TIME Middle East

Why Syrian ‘Safe Zones’ Could Be Dangerous for Civilians and U.S. Policy

Syrian refugee Turkey
Umit Bektas—Reuters A refugee from the northern Syrian town of Tel Abyad and her children in Akcakale, in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, on June 18, 2015.

It's not clear how returning refugees will be protected from ISIS and other armed groups

It seems like a nice idea — a stretch of land just inside Syria along the Turkish border where civilians could return safely and moderate opposition rebels could defend the territory, while being trained and equipped to take on the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

In theory it could solve several pressing problems of the Syrian conflict, creating a refuge for rebels and civilians, pushing ISIS away from Turkey’s border and even giving the Syrian opposition the opportunity to govern territory.

Turkey has been pushing for a no-fly zone in northern Syria for two years. For Turkey that means an area protected from the warplanes and barrel bombs of President Bashar al-Assad’s air force. What the U.S. seems to have agreed to is a watered-down version of the Turkish dream, an area free of the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS), not fighter jets. Three senior administration officials told Bloomberg on Tuesday that they saw the operation being limited to clearing ISIS forces from a 68-mile stretch of the Turkey-Syria border.

The zone being proposed would reach into Syria toward the province of Aleppo. In the eyes of Turkey, the zone would be established quickly and would provide area where rebels could train and where as many as 1 million Syrian civilians could return, protected by NATO jets and sympathetic Syrian rebels.

“This was launched as an ISIS-free zone because the two sides were unable to bridge their difference concerning the importance of regime change in Syria,” says Sinan Ülgen, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So there is ambiguity about the role of this zone.”

The contradicting ideas are an indication of the differences in the objectives of the U.S. and Turkey in Syria. For the U.S. the main goal is now to eliminate ISIS, but for Turkey the removal of President Assad and his regime is the priority.

The U.S. has previously resisted the idea of helping to establish any kind of zone inside Syria, but Ülgen says American involvement in such a project is likely a trade-off for Turkey finally allowing U.S. surveillance craft and warplanes to use two key airbases in southern Turkey near the Syrian border.

Some observers worry that in haste to secure these important airbases, the U.S. may have agreed to something with the Turkey without working out the details. “This is potentially a very big commitment, trying to carve-out a buffer zone,” says Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. “Trying to carve-out a safe haven in the middle of a civil war is incredibly difficult.”

One of the biggest challenges in taking and controlling any zone in Syria will be finding the ground troops to do it. So far both the U.S. and Turkey have said they won’t be sending their troops in to do that. That leaves the, slightly mythical, moderate Syrian rebels to do the job. The U.S. has said it will train and equip 5,400 such rebels to fight ISIS in Syria but Defence Secretary Ash Carter admitted earlier this month they had actually only managed to train 60 Syrian fighters. Just this week, at least one of the American-trained rebels, possibly a unit, was captured by Nusra Front, a large Al-Qaeda linked group fighting in Syria, calling in to question the effectiveness of the program.

Syrian rebel groups have long been asking for such a safe zone, or no-fly zone, says Louay al-Mokdad, a former spokesman for the Free Syrian Army. “How are they going to make it? This is the question,” says al-Mokdad.

The U.S. has had a difficult time finding rebels that meet its criteria. They need to be moderate, Western-friendly and focused on fighting ISIS, not President Assad and his government forces. “They went to Syria looking for unicorns,” says Pollack of the U.S. mission to find Syrian fighters that meet these standards.

Turkey has a different, much wider, idea of which forces are appropriate, as the government has an Islamist leaning, and the target for Turkey is still primarily Assad not just ISIS. But while it’s not clear who will control this area, it is unlikely Turkey would be happy with Kurdish forces playing that role. In recent months, Kurdish forces, particular the YPG, have been the boots on the ground for the coalition’s fight against ISIS, taking swathes of territory from the militants. But for the Turks, the Kurds are their traditional enemy, and they won’t support them or allow them to control more territory on their border. In this, the U.S. may be losing its best foot soldiers in the war against ISIS and this could hurt the mission, says Jonathan Friedman, a Middle Eastern affairs expert at the consultancy Stroz Friedberg and co-author of a recent Chatham House paper on the risks of the safe zone.

“There’s the risk that you’re substituting a group of fighters, the Kurds, who are very much focused on ISIS, are unified and won’t pose any threat to America, for supporting a group of Islamists whose intentions are unclear. Every indication is they’re not positively disposed toward the west,” says Friedman.

The bigger concern is that this could be a way of getting the U.S. more involved in Syria than it intended through what Friedman calls “mission creep.” Once the U.S. has made a commitment to this zone it could be pulled into the fight against Assad in Syria. While so far regime aircraft have avoided U.S. warplanes in the skies of Syria, if Assad’s air force were to approach this zone, it would put the U.S. in difficult position.

“Turkey has been trying to make Syria America’s problem from day one,” says Pollack, adding that they may have succeeded in bringing the U.S. closer to their position.

Many Syrians would welcome returning to their country as life as refugee is difficult. But with all this uncertainty about who will secure this zone and how, rights observers say the idea of returning refugees to this area from Turkey is dangerous. “There is no indication these so-called safe zones will actually be safe for civilians,” says Joe Stork, Deputy Director Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, “and we are concerned by the suggestion that they might be considered appropriate places for Syrian refugees.”

TIME Middle East

Why Turkey Sees the Kurdish People as a Bigger Threat than ISIS

kurdish forces troops fight turkey isis
Rodi Said—Reuters Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters take up positions inside a damaged building in al-Vilat al-Homor neighborhood in Hasaka city, as they monitor the movements of Islamic State fighters who are stationed in Ghwayran neighborhood in Hasaka city, Syria on July 22, 2015.

