble, who survived what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus, Jan. 7, 2014. Bassam Khabieh—Reuters

On the third anniversary of the uprising against the Assad regime, the fighting in Syria has taken an enormous toll on the country -- leaving more than 140,000 slaughtered, millions driven to neighboring states, and Syria's economic and cultural structures in ruins

On March 15, 2011, Syrian protestors in the southern city of Deraa, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, stood against the regime of President Bashar Assad. The initial uprising was peaceful, but as the government cracked down with vicious force, some protestors retaliated. By July, the uprising became an armed insurgency, and eventually evolved into a sectarian-tinged civil war.

Three years on, neighboring nations have been pulled in, contributing fighters, weapons, financing and technical assistance to the rival sides. Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah back the government, while Western powers, along with Gulf states and Turkey, support various factions among the rebels. All wars are devastating—and the Syrian civil war war has taken a horrific toll on the civilian population. At 2.5 million, spread between Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, there are now as many Syrian refugees as those exiled from Afghanistan’s wars in the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s. It’s a grim benchmark and potent reminder that it takes decades for the wounds of war to heal.

What three years of war in Syria have wrought:

A GENERATION SCARRED FOR LIFE

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 146,000 Syrians have been killed since fighting began. At least 10,000 of the dead were children, says a new report by UNICEF, the United Nations Fund for Children, the highest recorded number of children killed in any recent conflict in the region. An estimated 9 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, including 3 million children, and according to UNICEF, 2 million children will need some sort of psychological support. With one in five schools destroyed, damaged, turned into shelters or taken over by armed forces, half of Syria’s school-age population is missing an education.

HEALTH CARE ON THE LINE

Syria once boasted one of the best government-funded health care systems in the Middle East. But according to a new report by the Save the Children charity, some 60% of Syria’s hospitals have been damaged or destroyed, and half of the country’s doctors have fled. Life saving medicine is in short supply, and in some cases patients have asked to be knocked out by metal bars rather than go through surgery without anesthesia. Once-manageable chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer have turned into death sentences. Since the start of the conflict, the report says, 200,000 Syrians have died from chronic illnesses because of a lack of access to treatment and drugs.

Polio, which had been eradicated in Syria since 1999, has reemerged, permanently paralyzing at least 17 children. A suspected case in a Syrian refugee settlement in neighboring Lebanon has raised fears of a wider spread.

AN ECONOMY IN RUINS

Syria used to have one of the best lowest unemployment rates in the region, less than 10% before the war. Now fewer than half of Syrians have a job, according to an assessment by German Broadcaster Deutsche Welle. International sanctions have driven down exports, particularly in the oil sector: Syria used to produce 400,000 barrels per day, and now it’s down to half that. Sixty percent of Syrians live in poverty, twice the pre-war number. The country’s GDP, which was growing at 3.24% in January of 2011, was negative 2.3% a year later, according to World Bank estimates. Tourism, which once contributed 12% to GDP, is non-existent.

A LOST HERITAGE

The war has seen devastating attacks on the country’s archaeological heritage. All six of Syria’s UNESCO world heritage sites have been damaged by rocket, tank and small arms fire, according to the Global Heritage Fund, which details the destruction of the country’s historical sites. Regional museums have been looted, as have thousands of half-excavated archaeological sites. Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, has borne the brunt of the destruction. The wooden gates of its medieval citadel have been smashed, and a fire sparked by fighting destroyed around 500 shops in the ancient, 7.5-mile long covered market. Byzantine mosaics have been lifted wholesale from the Roman and Greek ruins of Palmyra, and soldiers and rebels now occupy several other significant heritage sites.

