TIME Syria

The U.S. Challenge of Turning Syria’s Ragtag Rebels into a Fighting Force

Free Syrian Army
A Free Syrian Army member is seen in Azaz, Syria on June 27, 2014. Hasan Ozkal—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

It won't be easy to arm and train moderate rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS

In April, when videos began appearing online of bearded Syrian fighters firing anti-tank missiles and chanting “God is great”, there were questions about how they had obtained the U.S.-made weapons but few answers. The U.S. government does not comment on details of what weapons they have provided or to whom.

Many of the fighters in the videos were from the Hazem Movement, a large and moderate faction of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which controls strategic parts of the battlefield in Syria as it fights Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus.

While the source of the weapons remains unclear, the Hazem Movement has long sought U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. But they were also the first to come out against the U.S.-led airstrikes on Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in the country. “No Syrian was consulted in these strikes,” Khalid Saleh, secretary general for the Hazem Movement, said last week.

The reason is that, like many rebels in Syria, the Hazem Movement remains focused on deposing Assad, not fighting ISIS.

American efforts, on the other hand, are aimed at degrading ISIS’s infrastructure and capabilities. Crucially, the U.S. has ruled out putting any of its own troops on the ground in Syria. Instead, the plan is to arm and train moderate rebels there. On Friday, 20 rebel commanders—including those who oversee the FSA—signed a pact in Turkey to work together to defeat ISIS. In many locations, these fighters are taking on both the regime and rival militants.

But turning the anti-Assad militias that make up the FSA into an effective anti-ISIS fighting force will be a challenge, according to Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA analyst and specialist in the Middle Eastern affairs at the Brookings Institution. “The first problem is the FSA as it exists, is an extremely fractious group, with a dozen, maybe even a hundred little groups of people,” he says. “That’s not an ideal force.”

The first obstacle is how to figure out which individuals to trust with military hardware, to ensure that weaponry doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. “The FSA is a porous organization and it has been deeply infiltrated by all manner of extremists and even intelligence influence from the regime itself,” said Pollack. “You need to go through this process to get rid of these bad actors. You got to promote the guys who are loyal, who are apolitical.”

Then there are the internal divisions within the FSA. The Mujahedeen Army, a moderate group which claims to have received some weapons from the U.S., and which shortly after its formation in January declared war on ISIS, says it has been successful at pushing ISIS fighters out of the countryside west of the Syrian city of Aleppo. “We are the group that can be relied on to head the fighting against ISIS,” said a spokesperson who would not give his real name, due to the sensitivity of the issue. The U.S. has not confirmed putting weapons in the hands of these fighters.

The Hazem Movement makes similar claims about its success against ISIS—claims which are disputed by the Mujahedeen Army. “They are very good with their rhetoric, however they are not the fighters that have been tested in battle or on front lines,” the spokesperson adds. “[The U.S.] needs to have operatives on the ground to assess these factions.”

To complicate matters for the U.S. and its allies, many FSA factions are loathed by Syrian citizens — and supporting groups that lack popular support could hurt the anti-ISIS effort. After three years of civil war inside the country, some of the groups have come to be seem more interested in self preservation than in the goals of the initial uprising against the Assad regime in 2011.

“Self-interest and localism are pretty rampant,” says Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on Syrian and Iraqi militants at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum. Many military groups and leaders control their own little patches of the warzone and may be hard-pressed to give that up to join a larger force under a single higher command. “Even if it is a stretch of a frontline that’s a quarter-mile long, that’s [their] turf,” says Pollack.

There is also a risk that Western support, instead of unifying moderate rebels, might in fact serve to further divide the FSA units. As the weapons and training begin to trickle to these rebel groups, some are bound to get more than others while many will get nothing at all. “There is a risk here of actually increasing factionalism,” says al-Tamimi, who also highlights the divergent aims of the various rebel groups. “The main divide is—do rebels want some kind of Islamic state or not?” he adds.