The Kurds' success against ISIS might encourage advocates of a Kurdish state across parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey

As Kurdish forces headed to the frontlines to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) this weekend, they came under attack, not by ISIS but by Turkish fighter jets.

“They were going to Kirkuk and Sinjar to fight ISIS,” says Zagros Hiwa, a spokesman for the Kurdish PKK forces. The PKK, The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is a Kurdish separatist group and also one of the forces fighting ISIS on the ground in Iraq and Syria. They are now also under attack by Turkey.

Last week, the Turkish government announced it was joining the war against ISIS. Since then it has arrested more than 1,000 people in Turkey and carried out waves of air raids in neighboring Syria and Iraq. But most of those arrests and air strikes, say Kurdish leaders, have hit Kurdish and left wing groups, not ISIS.

They say Turkey is now hindering, rather than helping, the fight against ISIS. “Most of our forces that have been targeted were forces that were preparing themselves to go to fight against ISIS,” says Zagros.

Kurds are an ethnic minority that live in parts of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran. They have been persecuted for decades — from Turkey’s suppression of Kurdish identity and banning of Kurdish language to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on Kurdish communities. Their leaders, from the numerous different parties and rebel groups that represent them, have long sought an independent Kurdish state encompassing that territory and have fought against their respective governments to try to achieve that.

For decades, Turkey fought the PKK in a guerrilla war to push for sovereignty in Kurdish areas of Turkey, but for the past two years the parties have had a truce and were engaged in a peace process. In recent days, Turkey has arrested hundreds of Kurdish activists and politicians and hit the PKK with more than 450 strikes, according to Kurdish leaders. The Turkish government hasn’t said how may air raids it has carried out or who were the targets.

Hoshang Waziri, a political analyst based in Erbil, says the Kurds’ recent territorial gains in Syria along Turkey’s border and their increasing political legitimacy in the eyes of the West, have made the Kurds a bigger threat to Turkey than ISIS. “The fear of the Turkish state started with the Kurdish defeat of ISIS in Tel Abyad,” says Waziri.

At the beginning of the year, the Syrian side of the border was controlled by a patchwork of different groups — Kurds, ISIS and other rebel factions. However, in the last few months Kurdish forces have pushed west after re-taking the border town of Kobane earlier this year. They have taken a number of key areas along the border and connected the territory they control. Now the YPG, a PKK-affiliated group, which represents Syrian Kurds, has semi-independent rule over contiguous swathes of the border areas.

Much of these territorial gains were achieved with the help of U.S. air strikes.

The success of the Syrian Kurds, with the support of Turkish and Iraqi Kurds has enhanced the Kurd’s international profile and their self confidence. The Kurdish groups are being seen as the most effective ground troops in the battle against ISIS as Turkey sits almost idle with its well-equipped army on the border. Turkey has even been accused of aiding ISIS by allowing them to move freely in border areas and allowing new recruits to join them.

“The image in the West of the Kurds as a reliable ally on the ground is terrifying for Turkey,” says Waziri. “So before it’s too late, Turkey waged its war — not against ISIS, but against the PKK.”

Turkey has been keen to paint ISIS and the PKK with one terrorism brush. “How can you say that this terrorist organization is better because it’s fighting ISIS?” said Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusogl at a press conference in Lisbon on Monday. “They are the same. Terrorists are evil. They all must be eradicated. This is what we want.”

But some see the war against ISIS simply as a cover for an attack on Kurdish groups. Of the more than 1,000 people Turkey has arrested in security sweeps in recent days, 80% are Kurdish, associated either with the PKK or the non-violent Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), says İbrahim Ayhan, a member of parliament for the HDP. “The victory of the Kurds against ISIS was seen by Turkey has some sort of challenge,” says Ayhan. “This is all seen as a threat by Turkey.”

Ayhan says another threat came from inside Turkey. While Kurds in Syria have gained territory and international recognition, in Turkey, Kurds have gained seats in parliament. In the June elections Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to get the majority it sought while the Kurdish HDP increased its representation.

That left Erdoğan and the AKP struggling to form a government. Ayhan says the AKP needs a state of “chaos” to perusade voters that it is the only bulwark against chaos. As of yet no new government has been formed in Turkey and if that doesn’t happen in the next few weeks, new elections will be called. By that time Ayhad fears many of the leaders of his HDP party will be in jail and some even worry the HDP will be outlawed. At the same time, Erdoğan and his AKP hope they will have shown only they can defend Turkey from internal and external threats.

TIME Serbia

Migrants Find a Safer Route Into Europe via the Balkans

Migrants sleep in a park near the main Belgrade's bus and train station, Serbia on April 24, 2015.
Marko Djurica—Reuters Migrants sleep in a park near the main Belgrade's bus and train station, Serbia on April 24, 2015.

The journey is safer but more expensive than the sea trip from Libya

When Abu Hassan fled the Syrian city of Daraa two months ago he was determined to get his family to Europe. He considered putting his family in a boat in Libya to cross the central Mediterranean Sea.

“I decided it’s too dangerous. Not with the children,” says Abu Hassan, who is now sleeping in a park with eight of his family members in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

Instead, they made their way to Turkey, took a short boat trip to Greece and then paid smugglers to take them through Macedonia, stuffed in the back of a truck with 190 other migrants and refugees, to the Serbian border.

“At midnight they dropped us near the border and said ‘it’s there, go,’”recalls Abu Hassan. They were in Serbia for just 10 minutes when they were picked up by the Serbian authorities, but they were safe. They were told to register at a nearby office an office, which they did before heading north.

The most popular route into the European Union is by boat from Libya across the central Mediterranean, but this year alone an estimated 1,500 people have drowned in the choppy waters off the North African coast.

