TIME Afghanistan

America’s Only Prisoner Of War Released by the Talilban

Just shy of the fifth anniversary of his abduction from a military base in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American P.O.W. still in captivity, was released by his Taliban captors and is back in American custody Saturday. The news came via a statement released Saturday by the White House, in which U.S. President Barack Obama expressed gratitude to the Emir of Qatar for his efforts in securing Bergdahl’s freedom.

“On behalf of the American people I was honored to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return,” said Obama in the statement.

A separate statement from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that he told Congress earlier in the day that the U.S. would be transferring five detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar. Though the names of the detainees were not mentioned, it is most likely that their transfer is linked to Bergdahl’s release: in March of 2012, a similar exchange, negotiated between the U.S., representatives of the Taliban, the Qataris and the Afghan government, collapsed. That deal fell apart likely due to Congressional foot dragging and a schism between the Taliban faction that wanted to negotiate and the group that held him captive.

How Bergdahl, 28, fell into the hands of the Taliban remains unclear. Within days of his disappearance on June 30, 2009, a Taliban commander crowed to the media that his group had captured a drunken American soldier outside his base. Two and a half weeks later, they released a video in which Bergdahl, dressed in local garb and showing the beginnings of a wispy beard, said he had been captured after falling behind on a routine foot patrol. Unnamed soldiers from his base, however, told international media outlets that he had wandered into the scrub-covered mountains on his own with his journal and a supply of water, leaving his weapons and armor behind. An unidentified U.S. official told the Associated Press at the time that he had “just walked off” after his guard shift was over.

As the months passed his captors released videos — proof of life, perhaps, but also propaganda. In one video, dating to April 2010, Bergdahl sports a thick beard and wears an army sweatshirt that looks fresh out of the package. Bergdahl says he is being treated well and is allowed to exercise. One of his captors, a commander with the Haqqani network that was holding him, told TIME in 2012 that at that point, Bergdahl, who was raised a devout Presbyterian, started talking about converting to Islam. Suspicious at first, his captors asked if it was out of fear or frustration that he wanted to convert.

“He told us, ‘Your way of life has impressed me, and I want to live like you,’” said the commander.

Bergdahl escaped a few months later, only to be recaptured several days afterwards and severely beaten.

In November of 2011, the U.S. government initiated talks with the Taliban in Qatar in the hope of bringing an end to the war. In the course of the discussions, the Taliban told the Americans that they wanted five senior Taliban officials released from Guantanamo, according to a senior Administration official. The U.S. then raised the possibility of including Bergdahl in the process. The two sides soon had a tentative agreement.

However, the talks fell apart on March 15, 2012. Discussions of an exchange then faded into the background as the U. S. started considering other ways to bring the war in Afghanistan to a close. The White House and the Pentagon, however, insist that Bergdahl had never been forgotten, and that efforts to secure his release continued non-stop. Today’s statements from Washington indicate that after a two-year delay, they finally met success — Bergdahl is on his way home.

For Bergdahl’s family in Hailey, Idaho, it will be the end of an agonizing journey.

“We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home! We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son,” Bob and Jani Bergdahl said in a statement Saturday.

But for Bergdahl, who has been criticized by many for the circumstances surrounding his capture and his appearance in propaganda videos, it will be just the start.

“He will always be separate from everyone else–not an outcast, but isolated,” Jere Van Dyk, a CBS news consultant who was captured and held for 45 days in 2008 by the same group, told TIME in 2012. “And it won’t be right, but he will be called a traitor. He has a long road ahead.”

TIME Syria

To Vote, Or Not To Vote? Syrians Ponder Their Choices

Syrian supporters of presidential candidate Bashar al-Assad wave Syrian national flags during a rally in Damascus, Syria, on May 30, 2014. Pan Chaoyue—Xinhua/Sipa USA

As Damascus prepares for Presidential elections on June 3, Syrians must make the difficult choice between casting a meaningless vote or boycotting the process as the country's brutal civil war shows no sign of ending

In an exercise heavy in symbolism but light in meaning, Syrians will go to the polls on June 3 in an historic vote all but certain to hand President Bashar Assad another seven-year-term. Preparations have been underway for weeks in the capital city, Damascus, where the Syrian flag and posters of Assad are ubiquitous. Technically, this is the first time in decades that citizens will be able to choose between multiple candidates — since Assad’s father Hafez took power in a coup in 1970, presidential terms have been decided by referendum — but the result is widely believed to be a foregone conclusion: Assad is likely to come out of the elections with a new mandate that energizes his base at home and strengthens his bargaining position abroad.

Western powers have dismissed the elections as a farce, pointing out that with nearly three million refugees, more than six million internally displaced and only parts of the country under government control the result will be illegitimate. Nor do they believe that the government can hold a truly free and fair election. But with no viable opponents—the two other candidates, vetted under stringent conditions set by a pro-Assad parliament, are virtual unknowns—“Assad will win even in a completely transparent election,” says Waddah Abd Rabbo, Editor-in-Chief of the nominally independent but pro-government al Watan newspaper. In a country where election turnout has historically been low, the international opprobrium has had the effect of rallying Syrians to vote, even if they know their participation is unlikely to bring change. “Sure, the elections are compromised. But it is not up to [United States Secretary of State John] Kerry to declare they are illegitimate even before they happen,” says Ammar, a shopkeeper from Damascus’ old city. “Maybe this time Bashar wins. But what about next time, or the time after that? Maybe he loses. Give us at least the honor of trying.”