TIME Syria

Ordeal of a Dying Child Captures the Tragedy of Syria

Feryal Delly, a Syrian refugee, gives water to her 4-year-old son Zacharia on March 9. Zacharia, who suffers from a brain tumor, lives with his family in a rented apartment in Halt, north of Beirut.
Feryal Delly, a Syrian refugee, gives water to her 4-year-old son Zacharia on March 9. Zacharia, who has a brain tumor, lives with his family in a rented apartment in Halat, north of Beirut. Lynsey Addario—UNHCR

The ongoing conflict in Syria is about to enter its fourth year and has led to a fragmented health care system, where even manageable diseases become death sentences, as it has for one 4-year-old Syrian boy

In a partially completed apartment complex not far from the Lebanese capital of Beirut, 4-year-old Zacharia Delly, the son of Syrian refugees, lies semi-comatose on a tattered foam mat surrounded by his mother and four siblings. His head is swollen to twice normal size, lashed with angry purple veins made visible by his baldness. One eye, open but unseeing, protrudes grotesquely from a crust of dried blood and pus, displaced by a tumor that startled his family with the rapidity and maliciousness of its growth.

His twin sister Sidra gently pulls aside a wool blanket felted with age to expose his skeletal limbs. She strokes his foot and worriedly examines a new gray stain creeping up his shin, the latest manifestation of a vicious cancer that is consuming her brother from the inside out. With her short brown curls, dimpled cheeks and giggles, she is a constant reminder of what Zacharia once was: a bright-eyed toddler who loved hugs more than toys and never left his mother’s side. That is, before war and disease intersected to cut down a life far before its time.

Every tragedy has its if-only moments. Those split-second decisions, looked upon in hindsight that, if taken differently, may have had the power to save a life. For Feryal Delly, a housewife from Homs, Syria, that moment came one day last summer when she was scheduled to take her son Zacharia to his second chemotherapy appointment in Damascus. Zacharia had been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a common childhood cancer, but the hospital in Homs had been destroyed, so she had to take him to one in Damascus, a two-hour bus ride away. His doctor there was pleased with the first round of chemo and prescribed seven more sessions, two weeks apart. But war stalked Syria, and the road to Damascus was treacherous with checkpoints, both rebel-run and regime. The route was often rocketed, and civilians were frequently detained. Delly’s parents urged her to stay home. It would be 20 days before the fighting calmed enough for her to risk the journey again. By then Zacharia had missed two appointments, and the cancer, which started near his kidneys, had begun to spread. Delly is convinced that it was her decision to stay home that day that made all the difference. “I wanted to take him to the hospital, but I was afraid,” she says, sobbing. “I failed him.”

The three-year war in Syria has taken more than 140,000 lives and driven nearly 9 million from their homes. It has destroyed schools, orphanages and places of worship. But perhaps most egregiously, it has ravaged a government-funded health care system that was once the envy of the Arab world. According to a new report by Save the Children, some 60% of Syria’s hospitals have been damaged or destroyed, and half its doctors have fled. Lifesaving medicine is in short supply, and in some cases patients have asked to be knocked out by metal bars rather than go through surgery without anesthesia. The few hospitals still operating in Damascus are all but inaccessible. Once manageable chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer have turned into death sentences. Since the start of the conflict, says the report, 200,000 Syrians have died from chronic illnesses because of a lack of access to treatment and drugs.

As a result, thousands of families, including Zacharia’s, have fled to Lebanon for the care they could not receive at home. When it became clear that fighting would derail yet another chemotherapy appointment, his family packed for a short trip to Beirut, where they hoped treatment would be easier to find. But the crossing was arduous, and by the time they made it, they had missed the treatment window and tumorous lesions had sprouted on Zacharia’s head. Lebanon was hardly the refuge they had anticipated. While the country boasts some of the finest medical institutes in the Middle East, nearly 90% are privately run, and most of those are for profit. One hospital, known for its children’s cancer ward, turned Zacharia away because the family couldn’t afford the fees. The last photo Delly has of Zacharia standing shows him in front of the hospital’s gaily decorated Christmas tree with his arm around his sister. A few days later he collapsed: tumors had invaded his spinal column. He would never walk again.