“It has always been a very dangerous trip,” says Ewa Moncure, a spokesperson from Frontex, the E.U. border monitoring and patrol. “It seems now, that the people traffickers can operate freely in Libya. As soon as they have boats, they send people to sea…some make it and some don’t make it and [the traffickers] don’t seem to care.”

Now, tens of thousands of migrants and refugees — desperate to escape violence and poverty at home — have opted for this safer Balkan land route through the former Yugoslavia and into the E.U. through Hungary. Last month alone 7,000 migrants and refugees — primarily from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan — crossed the frontier between Serbia and Hungary, according to Frontex. Last April, just 900 crossed there.

Abu Hassan doesn’t want to use his legal name fearing it will hinder his chances of reaching his final destination, Germany. Most migrants who take this route are trying to get to northern Europe. Both Greece and Hungary are in the E.U. but have high unemployment and offer little assistance to refugees and migrants.

In a café near the park, dozens of young men sit speaking Arabic and Afghan languages, and some Africans converse in French. They talk to their families at home and try to arrange their journeys north to the Hungarian border.

“Most of the smugglers are Pakistanis and Afghanis,” says 25-year-old Mahmoud, who also doesn’t want to give his full name. He sits with a group of Syrians and Iraqis and they debate the best route into Hungary.

Mahmoud spent one month in a Syrian government prison in his native Aleppo. The day after he was released he paid smugglers to take him to Turkey where he had to decide which route to take to Europe.

“Two of my friends died in the sea trying to reach Italy,” says Mahmoud. Both were young men who traveled to Libya. They called home one day about a year ago and told their parents they were boarding a boat to Italy. “Their parents told them ‘good luck’…We never heard from them again,” he says.

Stories like this dissuade some migrants from taking the sea journey from Libya but this route through the Balkans is also more expensive, costing several thousand dollars in smuggling fees and transport. Once in Belgrade, some rent shared hotel rooms or sleep in parks and spend their days waiting in cafés.

The Serbians seem to turn a blind eye to the migrants as if they want them to move on to Hungary as quickly as possible. “Really, the Serbian police don’t want to catch us,” says Mahmoud. “They don’t want us to stay here.”

He echoes the speculation of many here that the Serbian police often look the other way as people attempt to cross into Hungary, making this frontier a weak link in the perimeter of fortress Europe. Rights organizations have also documented Serbian authorities forcibly returning migrants to Macedonia, refusing to allow them to register asylum claims as well as extortion and physical abuse.

While this route might be safer than a “10-meter rubber boat with a 100 people onboard,” in the Mediterranean Sea, Moncure, from Frontex, cautions that it’s not completely safe. And as more and more people take this route through the Balkans, and smuggling becomes increasingly profitable, vulnerable migrants are at risk of exploitation and abuse. Migrants tell stories of being lied to and abandoned by traffickers and taxi drivers, others repeat tales of kidnapping by smugglers who call their families demanding more money to release them.

“The people smugglers aren’t doing it for free,” says Moncure.

TIME Iraq

Why ISIS Can Still Defeat the Iraqi Army in Spite of U.S. Help

Iraq security forces withdraw from Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, 70 miles west of Baghdad on May 17, 2015.
AP Iraq security forces withdraw from Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, 70 miles west of Baghdad on May 17, 2015.

American air strikes cannot compensate for divisions and distrust between the Shi'ite majority and Sunni minority

The U.S.-led coalition pounded the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) over the weekend near the Iraqi city of Ramadi but that didn’t stop them from taking the city.

On Sunday videos appeared that seemed to show Iraqi soldiers clinging to the sides of vehicles speeding out of Ramadi as ISIS moved in. The black flag of ISIS now flies over the capital of Anbar, one of Iraq’s largest provinces.

“ISIS is still a very potent force,” says Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst.

It’s a clear sign that Iraq’s national forces aren’t ready to take on ISIS despite U.S. training and support and that Sunnis still have little faith in the Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad. The government has now called on the Shi’ite militias to help re-take Ramadi, which could further alienate Sunnis in the city, if the militias harm local people.

“The central government is accountable and is responsible for the ISIS occupation of [Ramadi] because they did not answer our demands,” says Suleiman al-Kubaisi, a spokesperson for Anbar’s provincial council. “They did not send reinforcements — neither ammunition or weapons.”

Ramadi and Anbar province was a battleground between 2003 and 2006 as the Sunnis including al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS, took on U.S.-led coalition forces.

After Iraqi forces, flanked with thousands of mostly Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia retook the city of Tikrit from ISIS in March, it seemed like a turning point in the war against ISIS.

“Tirkit was not like Stalingrad,” says Pollack. He says the U.S. needs to make a greater investment in Iraqi ground operations. “We knew all along this was not a war that could be won with air power alone.”

Since Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi took over from Nuri al-Maliki last year, he has been promising reforms for the disaffected Sunni population, but little has changed. “We are waiting, and as we were waiting, Ramadi fell,” says Alaa Makki, a former Sunni member of the Iraqi parliament and senior advisor to the government.

Key to defeating ISIS is getting Iraqi Sunnis to fight with government, but Baghdad has not persuaded them that they are serious. “You’ve got to show the Sunnis that the future of Iraq — the one that they are fighting for — is one that to them is going to be worth fighting for,” says Pollack.

While billions of dollars have been put into military operations against ISIS, little has been invested in political change that could end the sense of marginalization felt by Sunnis and in turn, possibly unite them against ISIS. “There should be real reconciliation among the Iraqis… whatever we bring in forces and weapons won’t matter without a political agreement,” says Makki. “If they continue like this, it’s likely that Baghdad could fall.”