Ammar, who gave only his first name, was keeping an eye on his shop from the terrace of al Nawfara coffee shop, a Damascus institution that has been plying residents with coffee, traditional entertainment and shisha pipes for more than 150 years. Inside the singer-poet Majid Hamdan exhorted citizens to vote in a soaring melody he had composed for a local TV station’s public service announcement. “Go vote for Syria,” he sang to the cameras. “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, just let him be as great as Syria should be.”

The poet Majid Hamdan calls on Syrians to vote

Even though he had strong criticisms of Assad’s regime, Ammar said he was most likely to vote for the Syrian President. Given the circumstances in the country—a conflict now in its fourth year, economic collapse and the rise of extremist groups among the anti-Assad rebels—he opined that it was not the time for change. “At this time Bashar is the only person capable to combat terrorism. He is the only one who can bring back international investment.” But, warned Ammar, he had high expectations, and would be willing to take back his vote in the next election if Assad doesn’t deliver. “He has a responsibly to bring democracy and social justice. We have to get rid of corruption. We want good, educated and competent people in the right positions to take our country forward.”

Across town, in the upper-class neighborhood of Malki, five friends from Damascus University gathered at a popular cafe to smoke shisha pipes and watch a football match on the cafe’s giant outdoor screens. When the game ended, the conversation moved from soccer to the upcoming elections. Of the five, four said they would vote for Assad. Alma, a third-year accounting student, said that despite recent events, she owed at least that much to a man who had made Syria so much better over the previous decade. When Assad assumed the presidency upon his father’s death in 2000, he brought in a rash of reforms that radically transformed the lives of most urban Syrians. He brought in the Internet, and mobile phones. He opened the way for private banks and universities, and privately owned newspapers, magazines and TV stations competed with state-run institutions. The economy was booming, and young Syrians, like Alma, believed that things would only get better. “Before the ‘revolution,’” she says, using air quotes, “Syria was the best place to be in the Arab world. Bashar was making changes, and if this crisis hadn’t happened, we would all be in a better place now.”

Life in Damascus ahead of the elections

Mohammad, who like Alma, asked to go only by his first name, disagreed. For the first four months of the uprising, which started in March 2011, he was out on the streets protesting against the government. But when the revolution turned violent, and was taken over by Islamist rebels, he dropped out. That doesn’t mean he has abandoned the cause. When it comes time to vote, he will leave his ballot blank as a form of protest. “Voting white,” it is called, and many disgruntled Syrians said they were considering doing the same.

Maram Daoud, an outspoken member of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, a semi-tolerated, peaceful opposition group with branches all over Syria, says “voting white” legitimizes a process that is riddled with problems. His group is calling for a boycott. “There are 10 million displaced. There are 200,000 detainees. So what kind of ‘election’ is this if half the country can’t vote? We don’t think this will be useful for the Syrian people at all.”

An anonymous Facebook group, Don’t Vote, Raise Your Voice, is also calling for a boycott in a clever English and Arabic campaign that asks how votes can be counted when Syrians are suffering in so many different ways. “People are counting the shells that regularly fall on them…not empty votes incapable of bringing any change..”

But not all opposition groups are pushing for a boycott. “What’s the alternative?” asks Elia Samman, a senior member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, one of the officially recognized opposition groups in Syria. “Should we throw our fate in with [the al Qaeda-affiliated] Nusra Front? The opposition in exile, which is a disaster? No, we have to participate in any political process, no matter how flawed, that lays the groundwork for eventual change.” The SSNP, which was founded in the 1930s, did not put forward a candidate in this election, mostly, says Samman, because party leaders knew they had no chance. And, he adds, “Frankly speaking, even if we had a president today, we have no solution to the crisis.”

Victory in the elections, as with the war, will be Pyrrhic, says Samman. Assad will be responsible for an economy in tatters, a people desperate for jobs, and an infrastructure destroyed. It will take decades to rebuild. One Damascus-based businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, likens Assad to a drunken man who has gone on a destructive rampage, only to be confronted with the damage when sober. “The day after the elections, Assad is going to wake up the president of a country in ruins, and it’s going to be a big headache.”

TIME Syria

Local Ceasefires are Unlikely to Bring an End to the Syrian War

Men gather at a newly reopened mechanic's shop in the Barze neighborhood of Damascus on May 14, 2014.
Men gather at a newly reopened mechanic's shop in the Barze neighborhood of Damascus on May 14, 2014. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

Government officials and their Russian allies believe that a rash of locally negotiated truces provide a uniquely Syrian solution to what has become an international problem. But they are unlikely to last.

When a ceasefire in a rebel-held enclave of Homs, Syria, concluded on May 9 with the peaceful exit of fighters aligned against the government of President Bashar Assad, Syrians on both sides of the divide celebrated the end of a vicious, urban battle that had cost thousands of lives. Now the government wants to use the Homs Old City ceasefire, and others like it, as a template for pacifying other opposition-held parts of the country. Already a similar truce is in place in the Homs neighborhood of Waer, which could mean that the entire city of Homs, once dubbed the “Capital of the Revolution,” will be in government hands. Government officials call the Homs ceasefire a turning point in a war now in its fourth year: “We are really optimistic that if we continue succeeding with these reconciliations, [we will have] a real victory,” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad tells TIME. The only problem is that it is unlikely to bring a definitive peace, and it may not work in the rest of the country.