TIME Iraq

U.S. Mission to Destroy ISIS Doesn’t Faze Extremists

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
An ISIS militant in Raqqa, Syria Reuters

Militant group remains defiant in the face of a broadening international coalition of military powers and their allies in the region

The U.S. is shoring up support across the Middle East for its mission to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), but the militants seem unfazed by the broadening coalition against them.

“We welcome America into Syria with open arms… and an explosive belt,” tweeted a man calling himself Abu Abdullah Britani.

Since President Barack Obama announced U.S. forces would not hesitate to hit the militants inside Syria, nearly 40 nations have pledged to join the coalition. Increasingly, both regional and international states fear the threat of the expansionist Jihadis.

Yet for now, little has changed in the militants’ strategy. “ISIS is responding by not backing down, ” said Christopher Harmer, a senior analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, who served several tours with the U.S. army in Iraq. That might be due, in part, to the fact that this coalition is so far more about moral support than military backing. The U.S. is the only external state yet to have acted against the group.

“Every nation state in the world is willing to stand up and say, ‘ISIS is evil. I think ISIS sucks’,” said Harmer. “ISIS doesn’t give a tin s–t about what the U.N. says or what the [Gulf Cooperation Council] says. All they care about is what is actually happening to them.”

And perhaps for these militant fighters the mere fact that they have earned such a broad coalition of opposition is a source of pride. Despite over a month of U.S. strikes and ground operations by Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi national forces, the progress against the group has been limited.

One ISIS sympathizer, who tweets in both English and Dutch, appears to welcome the U.S. involvement. “Ya Allaah give us the Honour to Fight the US face 2 face. The problem is they can’t face us only with planes:P,” he wrote on social media. His profile says of the United States military: “They lost the war in Afghanistan, there was NO Mission Accomplished in Iraq, They are just wasting there [sic] Economy.”

Despite the promise of air strikes and weapons for ISIS rivals, those sentiments of defiance have been echoed by militants on the ground, along with threats against states joining the coalition. In the most recent video, believed to show the gruesome murder of British aid worker David Haines, the black-clad killer says in an English accent that the execution is ISIS’s response to the U.K. sending weapons to Kurdish forces to fight them. Other sites have posted broader messages threatening countries that join the coalition.

And even if the intensifying air campaign pushes ISIS off military fronts with the Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian force, the militants could be driven to hide amongst the civilian population of the urban centers—like Mosul—that are under their control.

Then the group could easily return to the traditional methods of terrorism, such as IEDs and suicide bombings, that it used before becoming a well-organized militant movement with state-building aspirations. The group has thousands of members eager to die for their cause.

“Stop threatening me with drone strikes and death. That’s like threatening a fat American with a visit to McDonalds and a Big Mac,” tweeted one self-identified militant, who calls himself Abu Turaab and put his location as inside the Islamic Caliphate.

The U.S. needs an international coalition or regional allies both to lend legitimacy to their military operation, and to provide bases and on-ground training where the U.S. won’t go. But key in battling ISIS will be getting other Sunni militant groups to fight against them. However, the appearance of a broad U.S.-led coalition, backed by many western nations, will not be appealing for most armed Sunni groups and may instead increase resentment against the West, rather than bring others on side. The U.S. has been assisting the Free Syrian Army, who have been battling both Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and ISIS, but in Iraq allies have been harder to find.

“In the face of this new coalition, [these groups] aren’t coming out against ISIS any more than they were before. On the contrary, the focus of their rhetoric is on the air strikes,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on Syrian and Iraqi militants with the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.

In a rare joint statement, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) condemned the U.S.-led alliance in Iraq and Syria and called on the fractured and battling Jihadi movements of Syria to unite against the shared enemy. “Stop the infighting between you and stand as one rank against America’s campaign and that of its satanic alliance,” said the statement, according to a translation by the Jihadi monitoring group SITE.