Days of frantic searching brought Zacharia’s case to the attention of Dr. Elie Bechara, a children’s cancer specialist at Beirut’s Lebanese Hospital Geitaoui. But the deferred chemotherapy treatments had taken their toll. “There is one golden rule in treating these kinds of cancer: delay is not good,” he says. “Even a small delay can make a big difference.” When Bechara examined Zacharia, his heart nearly broke. His body was so riddled with tumors that only a bone-marrow transplant and experimental immunotherapy, now being tested in the U.S., could make a difference. But the treatment is prohibitively expensive, and the chances of success dismally low. “The only thing we could offer at that point was palliative care” — making him as comfortable as possible as cancer wins the war — says Bechara.

Bechara estimates that Syrians currently occupy 75% of the beds in his hospital. Many can, and do, pay. But Lebanon is likely to play host to hundreds and perhaps thousands more cases like Zacharia’s as Syria’s health care system nears total collapse. The U.N. body that looks after refugees, UNHCR, has spent tens of millions of dollars treating the Syrian refugees that have already crossed the border. But funds are limited, and as the numbers of refugees flowing into Lebanon increase — 1.5 million, more than a third of the Lebanese population, are expected to have registered by the end of the year — costs will rise. With such limited resources, UNHCR is forced to choose between funding preventative care that can save thousands of lives and spending thousands of dollars to save one life. “Lebanon is the size of Connecticut,” says Ninette Kelley, UNHCR’s representative in Lebanon. “Now just imagine what the priorities would be if a million refugees came to Connecticut and needed to use the health care system.”

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. Open-heart surgery, hip replacements and emergency dialysis might make the cut. But Zacharia, with his advanced state of cancer, did not meet the threshold. “People’s lives are being saved every day from the treatments we are able to provide. It’s just that the need has greatly outstripped the resources,” says Kelley. “That is what makes the situation we are in today so difficult.” Zacharia, she adds, is the face of a much bigger issue: the toll Syria’s war is taking on the health care system. “It is tragic that this child, who, but for violence in Syria, would have been able to continue treatment at home and live a long and prosperous life, is cut down at the age of 4. Now his family, who has just lost their home, has to cope with the loss of this tiny child. How brutal is that?”

Back in her UNHCR-funded apartment, Delly, the mother, looks on helplessly as Zacharia struggles to breathe. His teeth have been hurting him, and he gnaws his thumb in his sleep. “The doctor in Damascus warned me not to miss an appointment,” she says as she attempts to control her sobs. “He said anything might happen to Zacharia — he could lose his hearing, his sight, his ability to walk. But what could I do? The road was unsafe, and I could have been taken. What would have happened to my other children then?” Sidra, Zacharia’s twin, springs from her brother’s side to wipe the tears from her mother’s face. Delly’s sister Manal attempts to stop a downward spiral of guilt that she appears to have seen a few times before. “Zacharia isn’t sick because of you. He is sick because of this horrible war. If there hadn’t been war, he wouldn’t have missed his treatments and maybe he would have lived another 10 years.” Delly nods reluctantly and looks over at Zacharia’s heaving chest. As guilty as it makes her feel, as long as she can imagine the scenario where Zacharia got to his chemotherapy in time, she can imagine him alive. Letting go of blaming herself means accepting that he is about to die. “I just want to see him play with his sister one more time,” she says.

TIME Egypt

At Weekly Exorcisms, Egypt’s Muslims and Christians Unite Against the Demons

Father Sama’an Ibrahim performs an exorcism on a group of devotees - Muslims and Christians - inside Cairo’s St. Sama’an Cathedral, Feb. 28, 2014.
Father Sama’an Ibrahim performs an exorcism on a group of devotees - Muslims and Christians - inside Cairo’s St. Sama’an Cathedral, Feb. 28, 2014. Mosa'ab Elshamy for TIME

Cairo's best-known exorcist may be Christian, but his weekly exorcisms provide an unusual space for interfaith cooperation

The demon that had possessed the elderly Muslim woman was so strong that even an Imam couldn’t get rid of it. So her family opted for a priest. “My mother is possessed by a jinn,” the woman’s daughter said, by way of explaining why she and her Muslim family had decided to attend a recent Thursday night mass last month at Cairo’s St. Sama’an Cathedral. Her mother, who was slumped over a nearby bench, gave no indication of hearing anything. In a few hours she would be yipping and howling along with dozens of other women similarly possessed, but for the moment she just stared into the middle distance and muttered softly to herself.