But many Syrians, including low-level fighters and anti-government activists, saw the Homs ceasefire as a rebel surrender, negotiated after two years of continued shelling and a military siege that essentially starved the insurgents, and a few hundred civilians along with them, into submission. It has become a familiar pattern: the army starts with a blockade, pounds the area with artillery and airstrikes and, only once those trapped inside are exhausted and ready to give up, do they negotiate a ceasefire. Assad’s allies say the ceasefires are a Syrian solution to what has become an issue of international concern; at a recent security conference in Moscow, Russian envoy for the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov suggested that he saw “local pacifications in Syria as an important prologue to a subsequent comprehensive ceasefire.”

What Homs Looks Like After Two Years of Siege


But these ceasefires fall far short of true reconciliation. In a recent interview with al Monitor, an online newspaper dedicated to Middle East affairs, former United Nations envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who stepped down on May 13, called the U.N.-brokered Homs ceasefire little more than a tactic of war. “We cannot forget that we reached that negotiation through two years of starvation imposed on people, and this is definitely not right.” The Homs ceasefire, he said, “is part of the continuing war, it is not the beginning of a peaceful process.”

Once the scene of some of the war’s bloodiest fighting, the Barze neighbourhood of Damascus has been calm since February, when a Syrian Army major and a rebel commander agreed to an armed ceasefire after three months of negotiations. The major, who refused to give his name as he was not authorized to speak to the media, claimed that Barze’s “reconciliation” had been the “seed” for other similar negotiations, and that “90 percent” of the area’s residents had returned to pick up their lives. It was a statement belied by the ghost-town feel of Barze, where towering apartment blocks, scarred by mortar fire, remain dark. Mechanic Abu Nidal, who returned to Barze in late April to reopen his auto-repair shop, says residents have little faith that calm has returned for good. “There are still some tensions here,” he says. Even if their leaders had reached an accord, not all the fighters were on board. “I am afraid one side will get nervous, and things will explode.” It’s not an idle fear. A gang of young, armed men loitering nearby — remnants of a rebel militia — were visibly frustrated. “This isn’t a reconciliation; this is a ceasefire,” growled one young man sporting a thick beard and a handlebar mustache. His companions, automatic rifles slung casually across their backs, nodded in agreement.

Video report from the cemetery of Al-Zahra, Homs


Elia Samman, a member of one of Syria’s legal and recognized opposition parties (as opposed to the armed opposition), says that so far no real reconciliations have been achieved in Syria. These local agreements may reduce tension, violence and bloodshed, says Samman, who works as an advisor to the Syrian Ministry of Reconciliation, but they are inherently fragile if they are not accompanied by political reform. Nor can they work in parts of Syria where foreign fighters have infiltrated rebel groups, as is the case in the north and east of the country. There are an estimated 12,000 foreign jihadis fighting the Assad regime alongside Syrian rebels. Due to their discipline, military prowess and ample sources of funding from foreign backers, they have an outsize influence on how the war is conducted. “We hit a brick wall when we try to achieve reconciliation in areas where there is a strong presence of foreign fighters,” he says, citing the northern city of Aleppo as an example. “They are not interested in a political resolution. They want to establish an Islamic state.” Nor are they as likely to be cowed by a military siege. “They are here for jihad. Not [for] saving Syria for Syrians.”

Even in Homs, where most of the fighters were Syrian, the prospects for true reconciliation are limited. Former residents of the area, who celebrated the ceasefire by thronging the historic churches and mosques that had long been an integral part of this thriving, multi-sectarian neighborhood, are doubtful it will last. As soon as the blockade was lifted, 33-year-old woodcarver Talhat Ghanoum rushed to the 11th century Khaled Ibn Al-Waleed Mosque in the Old City to say prayers. “We are all happy with the ceasefire,” he tells TIME. “It means I can come back to my mosque.” But beyond the immediate prospect of being able to regain a life put on pause by the war, he is skeptical that the ceasefire will bring anything resembling peace, and may yet usher in a period of even more bloodshed. “You can’t ask anyone to forget the death of a son or a father. Everyone is waiting for revenge. People will be kidnapping members of the other sect, killing them, and then that sect will do the same. The search for revenge will continue for generations. We will not forgive what they have done to us.” The government may call it reconciliation, but until the old grievances that launched the uprising are addressed, and new complaints answered, resentment will continue to seethe, setting the stage for an another explosion of popular unrest down the line.

TIME Syria

Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vows To Wipe Out ‘Terrorists’

Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad in Damascus earlier this month.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad in Damascus earlier this month. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

Faisal al-Mekdad tells TIME the government of President Bashar al-Assad remains defiant. "When terrorists attack our people, do you expect us to respond by throwing flowers?"

On Thursday, Russia and China vetoed a draft UN. Security Council resolution calling for the Syrian conflict to be referred to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. It was the fourth time that Syria’s allies in the Security Council were able to block resolutions referring to the crisis in Syria.

In a wide-ranging conversation in Damascus, briefly interrupted by the sound of mortar fire, TIME’s Aryn Baker sat down with Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad in the days prior to the the Security Council meeting to discuss war crimes accusations, the upcoming presidential election, and why Syria’s President Bashar Assad thinks he is winning the war. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

TIME: President Bashar Assad has said that the war is at a turning point, and that all military operations will be over by the end of the year. Is the Syrian government winning?