TIME Middle East

Palestinians Have Created a United Force to Keep ISIS Out of Their Camps

Members of a new Palestinian joint force patrol in Palestinian refugee camp Ain el-Helweh, in Lebanon on April 19, 2015.
Rebecca Collard Members of a new Palestinian joint force patrol in Palestinian refugee camp Ain el-Helweh, in Lebanon on April 19, 2015.

After seeing Yarmouk in Damascus being taken over by ISIS, Palestinian factions have vowed to stop the same from happening in Lebanon

When militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took over the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus earlier this month, Munir al-Maqdah watched carefully from the Ain al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon.

Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the country, had already become a favorite refuge for militants hiding from Lebanese authorities. Maqdah is head of a new elite Palestinian force aiming to maintain security in the camps and keep militants and their activities out.

“We don’t want this camp to become another Yarmouk or Nahr al-Bared,” says Maqdah, referring to the Palestinian camp in northern Lebanon, which in 2007 became the site of a fierce confrontation between Lebanese security forces and Islamists inside the camp. “All the refugees there had to leave. The camp was destroyed.”

Palestinians have tried to stay out of the Syrian conflict despite their factions being split between those aligned with President Bashar al-Assad, and those aligned with rebels trying to oust him. In Yarmouk, these divisions helped to allow ISIS to enter.

Maqdah points out only a small number of Palestinians have gone to fight with jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, much fewer than from America or Europe. “The Palestinian mother raised us that the priority is to fight for Palestine,” says Maqdah.

Lebanese authorities have said Ain al-Hilweh shelters wanted militants and provides refuge for foreign jihadis. ISIS now has a strong presence on the Lebanese-Syrian border and has launched attacks on the Lebanese army. In February ISIS declared they would expand their caliphate into Lebanon.

Camps like Ain al-Hilweh are a convenient base for militants because since 1969, Lebanese security forces haven’t policed the 12 Palestinian camps in the country, due to an agreement struck by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Now, Lebanese soldiers go no further than the checkpoints at the entrances to Ain al-Hilweh, where they search vehicles and check IDs. This has allowed the camps, specifically Ain al-Hilweh, to become lawless enclaves on Lebanese territory. “We face two problems in the Palestinian camps, one is drugs and the other is religious fanatics,” says Maqdah.

Inside the camp, men in jeans and sneakers stand ready on corners with Kalashnikovs and tactical vests loaded with ammunition. Security in Ain al-Hilweh is so bad, that even many Palestinians leaders live outside in nearby villages. Maqdah is one of the few that remain in the camp, where 100,000 people live in an area smaller than half a square mile. Maqdah walks the potholed streets and narrow alleyways in military fatigues with a pistol on his hip and group of armed guards. “We have 17 factions and everyone has guns,” says Maqdah. Militias have controlled the camp for decades, often fighting each other for supremacy. But last year, as it seemed more and more likely that the Syrian civil war would spill into Lebanon, Maqdah, a veteran Fatah commander, met with leaders from the main Palestinian groups including Hamas and other Islamist factions. They have what he calls a “democracy of weapons” and agreed to set-up a multi-faction force to secure the camp in coordination with Lebanese authorities.

Now, men from the Palestinian Common Security Force also patrol the streets of Ain al-Hilweh. Many of them have traded the flags of Fatah or Hamas for a red arm band declaring them no longer militants, but rather police. “We are ready to fight all terrorist groups,” says a bearded commander who calls himself Magnum, flanked by half-a-dozen young men. Until recently he was an officer in the Fatah forces.

At the moment there are 150 members of the multi-faction force in Ain al-Hilweh, but after ISIS fought its way into Yarmouk earlier this month, clashing with the Palestinian faction Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, they plan to expand the force.

“When we watched what was happening in Yarmouk in the last two weeks. It raised fears for the Palestinians here,” says Maqdah. “For us it was reason to empower our police group in Lebanon.”

The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority has now offered to put up most of the cash for the salaries and training to expand the force to other camps in Lebanon, which are home to around 500,000 Palestinians refugees from what is now Israel.

The Palestinian force includes an anti-terrorism unit, which will start its training next month, along with regular security forces and traffic police. Hamas and the other factions are all donating men to the new group but most are coming from the Fatah movement, which dominates the camp.

“They are getting military training together and there is a program to separate them from what they used to do with their previous forces,” say Maqdah. “When they are with us they have a different role.” The challenge will be turning a gaggle of Palestinian gunmen who once fought each other into a unified force able to secure the camp. But those who have signed up are optimistic. “ISIS has no chance to get in here,” says Mahmoud al-Amari a 23-year-old recruit to the force. “If they do we will be ready to fight them.”

TIME Syria

Palestinians Meet to Plan Attack on ISIS in Damascus

A man stands on a staircase inside a demolished building in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus on April 6, 2015.
Youssef Karwashan—AFP/Getty Images A man stands on a staircase inside a demolished building in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus on April 6, 2015.

The factions in Syria are trying to agree to fight back against ISIS in Yarmouk refugee camp

Syria’s Palestinian factions met Wednesday in an attempt to form a united front to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), whose fighters now control most of the Yarmouk refugee camp on the edge of Damascus. One week after ISIS fought their way into Yarmouk, thousands of civilians remain trapped inside.

“There is consensus to fight ISIS among Palestinians,” says Farouk al-Rifai, a spokesman for the Palestinian Civil Society Network in Syria who is currently in Damascus, “but disagreement about cooperating with the criminal regime,” referring to the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Palestinian fighters were taken by surprise last Wednesday when ISIS militants appeared in the camp after being allowed in by fighters from al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Since then they have been battling ISIS in the rubble-filled streets of this once crowded and vibrant Palestinian neighbourhood.