Tensions between Muslims and Christians have been high in Egypt, ever since a military coup against the country’s first democratically elected Islamist President on 3 July unleashed a spasm of violence that saw churches burned, priests murdered and Christians threatened in hate speeches broadcast across the country. But there is at least one sphere of Egyptian contemporary life where interfaith cooperation perseveres, and that is at weekly exorcisms performed by one of the country’s most celebrated priests, Father Sama’an Ibrahim. He is one of the few priests in Egypt who can preform exorcisms — not even the Coptic Pope can — and his reputation for expelling demons of all kinds extends well beyond his Christian flock. Muslim Imams can do exorcisms as well, explains the woman, who declined to give her name, but her mother’s case required some extra muscle. “We went to a mosque first for healing, but the demons who harm her are more afraid of the Christian priest.”

For good reason. Father Sama’an is a force to be reckoned with. Inspired by a vision, he carved his church out of the caverns and crumbled rocks of Cairo’s Mokattam Mountain nearly 20 years ago. His congregants were the local Christian garbage pickers who had been corralled into a foul-smelling slum at the mountain’s edge. Nowadays, he draws Christians from across the capital, rich and poor alike. His humble church is now one of the largest in Egypt, with a worldwide congregation tuning in to weekly masses via a live video feed broadcast on Facebook and cataloged online. The Thursday night service, when the exorcisms take place, is held in a vast grotto illuminated with floodlights. Every chair in the 2,000-seat hall is filled. With its mixed-gendered choir singing buoyant gospel in Arabic, the service is more contemporary evangelical than incense-tinged traditional. The homily is upbeat. So far, so Sunday school. The demons are quiet.

But as Father Sama’an concludes his sermon by leading the congregation in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic, a chorus of yips and howls rises from a corner of the church concealed from the boom-mounted video cameras that continuously sweep the audience for the live feed. Muslim leaders are aware that their followers go to priests for exorcisms, but filming Muslim attendees at a church service could inflame tensions, whispers one congregant, a taxi driver named Mahrous, so those about to be exorcized have their own roped off section. Most of them are Muslim, he adds: “Christians rarely get possessed, because they are baptized young.”

Four church volunteers carry an older woman, writhing and swathed in a voluminous headscarf, towards the roped off area. She repeatedly interrupts the prayer with caterwauled exhortations that “There is no God but Allah,” the Muslim declaration of faith. Father Sama’an, draped in a black robe and a black knit cap, breaks into the prayer to gently remind his congregation to focus. “Don’t pay attention,” he says. “The devil just wants to destroy our congregation.” The possessed section breaks out into another round of nerve-shattering hoots and screeches. The congregation responds with a louder recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. “Crush the devil beneath your feet, don’t let him get to us!” shouts the priest from his podium.

Prayer over, Father Sama’an plunges from the stage into the roped off section, holding his silver cross before him like a beacon. With his other hand he flings holy water over the crowd from a crumpled plastic bottle. Attendees, Muslim and Christian, possessed and not possessed, surge towards him, attempting to catch the droplets in their hands. When they do, they rub the water over their faces. They reach for his long white beard; they clutch at his robe. A woman collapses at his feet in a spasm of garbled cries. A relative whispers in Father Sama’an’s ear. He nods, then leans over the woman while an usher holds her upright. Clasping his cross to her head, he mouths an incantation. Then he whips holy water into her face three times. She rises to her feet, rigid, then collapses again. Her family drags her out of the way and the priest moves on.