Faisal Mekdad: In Syria it is not a matter of winning or losing. We are fighting against terrorism. The battle is not ending yet, but our army is in control. Secondly, we have created a [program for] reconciliation. And we are really optimistic that if we continue succeeding with these reconciliations, [we will have] a real victory against terrorism.

TIME: You describe internationally recognized terror groups, but there also Syrians fighting this battle who are not radicals.

FM: Who are these? If you mean the so-called Free Syrian Army, this is almost finished. It is illogical to say there are moderate armed groups. Everybody who carries arms to kill people, to kill soldiers, to kill leaders, to control areas, is a terrorist.

TIME: The opposition groups say they are fighting for the rights of Syria’s people for democracy and freedom.

FM: If they are dissatisfied with any of the government’s polices, they should go to demand their rights and call for reform. And I assure you that President Assad has done this. But they reject anything less than the departure of the leadership. And we cannot accept this. Who will replace the leadership?

TIME: There is a resolution pending in the Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for war crimes, like the use of barrel bombs and torture.

FM: What is the ICC? You believe in this farce?

TIME: The Syrian government is using extreme tactics, tactics that could be war crimes.

FM: We are not all angels. But the western countries, including France and the UK, have made the Syrian armed opposition out to be a multitude of angels. And these “angels” have proven themselves to be terrorists. The Syrian government is protecting its own people, is combatting terrorism. When terrorists attack our people, do you expect us to respond by throwing flowers?

TIME: You are not just killing fighters; civilians are dying too.

FM: We are not killing civilians . We are targeting terrorists. The responsible party for all this suffering is these terrorists and their masters outside Syria. Those who are killing Syrians want an Islamic state. We cannot allow this to happen.

TIME: The army has also used siege and starvation tactics to force ceasefires, as in the city of Homs.

FM: I think this is a legend, the story of the siege. These people had been in Homs for two and a half years. And they still had all the weapons to fight, and to kill others. So if all kinds of weapons can enter into old Homs how is it possible that a loaf of bread could not?

TIME: You speak of the foreign fighters and foreign influence on the rebels. At the same time you are fighting with support from Iran and [the Lebanon-based Shi’ite militia] Hizballah.

FM: Look, sovereign governments usually receive support to defend their country against terrorism and against foreign interference. You see tens of thousands of American troops in Afghanistan. Sovereign governments have the right to invite all their friends to help them at difficult times.

TIME: Has Syria shipped out or destroyed almost all of its chemical weapons program?

FM: Yes. More than 93 percent of chemical materials have been sent outside of Syria. The rest is something like 40-50 km away, and we are now undertaking security measures to move them outside Syria. Because we don’t want terrorists to target convoys carrying these materials.

TIME: After the failure of Geneva 2 [an international peace conference that took place in January between the Syrian government and opposition leaders, designed to bring opposing sides to a political resolution], do you think there will be a Geneva 3?

FM: I don’t accept that Geneva 2 collapsed. We exercised all flexibility. Frankly speaking the other party came with one agenda point, which is the stepping down of the leadership of Syria. We did not go there to give up power.

TIME: The Geneva communiqué, which you agreed to, calls for transition of power.

FM: That is right, but how can we hand over government before stopping terrorism? And to whom? If we hand over the government, it will go immediately to Jabhat al Nusra and these terrorist groups, not the so-called coalition [National Coalition Of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces]. We are not seeking power, we seek to keep Syria away from being a haven for terrorists.

TIME: The destruction of Syria is immense. Many of your pipelines, electricity systems, hospitals and schools have been decimated. Your Prime Minister estimated it would cost $30 billion to rebuild.

FM: More than $30 billion. We admit that this was disastrous. In all parts of Syria, wherever you find terrorist groups, you find disaster. It will take a lot of resources to rebuild the country, but what is very important is to immediately rebuild the social fabric of Syria, which is more important than materialistic things. I think Syrians will prove once again that they are one people.

TIME: That is President Assad’s campaign slogan: ‘Together we will rebuild.’ He is looking past the election to reconstruction.

FM: Yes. This is the message of the president and the other candidates: to stop killing and to stop terrorism in Syria. To stop foreign interference in Syria, and then to think together on how to rebuild the country. And this is what is there on the slogans being made for the election campaign for Assad and others.

TIME: Elections are planned for June 3. How can there be an election when 9 million are displaced and half the country is out of government control?

FM: I am not saying that the present circumstances are the best for elections, absolutely not. The most important thing is that for the first time we have a multiparty election, and Syrians are happy with this exercise. So with the purpose of not creating a vacuum of leadership in Syria, the elections should be held without any delay.

TIME: There are nearly 3 million refugees. Will they be able to vote?

FM: We have three conditions for Syrians to vote: a valid passport, a valid exit visa and a valid residence permit in their respective country.

TIME: So that means refugees can’t vote.

FM: They can vote. They can come to Syria and vote, and then go out again.

The sound of a distant incoming mortar briefly interrupts the interview.

TIME: That sounded like a mortar round.

FM: It happens almost every day, [rebel mortar attacks] against civilians, and this is exactly what the Syrian army is trying to stop. A few weeks ago a bomb in a school killed 29 children.

TIME: And a Syrian barrel bomb attack killed 17 children in Aleppo.

FM: No, the government never targets schools. I don’t think barrel bombs target schools.