“This was already a place where women were dying in childbirth because of lack of medicine and children were dying of malnutrition,” says Chris Gunness, a spokesperson for UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees. “We’ve just got reports of terrified people holed up in their houses with intesnse street fighting raging outside.”

And on top of the street fighting, residents inside say the regime continues to strike the camp.

“The situation now is dire because the regime is striking using barrels (bombs) and targeting civilians,” said Abu Abdallah, who is still inside Yarmouk but didn’t want to use his real name. “The worst part is the regime does not discriminate between civilians and fighters.”

An estimated 18,000 people remain in the camp, once home to around 180,000 mostly Palestinian residents. At least 3,500 of those who remain are children, according to aid workers. Yarmouk has already been under siege for more than two years and people have literally starved to death inside the camp. The siege and on-going clashes among regime troops and rebel forces have made delivering aid and supplies almost impossible at times. Gunness say his organization has had no access to the camp since the latest round of fighting broke out April 1.

“We need a pause [in the fighting] and humanitarian access so we can get aid to the civilians that need it,” says Gunness.

The U.N., aid organizations and activists are calling for an immediate end to hostilities in Yarmouk and for the protection of the civilians, but inside the camp there are now confused battle lines and shifting alliances among militias.

The Palestinians say they had an agreement with the Nusra Front, who control several checkpoints into Yarmouk, to keep calm and maintain security in the camp. Instead, the Nusra Front stopped Palestinian allies from entering the camp and welcomed ISIS.

This marked an unusual alliance between ISIS and Nusra, two of the most powerful armed forces in Syria. Since ISIS emerged in Syria, it has competed with the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country. If the cooperation in Yarmouk was replicated in other parts of Syria, ISIS and Nusra would become a much stronger force.

“This is a localized thing,” says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, “but it may be a harbinger of things to come elsewhere in Syria.”

Now, its hard to see which international powers have the ability to appeal to the numerous factions warring in and around the camp — some allied with opposition rebels, some with al-Qaeda and others with Assad or ISIS.

“It begs the question, ‘who can stop this?’ I suspect we have very little leverage,” says Shaikh. “If we’re not careful we will be recounting the story of Yarmouk for years to come.”

When Syrians first rose-up against the regime of Assad in 2011, Palestinians tried to remain neutral. For decades Palestinian refugees in Syria co-existed with the government, which supported some of their political factions, but by Dec. 2012 Yarmouk was the site of heavy fighting between forces allied with the regime and those against it.

Now, mostly destroyed, Yarmouk has become a microcosm of the increasingly complex battlefield and shifting alliances in the four-year civil war. What were once clear sides for and against the regime, are increasingly complicated by new fronts against the Islamist groups and infighting among rebel forces who try to maintain what little they hold.

“Alliances are constantly shifting. This is a very bad cocktail of groups and interests,” says Shaikh, pointing out that the increasingly unpredictable situation shows there will be no military solution to the Syrian conflict. While the various fighters may be switching sides and setting new precedents for the wider Syrian conflict, Gunness points out that all have outside supporters.

“All the parties on the the ground in Syria have backers. They are all clients of somebody. Somebody buys their guns or buys their knifes or supports them,” says Gunness. “Those with political or diplomatic, financial or economic, religious or spiritual influence needs to bring that influence to bear so civilian life can be spared.”

TIME isis

Meet the Americans Who Have Joined an Iraqi Militia to Fight ISIS

Louis in the living room where the foreign recruits sleep in Dwekh Nawsha headquarters in Dohuk, northern Iraq.
Rebecca Collard Louis in the living room where the foreign recruits sleep in Dwekh Nawsha headquarters in Dohuk, northern Iraq.

Many Westerners have joined Iraqi militias in the hope of fighting ISIS but are kept away from the frontline

Just months after Louis finished his four-year service with the U.S. Marine Corps, he was on a plane to Iraq. He served in Afghanistan with American forces, but he spent the end of his service sitting on a base at home after the U.S. pulled its troops out of the country.

“Since Afghanistan, I kind of missed the action and everything,” says Louis, 24, who didn’t want his last name used, worrying about security. “Here they just call me Tex.”

Like most Westerners who want to come to the region to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Texas native went looking online for a militia he could join. “I used Facebook,” says Louis.

He’s now one of eight foreign recruits with Dwekh Nawsha, an Iraqi-Christian paramilitary force based in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

“The Marine Corps wasn’t going to be coming out here anymore, you know, we are going into peace time,” says Louis, sitting on the couch where he now sleeps in Dwekh Nawsha’s headquarters in Dohuk, a city in northern Iraq. “In fact, I’d probably stay in the military if we were headed back here.”

So instead Louis bought his own ticket to Iraq. He spent the $3,500 he had saved while with the military on flights, ammunition and a used Kalashnikov. His weapon sits on the floor next to a jar of white nail polish he’s using to camouflage the butt of his gun. Assault rifles and military equipment are scattered around the room. A copy of American Sniper lies on the coffee table.

Louis says his Kalashnikov can’t reach ISIS positions. “The only weapon that will hit [ISIS] where they’re at….is maybe a PKC,” he says, pulling-up a photo on his phone of the Soviet-made machine gun. “I’m getting one.”

But weapons aren’t cheap and militias like Dwekh Nawsha are low on funds. Many of the foreigners volunteering here are raising money online to arm and outfit themselves and their host militias, which complain of being poorly equipped.

Louis is crowdfunding for more cash to buy the PKC machine gun, which costs about $3,000, asking for money on Facebook. “I told my donors ‘hey, we need this’,” he says. “I have friends and family who will give me money just for being out here.”

For Louis, the U.S. government isn’t doing enough to defeat ISIS, to assist these local forces and protect the civilians that have been displaced, enslaved and killed in ISIS’s onslaught. Despite months of coalition airstrikes, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have retaken only small amounts of territory back from the militants that reign over an area stretching across Syria and Iraq.