Father Sama’an wades through the crowd, dispensing prayers, taps on the head with his cross and jets of holy water. The recently exorcized are carried out by anxious, relieved relatives or left to recover on empty pews. “We need you Jesus. We need you Jesus,” chants a Christian volunteer from the sidelines. In his passionate pleas for assistance he has grabbed the hands of two male Muslim onlookers — family members of the possessed — and urges them to join in. They resist stiffly. Though the demons may be more afraid of a Christian priest, they are still afraid of their Imams.

TIME Syria

Al Qaeda’s Top Envoy Killed in Syria by Rival Rebel Group

An undated handout picture provided by SITE Intelligence Group on Feb. 23, 2014 allegedly shows Syrian Islamist leader Abu Khalid al-Suri at an undisclosed location in Syria.
An undated handout picture provided by SITE Intelligence Group on Feb. 23, 2014 allegedly shows Syrian Islamist leader Abu Khalid al-Suri at an undisclosed location in Syria. AFP/Getty Images

Top al-Qaeda leader Abu Khalid al-Suri was reportedly killed by a rival extremist group

Running an international terrorist organization from a hiding place somewhere in Pakistan isn’t easy. Even though war, be it in Somalia, Yemen or Libya, presents great opportunities for expansion, growth brings unique challenges, as any CEO can attest. Nowhere has that been made clearer for al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri than Syria. For the past year, al-Qaeda’s star franchises in Syria and Iraq — the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria [ISIS], respectively — have battled over turf, recruits and the right to claim the mantle of al-Qaeda’s true representative in Syria.

Strongly worded letters written by Zawahiri didn’t work. An audio recording posted to jihadist websites didn’t defuse tensions either. Finally, Zawahiri decided to send an envoy to sort out the problem. Not only was Abu Khalid al-Suri a trusted confidant who had fought with Zawahiri in Afghanistan, he once worked for al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden as a courier in Spain, according to Thomas Joscelyn, a counter-terror analyst and editor at the Long War Journal. Al-Suri’s mission was to resolve the crisis, stop the infighting and steer both organizations back towards defeating the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, so al-Qaeda could achieve the overarching goal of establishing its first foothold in the heart of the Middle East.

On Sunday, al-Suri was killed, victim of an apparent ISIS suicide bomb attack that is likely to reverberate among rebel groups for months to come. While the death of one of al-Qaeda’s top operatives may be cause for celebration in most quarters, it could be a harbinger of even more death and destruction, as rival rebel groups square off against each-other in a new cycle of revenge killings that will do little to bring an end to a conflict that has already lasted three years and taken more than 130,000 lives.

Al-Suri never did accomplish his mission, says Joscelyn, who has covered Suri’s role in Syria extensively. “Those reconciliation efforts failed and al-Qaeda sided with Suri and al-Nusra, disowning ISIS in the process.” Which may explain why ISIS was so determined to go after one of Zawahiri’s top lieutenants. What happens next, however, is unclear. The Syrian-born al-Suri had another role in helping lead one of the most effective fighting groups in Syria today, the Ahrar al-Sham brigade. Officially, Ahrar al-Sham has no affiliation with al-Qaeda, but Zawahiri was able to influence the rebel group’s actions through al-Suri. It was a savvy management move that gave al-Qaeda flexibility on the Syrian front. But not all is lost for Zawahiri, or his organization, says Joscelyn. “Al-Suri wasn’t the only one. Al-Qaeda has other loyal senior operatives in Syria. So al-Qaeda’s efforts are far from over.”