TIME: Barrel bombs don’t target, they land.

FM: I have not heard of such a thing [happening].

TIME Syria

Teenage Syrian Widow Seeks Meaning in Her Soldier Husband’s Death

Rashan, 17, buried her husband of five months in the Martyrs of Firdous Cemetery, Zahara neighborhood, Homs.
Rashan, 17, buried her husband of five months in the Martyrs of Firdous Cemetery, Zahara neighborhood, Homs. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

In the devastated city of Homs, a young woman is forced to start anew after her husband is killed just days before a cease-fire

Married at 17, Rashan had become accustomed to hearing she was too young to be a wife. Now, still 17, she’s having to get used to being a widow.

On a windswept afternoon in early May, the young woman from the Zahra neighborhood of the Syrian city of Homs stands over the freshly dug grave of the man who was her husband for five months, a dashing young soldier fighting in the army of President Bashar Assad whom she met through friends. He has been dead a week, shot by a rebel fighter. Rashan opens her hands in prayer as an Imam recites verses from the Koran. At the foot of the grave her mother-in-law burns incense. The pungent fragrance wafts over the graves of some 1,500 other young soldiers in the Syrian army, similarly cut down in a war that has taken more than 160,000 lives in three and a half years. The Martyrs of Firdous Cemetery was established three years ago, when it became clear that the numbers of dead Syrian soldiers would soon overwhelm Zahra’s local graveyard. Six freshly excavated graves lie empty. Cemetery caretaker al-Abdallah, who offered only one name, says that with at least one burial a day it is all but certain they will soon be filled.

Assad’s government has not produced a formal death toll for its security forces but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based, pro-opposition monitoring organization with a network of reporters on the ground, says it has counted the deaths of 37,685 government soldiers in addition to 23,485 members of pro-government paramilitary groups. Those soldiers are fighting some 1,000 loosely aligned opposition brigades determined to oust Assad, including the Free Syrian Army, which is made up mainly of military defectors, and the Islamic Forces, an umbrella group that has conducted some of the fiercest fighting in the past few months. The Syrian Observatory, in the same report released on May 19, says that 42,701 Syrian rebels and foreign combatants have died in the conflict. The Observatory only counts those deaths it can confirm with two independent sources. Director Rami Abdul Rahman estimates that there are tens of thousands more dead unaccounted for, along with 18,000 in government detention.

The Syrian uprising, which started in March 2011 with calls for reform, morphed into a full scale insurgency when government forces violently cracked down on peaceful protestors. The Assad regime maintains that all of its opponents, from armed fighters to peaceful opposition activists, are foreign-backed “terrorists” and thus legitimate military targets. In an effort to regain terrain and cities lost to the rebels, it has unleashed a vicious bombing campaign over the past several months that has resulted in accusations by human rights groups that the government is unfairly targeting civilians. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad dismisses those allegations as Western, anti-government propaganda, telling TIME in an interview in Damascus that in the areas where the military attacks, “There are no civilians left. When terrorists attack our people, do you expect us to respond by throwing flowers?”

Communities like Zahra, where the Alawite sect of the President’s family predominates, have been disproportionately hit by the rising death toll. Many of their young men were already soldiers when the uprising started in March 2011; thousands more rushed to join either the army and other security forces when the war escalated, driven by a desire to protect their religion and their way of life, which they believe to be under threat. For many here in Zahra, the conflict is increasingly seen as a sectarian uprising by Sunni extremists out to eradicate Syria’s Alawite minority. Most Syrian soldiers believe they are not just fighting for Assad, but for their very survival — and they are determined to win, no matter the cost. This community of 200,000 has lost some 4,000 men to the war, either as soldiers, members of pro-government militias or as victims of the snipers that were holed up in a nearby rebel-controlled enclave of Homs’ Old City, according to local mayor Mustafa al-Aboud. “Go knock on every door on my street,” he urges. “Not a single home has been spared.” Portraits of the dead are pasted on walls along the city streets.

Rashan, who asked to go only by her first name to protect her privacy, says her husband was killed by a sniper while patrolling the edges of a rebel-held neighborhood in Homs. She received the news from her husband’s friends, who called her when they had retrieved his body. Days later, on May 6, a cease-fire went into effect. Under the terms of the agreement, insurgents who had held a handful of strategic neighborhoods of Homs’ Old City for more than two years were allowed safe passage out, and civilians were able to return to their homes. The government called it a victory. For residents of nearby Zahra, the relief was two-fold: The government’s daily bomb attacks were over, and the rebel snipers who had taken the lives of some 100 Zahra residents were gone. But for Rashan, the cease-fire, coming just a few days after her husband’s death, is bittersweet. “I am happy that we can walk freely in our neighborhoods, that there is peace. But it came too late for my husband,” she says.

Rashan takes a moment for her tears to pass. She hopes that her husband’s efforts, along with those of the other soldiers who led the fight in Homs’ Old City may have helped convince the rebels that continued fighting would achieve nothing, and that reconciliation would save more lives. “When we have peace again in Syria, we will know that the lives of our husbands and fathers and brothers and sons will not have been wasted,” she says as a way of assuring herself that her sacrifice was not in vain.