“So I’m like, I have the ability to go help these people. I might as well go do that,” says Louis. “I felt almost called to it. This is the answer to my prayers and the problems I was having.”

Louis says because he suffers from PTSD, it was unlikely he’d be deployed abroad again with the Marine Corps. This is his only option to get back into active battle.

Hundreds more foreigners have contacted Dwekh Nawsha online asking to join the militia, says Albert Kisso, a spokesman for the group. He adds that they screen the applicants.

“We take the ones that have military experience,” says Kisso.

However, many of the Americans and Europeans joining militias in Iraq and Syria have no military experience, but have been allowed to fight.

“They’re a liability,” says Allan Duncan, a veteran who first came to Iraq with the British military in 1991 and is now back on his own. “Basically we’re babysitting them.”

Duncan, who was with a Kurdish militia in Syria last year, says he’s sick of what he calls “X-Box kids” showing up in combat zones in Iraq and Syria.

“They’ve seen too many reality TV shows,” says Duncan. “They want their five minutes of fame. They want their Facebook likes. They don’t know what they’ve come into. They don’t know what war is.”

And while it’s relatively easy to join Iraqi and Syrian militias these days, the dangers are real. At least three Westerners have died while fighting with Syrian-Kurdish forces, most recently a 19-year-old German woman.

The Syrian-Kurdish forces’ struggle to defend the border town of Kobani from ISIS last year attracted international attention. The number of Westerners looking to join the fight surged.

Rebecca CollardScott eats lunch in the Dwekh Nawsha headquarters in Dohuk, northern Iraq.

“I thought I would come here and help the Kurds form a defensive line,” says Scott, a 44-year-old veteran from North Carolina, also declining to give his last name. Like other American volunteers, in the end Scott decided against joining the Syrian-Kurdish forces whose communist doctrine sits uncomfortably with many of the gung-ho Americans.

However, while the Christian protection mandate of Dwekh Nawsha might be more appealing, the recruits here haven’t been allowed to hold their guns on the frontline.

“There, it was sitting on my butt,” says Scott of his job as software engineer in the U.S. “Here, it’s sitting on my butt, just not quite as much.”

Rebecca CollardScott holds his gun in the Dwekh Nawsha headquarters in Dohuk, northern Iraq.

Instead of the battlefield, they spend most of their time in the militia’s headquarters in Dohuk, sitting around in crisp new military fatigues cleaning their weapons and posting updates for friends and family online. They take occasional field trips to the front, but Kurdish authorities have stopped them from fighting fearing they could be targets. While the militias appreciate the moral support of these foreigners, they’ve been clear what they really want is weapons and ammunition, not more fighters.

“At the minute I’m so frustrated. I’m not here to sit about. I’m here to fight [ISIS],” says Duncan, sitting on plastic chair in the kitchen of Dwekh Nawsha’s headquarters. “I’m here to fight. That’s the bottom line.”

TIME isis

How ISIS Runs a City

Demonstrators chant ISIS slogans as they wave the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 2014.
AP Demonstrators chant ISIS slogans as they wave the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 2014.

"All who deliberately throw away waste thus will incur a fine of 25,000 dinars"

Nihayet Ojel fled his home in Tel-Abta, a city southwest of Mosul in northern Iraq, not just because he objected to the strict Islamic law that the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) enforces in the area the group took over in 2014, but because of its administrative ambitions.

“ISIS told me they were going to take away my Iraqi ID card and give me one [for the Islamic State] instead,” recalls Ojel, as he waited with his family last August on the side of a highway near Kurdish territory in northern Iraq.

ISIS looks much more like a functioning government than any of its detractors ever thought it would: it is pumping oil, policing streets, collecting taxes, even planning to issue its own currency — much like the national governments it has supplanted in the Syrian and Iraqi territory it controls.

Aymenn al-Tamimi, a researcher at the Philadelphia-based think tank Middle East Forum, has been studying ISIS’s administrative methods. “I wouldn’t say on the whole it’s a better quality of life than most Arab states, but what they do bring, that gives them a one-up, is their totalitarian model,” he says. “It brings this sense of order in a time of civil war.”

READ MORE: Inside ISIS, a TIME Special Report

In Mosul, the largest city under ISIS control, the group is revising school curriculums, setting tariffs for waste disposal and banning litter.

“Waste is to be placed in a barrel, waste-basket, big black bag,” reads an ISIS communiqué issued to residents of Mosul and the surrounding Ninawa province in December. “Waste is not to be thrown away and gathered in a strip of vacant land, and all who deliberately throw away waste thus will incur a fine of 25,000 dinars [around $22] or be held in custody in the event of refusal to pay the fines.”

In Deir ez-Zor province, along the River Euphrates, ISIS has banned fishing during the spawning season and the use of dynamite for fishing. It has also banned electric current fishing, whereby two electrodes deliver a current into the water, because, “it leads to extermination of many river/water creatures as well as congenital disfigurement for small fish and other river creatures.”

Since it took control of Raqqa in 2013, ISIS has also added new mechanisms of social control: the Husba, or morality police, which enforces the hijab, or head covering for women; a ban on smoking and alcohol; and a requirement that women only circulate outside the home with a male relative. If a man is outside with a woman not his wife, or immediate relative (his mother, sister or daughter), he is subject to arrest and can face lashes of the whip as punishment.

Raqqa was one of the first cities seized from government forces by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and then one of the first cities captured by ISIS. In its propaganda, ISIS uses Raqqa as a showcase for what it tries to portray as its efficient and benevolent rule.