TIME olympics

Topless Photos of Lebanese Olympic Skier Cause a Scandal Back Home

Lebanese skier Jacky Chamoun speaks during an interview at the ski resort of Faraya, northeast of Beirut, March 8, 2013.
Lebanese skier Jacky Chamoun speaks during an interview at the ski resort of Faraya, northeast of Beirut, March 8, 2013. Bilal Hussein—AP

Three years ago Jackie Chamoun posed as a pin-up girl; now, the behind the scenes footage has come back to haunt her as she makes her Sochi debut

Topless photos and racy video footage of Lebanese Olympic Skier Jackie Chamoun have gone viral in Lebanon, prompting a potential government inquiry just days before the Olympic veteran is due to compete in the women’s giant Slalom in Sochi. But government claims that the revealing footage may have damaged Lebanon’s “reputation” have precipitated an enormous backlash in a country that has suffered far worse than the publication of images that wouldn’t look out of place in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

The photos, taken three years ago at Lebanon’s Faraya ski resort as part of an annual Austrian cult calendar shoot featuring male and female Olympic ski instructors, are tame by most calendar criteria—her breasts are concealed by a strategically placed ski or a half-zipped parka. The accompanying behind-the-scenes video (NSFW, to be sure) is more revealing, if chill inducing. The 22-year-old skier-turned model, clad in little more than ski boots and thong underwear, gamely acquiesces to a photographer’s request to lounge in the snow or climb a treacherous-looking icefall. During a brief interview at the end of the 1:38 minute long video, Chamoun admits that it’s much easier being a ski racer than a model because “I’m not used to posing with no clothes on.”

The 2013 calendar was released last year, but the video only surfaced a few days ago, when the local Al-Jadeed television highlighted it in a news broadcast, calling it a “scandal.” The images took Lebanese social media by storm, and the country has spoken of little else for the past few days. Chamoun admitted on her Facebook page to posing for the photos “with other professional athletes”and apologized for offending her critics. But she also implored fans and critics alike to drop the issue so she could ski her best at Sochi. “Now that I’m at the Olympic Games … All I can ask to each of you who saw this, is to stop spreading it, it will really help me focusing on what is really important now: my trainings and race,” she wrote. The post earned her more than 13,000 Likes and an outpouring of support. “Jackie, many Lebanese people including myself would rather see a Lebanese naked beauty than what we see in our country,” wrote one fan. “You have not done anything wrong.”

Faisal Karami, Lebanon’s caretaker minister of youth and sports, was less enthusiastic. According to Lebanon’s National News Agency, he ordered the country’s Olympic committee to launch an inquiry and take all steps necessary to avoid “harming Lebanon’s reputation.” That statement elicited an even greater scandal, as Lebanese across the spectrum ridiculed the minister for his shortsighted take on what really ails Lebanon. In an editorial titled “What Reputation?” the English language Daily Star newspaper lashed out at Karami and Chamoun’s critics. “Since the beginning of 2014, there have been no fewer than six car bombs,” the editorial said. “There is a general lack of law and order, not to mention the lack of a working government. Is there a better definition of a failed state than ours? This woman, who should be a source of pride to the country, … is being blamed for something she chose to do with her free will, while the everyday concerns of citizens are being wholly and fundamentally neglected.”

Lebanon’s online news portal, NOW, was more blunt, placing Chamoun’s pinup alongside an image of a heavily armed man in camouflage under the headline “Boobs over Bullets.” And Lebanese human rights activist and blogger Melkar El Khoury was apoplectic in a recent post: “In a country that is overburdened with debts, embezzlement and corruption, political deadlocks and terrorism, drug and human trafficking, uncontrolled spread of personal weapons, economic decay and unemployment… Jackie’s [rear end] is undermining Lebanon’s image and sending the wrong message?”

Allegations of hypocrisy aside, the “scandal” has caused a bit of head scratching among many Lebanese. Yes, many parts of Lebanon are conservative, but billboards spanning the length of the country’s highways feature cosmetic surgery and laser hair removal clinic ads that reveal almost as much as Chamoun’s photo shoot. While topless bathing is frowned upon at most beach clubs, a summer stroll down Beirut’s seaside corniche offers a wide spectrum of female dress, from ground skimming shapeless black veils to high-heels and hot pants. That tolerance for diversity, forged in the crucible of a 15-year sectarian civil war, is a fundamental part of Lebanon’s reputation as the most liberal and fun-loving country in the Middle East, no matter what crises come its way. The suggestion that an Olympic skier’s brief foray into modeling is a scandal is what undermines Lebanon’s reputation, not the act itself.