Syrians on both sides of the conflict are tired of war, and many see hope in the Homs example. Negotiated reconciliations and cease-fires are unlikely to work everywhere — other factors, such as the presence of extremists more interested in heavenly gains than terrestrial peace, are a significant obstruction — but for many Syrians they offer an attractive alternative to continued conflict. “We want more of these cease-fires all over Syria,” says Rashan. “Maybe political solutions are more difficult than fighting. But we must try. The political solution preserves Syrian blood. I think we have had enough martyrs in Syria.”

TIME Syria

Senior Syrian Officer Killed in Clashes Near Damascus

A high-ranking Syrian military officer died near Damascus Sunday after clashes between government forces and rebel groups aligned against President Bashar Assad.

Lt. Gen. Hussein Ishaq, head of Syria’s Air Defense, was one of the few senior military officers to be killed in more than three years of fighting. The loss has little strategic impact, as Syria’s air defenses have not played a large role in a war against ground-based rebels equipped with few anti-aircraft weapons and no air assets. Still, the fact that the armed opposition was able to penetrate a well-defended base was a potent reminder that the fighting continues just outside the capital’s security bubble, despite many Syrians’ assertion that the war is in its waning days.

Ishaq’s death comes just three weeks before Syria’s presidential elections are set to take place. Assad, who has already held two seven-year terms based on national referendums, will be running opposed for the first time. He has built his campaign on a promise of military victory and quick reconstruction. The raid, along with Ishaq’s death, is unlikely to affect an election stacked in Assad’s favor, but it does put in doubt the government’s pledge to secure Damascus and its suburbs before the end of the year. The south and eastern suburbs of Damascus have been a source of regular mortar attacks on the capital for nearly two years; on Wednesday night a mortar round landed on a house near the center of the city, severely wounding two people.

For Damascus residents, the ongoing mortar barrage is justification for the government’s continued shelling of the rebellious suburbs, even when civilians are caught in the crossfire. The death of a senior commander who had little to do with the fight against the armed opposition is likely to cement the perception among Assad loyalists that the rebels deserve no mercy, making a violent war even deadlier yet.

TIME Syria

Postcard From Damascus: Yoga Bags, Campaign Posters and Distant Booms

A family walks down a street in Damascus on May 14, 2014.
A family walks down a street in Damascus on May 14, 2014. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

Some neighborhoods in Syria's capital feels strangely normal after more than three years of civil war, TIME's Middle East bureau chief Aryn Baker finds out

The luxury condominium compounds lining the highway that links Damascus to Syria’s border with Lebanon are frozen mid-development, their landscaped grounds well tended, but their interiors dark and unfurnished. Shopping malls and brightly colored children’s amusement parks are empty, awaiting tenants and visitors that never arrive. Billboards that might normally advertise consumer goods show images of Syrian President Bashar Assad instead. His image appears every 50 m or so, flashing past my car window in a bewildering array of costumes and facial expressions: Stern Assad in camouflage, smiling Assad in a suit, saluting Assad in formal military dress, waving Assad in a blazer with a grin and a twinkle in his eyes. But the Assad in these photos is different from the one who shows up in television appearances in Syria these days. While the Assad of the posters is beaming with strength and health, television Assad is pale. He has lost weight. Three and a half years of war have taken a toll, and it is reflected in Assad’s campaign for the upcoming presidential election.

“Together!” reads the slogan scrawled across billboards dotting the city. “Together we will make Syria safe.” “Together we will make Syria stronger.” “Together we will live.” Each is tagged with Assad’s signature. No one doubts that Assad will win the election, which the opposition is not taking part in, by a huge margin.

If Assad — and the road that links his capital to his most important trading partner — is showing the stresses of war, downtown Damascus is another story altogether. Graceful pedestrian arcades heave with shoppers trying out the latest smartphones and sampling the nut-filled pastries and chocolates for which Damascus is famous. Bareheaded women come out of private gyms toting yoga bags, while others, tightly swathed in colorful headscarves, wait for taxis on street corners. Bands of young men discreetly check out both groups. Yellow signs along the wide boulevards warn that speeding is monitored by radar, and traffic cops, clad in blinding white, guide motorists through rush-hour gridlock, caused, in part, by the ubiquitous military checkpoints. Those sandbagged bunkers are rare acknowledgements that war is not far away. But in quieter parts of the city, the attendant soldiers look more bored than alert to impending danger as they tap away on their mobile phones.

Assad lives with his family in one of those bougainvillea-bedecked neighborhoods, a wealthy and closely packed district of three-story townhouses. His decision to live in the house of his father, former President Hafez Assad, seems intended to promote a sense that he is a man of the people. According to official accounts, he commutes every day to the presidential palace, an imposing edifice on a hill on the edge of the capital. But few believe the script. Why should Assad take that risk, traveling an exposed highway to a lonely fort, distant from the people he claims to love? Many Syrians whisper that he actually works from home. Few know the truth.

The war may be psychologically distant to those in central Damascus, but it is being waged only a few miles away from Assad’s front door, along the edges of the city and in the suburbs. Fighter jets scream overhead, and the deep rumble of shelling in restive areas can be felt as well as heard. So regular are the blasts that no one even bothers to look up.