According to witnesses, ISIS has maintained a relatively high level of local services by changing as little as possible in the areas it governs. Most of the civil servants who make the city function remained in their old jobs, still paid by the government in Damascus even though they are now effectively entrenching ISIS in power. School teachers, state telecoms company employees and municipal workers all remain at work, under ISIS control but paid by Damascus. According to several businessmen, activists and ISIS supporters in Raqqa, ISIS has placed its own members at the top of existing institutions, like schools or the municipal headquarters, to make sure employees follow ISIS’s new rules.

In the education system there have been major changes such as the cancellation of subjects like philosophy and the adoption of a new ISIS-authored curriculum for religion. In other ISIS-run sectors the only significant change is that employees must interrupt their work to pray.

Some residents like the way ISIS is running the city. One newcomer to Raqqa, a man who requested anonymity for fear of antagonizing ISIS officials, told TIME he has become an enthusiastic advocate for ISIS. At the beginning of the war he lived in the city of Homs where he ran a mobile phone shop. The 35-year-old man survived the bloody siege of Homs, then moved to Palmyra, and finally to Tal Abyad, a suburb of Raqqa.

Alhough he once sympathized with the FSA, the man did not fight ISIS’s takeover. Initially ISIS members impressed them with their piety and the effective way they policed Raqqa but he was won over by their generosity. ISIS gave the man’s brother an $800 grant to pay for his wedding in the Spring of 2014; it gave the man himself some free diesel; and gave his neighbor money to repair his damaged house.

“The Islamic State is walking in the Prophet Muhammad’s footsteps,” he said by Facebook chat. “They are protecting our boys and girls from vice. We don’t have those nearly-naked girls walking around like in Damascus. No one is smoking here, and it’s almost impossible to commit adultery. They are saving the Islamic community from vice and destruction.”

Another resident, named Abu Yasin, 58, spoke by Skype from Raqqa. He picks up a lot of local news from the customers in the kebab restaurant he owns. He says ultimate authority rests with the provincial emir or governor and with the Sharia court. Anyone who has a serious complaint or problem appeals to those authorities. He has to pay a set tax to ISIS and close his shop during prayer times.

Others are more critical. One activist who fled in August 2014 said that he finally left the city after ISIS started displaying severed heads in the Raqaa main square. “They are [eager] to kill and to cut,” the activist says. “They are just like animals. You see them [ISIS members] laughing and happy when they are standing near those heads. ISIS tries to control the people through fear.”

The activist said he was haunted by the smell of rotting bodies that were left in the downtown area and were sometimes eaten by cats and dogs.

Another activist who worked in Raqqa and now lives in the suburbs considers himself a faithful Muslim but an ISIS opponent. Now if he wants a cigarette he must smoke it in secret. “I need to be schizophrenic to accept life in this city now. I am supposed to smile at the man who whips me. Everything is upside down now. You might be beaten in the street by a foreigner who doesn’t approve of something you say.”

Mohammad Ghannam in Beirut contributed to this story

TIME isis

How ISIS Unites Lebanon’s Divided Factions

A snow covered taxi drives past a picture of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah in Jbaa village, south Lebanon, Feb. 20, 2015.
Ali Hashisho—Reuters A snow covered taxi drives past a picture of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah in Jbaa village, south Lebanon, Feb. 20, 2015.

"It’s sort of making the Lebanese state a bit more organized...which is not typical of Lebanon"

Since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad started almost four years, the people of Lebanon have feared the conflict would creep across the 230-mile border they share with Syria, tipping a once war-ravaged nation back into internal bloodletting.

Now both the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front are occupying part of the Lebanon/Syria border and thousands of Lebanese men have gone into Syria to fight, many of them for the Shiite militia Hizballah.

The border pressure has raised tensions in Lebanon, which has endured bombings and suicide attacks against both Sunni and Shiite targets, but the country has not crumpled under the pressure.

When Hizballah acknowledged last year that its fighters were in Syria, many Lebanese accused the Shiite militia of dragging Lebanon into Syria’s war. This increased divisions between Hizballah and Sunni factions such as Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and the March 14 alliance. Tensions were rising as Lebanese factions, communities, parties and individuals found themselves aligned with opposing sides in Syria’s civil war, some supporting the Assad regime and others the Sunni rebels fighting against the Shiite-aligned President.

READ MORE: Inside ISIS, a TIME Special Report

But something unexpected has happened over the past year. The intensifying conflict and, in particular, the threat of ISIS has actually seen rival Lebanese factions move close together, says Yezid Sayigh, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center, a think tank in Beirut. “Here, I’m particularly thinking about Hizballah and other Shiite factions like Amal on the one side, and the Future Movement, March 14 camp and Saad Hariri on the other,” says Sayigh.

The rivals were galvanised by the capture and execution last year of several soldiers of the Lebanese army by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The brutality of the killings, which were filmed and disseminated on social media, persuaded moderate Sunnis, Christians and Shiites that they had an external enemy that was more dangerous than their respective domestic rivalries. “In Lebanon, the ISIS threat has been sort of crystallizing or focusing minds on the threat of ISIS and therefore creating an opportunity for the main political camps to converge on a few key policy measures,” says Sayigh. “There has been a sharpening of the lines, with more people moving into a position not so far from that of Hizballah.”

He cautions, however, that this convergence won’t trump parties’ larger political interests. “It’s a unifying factor, but not to the point where anyone is going to set aside their private agendas,” he says.

About one-quarter of Lebanon’s four million people are Sunni Muslims, like ISIS. But the group hasn’t been able to make the sort of inroads it did with disenfranchised Sunni populations in Iraq and with rebel factions in Syria.