TIME Iraq

Al-Qaeda Splinter Faction Shows How Not to Be a Terrorist

Members of Iraq's Special Weapons and Tactics Team stand guard as blindfolded suspected members of the al-Qaida-linked ISIS are displayed at the federal police headquarters in Basra, Feb 11, 2014.
Members of Iraq's Special Weapons and Tactics Team stand guard as blindfolded suspected members of the al-Qaida-linked ISIS are displayed at the federal police headquarters in Basra, Feb 11, 2014. Nabil al-Jurani—AP

Sure, it sounds straight out of an article on The Onion: 21 terrorist recruits were killed in an explosives demonstration in Iraq, which led authorities straight to the site of the terror cell, where they made 23 arrests

It’s the kind of thing that could show up as a headline on The Onion: Suicide Bomb Trainer in Iraq Accidentally Blows Up His Class. It is a gift to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show. It has enlivened the usually grim litany of death and destruction that make up most Twitter feeds focused on Syria and Iraq. But even as the tale of a car-bomb demonstration gone awry invites chortles over the idea of preemptive payback, the circumstances should strike a note of sobriety. Twenty-one suicide bombers and bomb-makers recruited by the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria [ISIS], an al-Qaeda breakaway group, were killed in the explosion. Iraqi authorities, alerted to the camp’s location by the massive blast, captured another 23.

While that probably means 44 less bombers haunting the streets of Syria and Iraq, it also means that ISIS has become so strong that not only can it recruit platoons of volunteers ready to kill themselves for the terrorist cause, but that it was able to train them unmolested in a camp just 60 miles north of Baghdad. The revelation shows that “the terrorist groups have made a strong comeback in Iraq and that the security problems are far from over, and things are heading from bad to worse,” Hamid al-Mutlaq, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defines committee told the Associated Press.

For nearly a year now ISIS, which used to be called al-Qaeda in Iraq until it expanded into Syria last April, has controlled vast swathes of Iraq’s Anbar province, where it has been able to reclaim an operational strength lost when U.S.-funded Sunni tribesmen turned against the organization at the height of the Iraq war. Its ranks swollen with an influx of foreign fighters drawn to the Syrian jihad as well as imprisoned former members who escaped in a series of well planned prison breaks, ISIS has achieved more than any other al-Qaeda affiliate. In April it helped topple the Syrian provincial capital of Raqqa, which it made its Syrian capital, and in December it took over parts of the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. And while no organization would last long if it relied solely on suicide bombers, ISIS has made their deployment — against Iraqi officials, Syrian regime targets and rival Syrian rebel groups — its signature calling card.

The training camp where the explosion took place was located in an orchard not far from the city of Samarra. According to the New York Times, who first reported the story, and the Associated Press, authorities searching the area in the wake of the blast also discovered heavy weapons, suicide bomb belts and at least 10 vehicles packed with explosives and ready to detonate. It’s not clear how long the camp had been in use, but it is likely that several waves of recruits had already passed through. And that is a worrying sign.

“The fact that the ISIS is able to recruit such a large number of suicide bombers and then train them all in one place should be of great concern,” writes terrorism analyst Bill Roggio for the Long War Journal. “How many more ISIS suicide camps are out there? Given the steady stream of suicide attacks the ISIS carries out in Iraq and Syria, the answer is likely enough that today’s work accident won’t make much of a dent in ISIS operations.”

As if to underscore his point, a bomb exploded near a café in Baghdad later that night, killing three and wounding 11. Though they have not yet claimed responsibility, ISIS has been behind similar attacks in the past. Even with one major explosives training cell incapacitated, those bombings are not likely to end anytime soon.

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