Just after sunset, patrons of the Abu Abdu juice shop in the downtown area line up eight deep for a glass of icy strawberry nectar in a spring tradition dating back to well before the war. Families perch on narrow benches to share plates of cream-covered fresh fruit, and couples lean against parked cars to sip the shop’s latest fruit-blend inventions. A group of English-language students on an excursion pounce on the opportunity to practice their English with two TIME journalists. Damascus used to be a major tourist destination, and chances to speak English were many. These days native English speakers are hard to find. “What is your name, please?” they ask. “What do you think of Syria?” “The Western TV makes Syria look like it is war all the time, are you worried about safety?” No, I answer, waving my strawberry juice around to indicate the crowd. Yes, they affirm, “life is normal here.” Just then the thunder of a not-so-distant bomb blast interrupts the conversation. No one in the crowd looks up, and the students, noting the alarm on my face, laugh and assure me that it is far away, “at least a few kilometers.”

By car, the brutal legacy of the war is just minutes away. Our driver makes his way through empty highways to Barze, once one of the bloodiest neighborhoods in Syria, and since February the site of an experimental cease-fire that many are hoping could be a model for the rest of the country. The radio blasts a fusion of rap, reggae and Arab rock praising Assad. Our driver knows every word. As we enter Barze the signs of war are, at first, barely noticeable: a few bullet-pocked concrete barriers and broken windows. Here the buildings are aging, the population notably poorer. But suddenly the horizon unreels in a scene of total devastation. Blasted-out high-rises loom over the remains of barricaded bunkers. Anti-Assad graffiti has been scrubbed off the walls. Pro-regime slogans have yet to be painted in their place. Twisted rebar and electrical wires snake out of the skeletal remains of eight-story apartment buildings. Some life has returned to the less damaged buildings in the form of drying laundry, but the pancaked residential buildings will never again host their former residents. Barze is peaceful now — but it is ruined.

We cross back into the parts of the city that Assad has always held and that have seen almost no violence during the war. The President appears in another poster. In this one, smiling Assad declares, “With you, we will rebuild it, and take care of it.”

TIME Syria

Stunned Residents Return to Ruins in Homs

Residents return to devastated Homs to salvage what remains from their homes, May 12, 2014.
Residents return to devastated Homs to salvage what remains from their homes, May 12, 2014. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

Residents have begun returning to the once bustling but now devastated Syrian city of Homs, as the terms of a ceasefire have relinquished nearly all of its control to the government in exchange for rebels' safe passage out

The former residents of the Qarabis neighborhood in the Old City of Homs in Syria ought to be forgiven if they start questioning the value of peace. Three days after the successful conclusion of a ceasefire between the government of President Bashar Assad and the rebels who had holed up in the neighborhood for nearly two years, residents were allowed back into the sealed off enclave to salvage what they could from their former homes. It’s miraculous that there was anything left to reclaim. Hospitals and mid-rise apartment buildings in the city had pancaked under the barrage of the bombs dropped during the siege, spewing their contents into the streets below with the force of their fall. Their tar-lined roofs have become the city’s new sidewalks. A trickle of dazed residents walked over the street-level rooftops trying to make sense of their former homes, trailing baby strollers and bicycles packed with their rescued belongings. What was left standing had been chewed by mortar fire. The facades of some buildings had been sheared off, exposing dining rooms complete with wall paintings, chandeliers and mahogany tables.

Homs was once a bustling city, home to over a million Syrians. It is now in ruins, and hundreds of thousands of its residents have fled. A hundred miles north of Damascus, Homs has seen perhaps more violence in an extraordinarily violent war than any other part of Syria. Some of the earliest fighting of the war was here. Under the terms of the ceasefire it is now almost completely under government control. The rebels who once considered it a stronghold have left all but one neighborhood of Homs.

“Take a picture, take a picture!” a woman named Umm Hamed, 65, shouted at a pair of TIME journalists roaming the ruins. “See what this war has brought us.” She opened a tattered shopping bag stuffed with a red velvet cushion and brightly patterned curtains she had ripped from the windows of her old kitchen. Her daughter in-law clutched a blue vacuum cleaner. It was all that was left of a house that had been in her husband’s family for generations. Umm Hamed, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her family’s identity, had returned hoping to find at least a mattress or a sofa, as some of the other returning families had, but everything was either crushed under the weight of collapsed walls, or looted. Rebuilding, she said, was out of the question. “With what money?” She was wrapped in the black headscarf and loose cloak of conservative Sunni Muslims who tend to support the opposition, but said she wanted nothing to do with the rebels who claimed to fight for her freedoms. She was angry, she said, with those who launched the uprising, and the government that shelled her town in retaliation. “They were asking for freedom, and now we are asking for food,” she said.

What was once a vibrant middle class boulevard of dress shops, cafes and ice cream parlors has been reduced to dusty rubble. Even the Syrian flag draping listlessly from a military checkpoint is coated in dust. TIME’s photographer, Yuri Kozyrev, has covered wars for decades, including the brutal wars in Chechnya. He was amazed at the extent of the level of destruction he witnessed on Monday in Homs. “It’s worse than Grozny,” he said, as we walked through a post-apocalyptic landscape, broken teacups and eyeglasses crunching under our feet. Former residents trickled out of the side streets onto what was left of the boulevard to make their way home to whatever temporary accommodations they had arranged during the worst of the fighting. Mustapha, an engineer who would only give his first name, pushed an old bicycle laden with books in French, English and Arabic. His house, he said, had been looted. All that remained were his books, he said with scorn, as if he would have had more respect for the looters had they taken his treasured philosophy tracts and engineering tomes. Asked if he ever planned to return to the Old City to regain his life, he just shrugged at the destruction around him. “I am an old man, and an engineer. Return to what? I will be dead before this city can be rebuilt. This is the end of our history here.”