“It’s seen somehow as a social alien as it comes from eastern areas of Syria and northern Iraq, tribal clan communities, which are alien to much of Lebanon,” says Sayigh. “ISIS doesn’t have a natural social base in Lebanon,”

One place ISIS has found a foothold in Lebanon is inside the country’s Roumieh Prison, just outside Beirut. Pictures published on social media show smiling Islamists in front of a large ISIS flag hanging from the bookshelf in the prison’s library.

In June, ISIS fighters appeared in a video posted on social media singing for the liberation of their “brothers” in Roumieh, in front of a black and white ISIS flag. “We want to crack the gate,” sing the men in the video clutching weapons, their faces covered by balaclavas.

They compare the prison to Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison that became known for the abuse of prisoners at the hands of American military and intelligence personnel. And like other American-run prisons such as Camp Bucca in Iraq, where it now seems much of ISIS’ leadership met, Roumieh may also be a breeding ground for extremism.

The prison’s Block B housed hundreds of accused militants, living in close quarters. In the crowded cells, young men accused of small crimes were held alongside those convicted of masterminding more serious attacks. Some who worked with the prisoners say many of the inmates were radicalized inside. It was from within the walls of Roumieh, officials believe, that pro-ISIS militants organized a double bombing in January that killed nine people and injured dozens more in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. After the attack, the prison authorities cleared Block B, moving the inmates to other wings, making radicalization more difficult and promising reforms to the prison system.

Sayigh says the prison re-organisation is an example of how Lebanon is responding to the threat of ISIS and other militants targeting the country. “Ironically, it’s sort of making the Lebanese state a bit more organized, responsible or proactive, which is not typical of Lebanon.”

TIME Lebanon

Lebanon’s Hash Farmers Join the Fight Against ISIS

Hash dealer Ali Nasri Shamas holds up a machete he promises to use on jihadis.
Rebecca Collard Hash dealer Ali Nasri Shamas holds up a machete he promises to use on jihadis.

The military once battled hash farmers, now they face the same threat

Inside his hash factory in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Ali Nasri Shamas pulls out a two-foot long machete.

“This is for ISIS and the Nusra Front and anyone who supports them,” says Shamas, referring to the jihadi groups encroaching on Lebanon’s border. He smiles, running the blade of his knife gently along the sleeve of his leather jacket before cutting the air with it. “We have the machetes ready for them, just like they do.”

Shamas’s factory is just 30 minutes from the Syrian border and he says he and his fellow hash growers are ready to take on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front who have taken over swathes of Syria and Iraq are threatening to invade Lebanon.

Three tons of cannabis sits on the floor inside his processing plant. Workers sift through the ten-foot high heaps, separating stalks and stems amid a cloud of cannabis dust.

Lebanese Red and Blonde hash varieties are world-renowned, and Lebanon’s hash farmers have long been well-armed to defend their crops from government destruction.

Each year security forces come to this village, and others in the Bekaa Valley, to try to destroy the lucrative fields of marijuana. These raids often end in gun fights, leaving members of both sides dead and injured.

“The last time they came here was 2012,” says Shamas. He’s has been a fugitive for 35 years, but now he is not scared to be photographed with the illicit drugs.

Since the start of Syria’s uprising in 2011, Lebanon has worried about the conflict spilling across its borders. Both ISIS and the Nursa Front have kidnapped and executed Lebanese soldiers and police. The militants have infiltrated fighters and explosives through the shared border with Syria and into Lebanon.

While drugs were once a priority for the Lebanese government, defending the border against incursions from Syria is now paramount.

“I don’t want to say the government is afraid of the [drug dealers], but now they have other priorities…it’s not a suitable time to make a problem with the people in the Bekaa Valley,” says General Ghassan Chamseddine, head of Lebanon’s drug enforcement unit.

Hash factory worker in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, shakes cannabis dust from a bag.
Rebecca CollardHash factory worker in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, shakes cannabis dust from a bag.

There are around 9,000 acres of Lebanese agricultural land used to grow cannabis, producing thousands of tons of hash annually, about half of which is exported. Chamseddine says his police require the support of 2,000-3,000 army troops to eradicate the crops each year. Right now, those soldiers can’t be spared. “Our army is working hard now to defend our border.”

That means that Lebanese security forces who once confronted Bekaa Valley drug cultivators now have a shared interest with them in defending border regions from attacks from Syria.

“We are ready to support all the factions in Lebanon against ISIS and the Nusra Front,” says Shamas.

When jihadis attacked the village of Brital in October of last year, a band of cannabis farmers headed to the area to help defend it. Abbas, who asked not to use his real name, was among them.

“When we heard they were attacking Brital, we grabbed our weapons and jumped in the trucks,” says Abbas, who spent seven years in prison on drug trafficking charges. “To us, ISIS is nothing. Their strategy is to scare people. But we were not afraid.”

Abbas, Shamas and most of the men involved in Lebanon’s hash trade are experienced fighters, having been militiamen in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Abbas once fought with Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful militia, and Shamas with Amal, another large Shiite group.

There is a Hezbollah base just a few hundred meters from the hash factory, but these men say unlike Lebanon’s many well-armed militias, they aren’t aligned with any sect or political party.

General Chamseddine is irritated by the suggestion that these men are defenders of the country.

“When they say they have these arms to defend their country against ISIS, they are making a camouflage to get support from the people,” says Chamseddine. “These drug dealers are only interested in their drugs.”

In part, it’s still about defending their crops. ISIS has posted videos online of their fighters destroying marijuana fields in Syria, saying the consumption of the plant is un-Islamic. But even more importantly, say the farmers here, this is about defending their land and their country against the expansionist ISIS militants.

Shamas pulls one of two AK-47s from his truck, admiring the assault rifle. This is just part of his arsenal that includes mounted machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

“We are here to defend all of Lebanon,” says Shamas.

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