The ceasefire, like those conducted elsewhere in Syria, follows the government’s template for a possible way to conclude the war, which Assad says will happen by the end of the year. This is the government strategy, as it was used in Homs: a rebel-held area is encircled by government troops and bombed and starved into capitulation. Sometimes civilians are allowed to leave, but usually they are forced to suffer alongside the fighters. The Homs ceasefire, brokered by the U.N. and Iranian diplomats, came at the end of a nearly two-year siege. Fighters were allowed to leave with their weapons for rebel-held areas in the north, in exchange for the release of hostages and access to two pro-government towns near Aleppo that had been under siege by the rebels. The government controls all of Homs now, except for Waer, another rebel-held enclave about three miles from the Old City. On Monday, negotiations for a Waer ceasefire were underway, but seem to have broken down; we could hear mortar attacks and explosions coming from that direction throughout the afternoon.

Two middle age women, walking arm and arm for stability as much as for comfort down the Old City’s main street, had trouble holding back tears. They gave only their ages, 40 and 50, for fear of a government backlash for speaking their minds. The ceasefire in Homs was meaningless, the 40-year-old said. “This is not a peace. It is not even the beginning of peace, only the beginning of more destruction.” As she spoke, another explosion in Waer could be heard. “The rebels may have left Homs, but still the shelling goes on, and the bombing goes on.” Her companion, looking around her former neighborhood, sighed. “It’s sad to say that this is what Assad calls a victory, when the bombings were against his own people.”

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled the name of a neighborhood in Homs. The correct spelling is Qarabis.

TIME Syria

Meet The Two Candidates Taking on Assad For Syria’s Presidency

Two rival candidates are vying for Bashar Assad's job in Syria's upcoming elections. Are they defying the odds, foolish, or just patsies put in place to make the polls look more legitimate?

It takes a certain kind of chutzpah to campaign against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Yet when the 2014 presidential election was thrown open to outside entrants for the first time in Syria’s history late last month, 24 would-be candidates nominated themselves to the post. Until now, the vote for Syria’s president has always been a yes or no referendum, first for Assad’s father Hafez, and then for Assad himself. That all changed earlier this year when Syria’s parliament decided to let in some competition for the presidential elections set to take place on June 3. By the time Syria’s judiciary vetted the nominees according to stringent criteria—candidates must be Muslim, must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years (conveniently disqualifying exiled opposition figures) and must have the support of at least 35 members of the 250-strong parliament—only two remained.

The revelation that candidates Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, 46, and Hassan bin Abdullah al-Nouri, 54—little-known lawmakers whose names drew much head-scratching inside Syria—made the cut elicited guffaws from members of the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition. They believe the candidates are patsies and proof that this election, like all those before it, will be a “farce.” In a May 7 address to the Unites States Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C., Ahmad Jarba, leader of the SNC, said the election was taking place “on the dead bodies of Syrians,” and would give Assad “license to kill for many years to come.”

With less than a month to go, campaigning isn’t exactly in full swing—the streets of Syria’s main cities are adorned with posters praising Assad, and little else—but speculation is fevered. There is no question Assad will win, say Syrians, but by how much? In 2007, he got 97.6 percent of the ballots (2.2 percent of the votes cast were considered invalid). With two other candidates in the running, the vote will likely be divided in a way that casts some legitimacy on the process.

On May 6, one of the unsuccessful candidates was kidnapped by anti-government rebels and paraded in a video posted to opposition social media sites. Clearly under stress, and flanked by two armed men, army colonel Mohammad Hassan Kanaan said that he had been coerced into nominating himself for the presidency by his commanding officer under threat of death. In further questioning by his captors, he said that other nominees had been similarly pressured to run. “It’s a political game and media fabrication,” he said.

It is impossible to know if Kanaan was speaking the truth or succumbing to pressure on the part of his captors, as government officials assert, but his statement further confirms some Syrians’ suspicions that Assad’s rivals have no real aims for the presidency but are there only to plump up an anemic field to legitimize the race. The elections may yet reveal interesting results, especially considering that nearly half the population has been displaced, and voting will not take place in opposition controlled areas. In the meantime, a look at the two men brave enough, or foolish enough, to take on Syria’s president:

Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, a former communist parliamentarian from Aleppo, was the first to nominate himself for the presidential post, and seems to take the campaigning seriously. Sort of. On his official Facebook campaign page he takes on calls from Syria’s minority Christian population to boycott the vote given that Christian candidates are excluded from running according to the country’s constitution. “Let’s speak frankly,” he admonishes his audience. “Christians in Syria have been neutral and they have not offered anything to this country in its struggle against the conspiracy… Thus, they can’t ask for a Christian president.” Calling Christian demands for the right to run “illogical,” he goes on to promise that if elected, he will guarantee all Christians “more rights.” He concludes with an exhortation to “Vote for #Maher_president_for_Syria so all sects and factions can enjoy religious freedoms.”

Hassan bin Abdullah al-Nouri, a former member of Parliament from Damascus, is significantly more obscure. Like Hajjar, he is a member of Syria’s officially tolerated opposition. Educated in the United States, he has two masters degrees—one in management from the University of Wisconsin and another in human resources development from John F. Kennedy University in California, according to state television. He was the second candidate to post his nomination, yet he doesn’t appear to have any campaign platform at this time.

–With reporting from Hania Mourtada/ Beirut

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