The U.S. faces an uphill battle convincing other Sunni groups that the enemy of their enemy is their friend, al-Tamimi said. “It’s not looking good. As part of its strategy the U.S. wants to find Sunni allies on the ground who can help build up an internal revolt against ISIS,” he said. But Iraqi insurgents that have tensions with ISIS aren’t convinced. The Islamic Army in Iraq’s spokesman has said the coalition intends to target Muslims under the pretense of a new war on terrorism.

“If [these groups] are going around saying this is war against Islam,” says al-Tamimi, “then there is not much hope for that right now.”

TIME

U.S. Builds Regional Support to Fight ISIS

Ten Middle Eastern nations, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have pledged to "do their share" in the fight against the terrorist group

When Eyada Hussein left his house in the Hasakah province of Syria four months ago militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) had set up a checkpoint just 100 meters from his home.

“You have to understand, if ISIS is here, then there are regular people just here,” said Hussein pointing from one side of the narrow street to the other, in this neighborhood of Beirut where he works on construction site.

For Hussein, President Barack Obama’s speech last night evokes mixed emotions. He wants ISIS out of his village and out of his country, but his family, his wife and nine children are still there. He says he can’t afford to bring his family to Lebanon—instead he is sending them money from his wages here, “and now the border is closed.”

It’s unclear how quickly these strikes could come—Obama said he “will not hesitate to take action against [ISIS] in Syria, as well as Iraq,” but there was no timeline announced for the action.

The U.S. has been hitting the militants in Iraq since early August, with over 150 strikes against military positions and vehicles in the north, and more recently the west, of the country. Hussein’s home is just 40 kilometers from the Iraqi border. ISIS now straddles this frontier, and it was their sweep through northern Iraq and their march toward Kurdish territory, that pushed the U.S. to finally strike the militants.

But striking in Syria is infinitely more complicated. Iraq is a U.S. ally and the governments have close ties and aligned regional goals, for the most part. These strikes in Iraq came with consent and request from Baghdad. In his speech, Obama touted the success of Iraq in forming a new government, one many hope will help bring discontented Sunni Iraqis back in to the political fold and aid the fight against ISIS, which has support from many Sunnis in the areas it controls.

Just one year ago the U.S. was also talking about hitting Syria—but then the target would have been the military infrastructure of the President Bashar Al-Assad. Obama eventually backed down.

“Really, the US needs to strike both,” said Hussein, referring to ISIS and the Assad regime.

These strikes against ISIS could inadvertently strengthen Assad’s position in the over three-years of battle between opposition rebels, Islamist militants and his army backed by Shi’ite Hezbollah fighters. The Syrian government originally said they wouldn’t permit U.S. strikes in their territory, but they would likely to look away while American drones buzz around looking for ISIS leaders. In fact today Syria seemed to soften that stance, with the country’s deputy foreign minister telling NBC News they had “no reservations whatsoever,” about the strikes, though he said Obama must coordinate with Assad.

“The Syrian regime does not want to pick a fight with the U.S.,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. “They’ve got their hands full with civil war.”

The strikes will come along with some support to bolster moderate Syrian rebel groups who fight both ISIS and the Syrian regime, but Pollack says this won’t be enough to defeat ISIS in Syria. Saudi Arabia has offered to provide bases to train the fighters.

“The strategy should be building a new Syrian opposition army. One that would be effective, one that would be respected and one that we could actually partner with, providing air support,” said Pollack. “But it means going much further than Barack Obama has wanted to go in Syria.”

The quick advance of ISIS in Iraq, and their garnering of new weapons and popular support among disenfranchised Sunni Iraqis, has placed the U.S. in an increasingly difficult position. Action against the extremists puts Washington on the same side as Damascus and Tehran, historically its regional foes. And despite the desire of many Iraqis and Syrians to rid their country of the Sunni extremists, civilian deaths caused by U.S. strikes could raise resentment against the West.

Ultimately, regional support is going to be critical in combating the terrorist group. Visiting Saudi Arabia today, Secretary of State John Kerry secured the backing of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council—which includes Saudi Arabia and Qatar—for action against ISIS, with the countries pledging to “do their share” in the fight against the terrorist group. The declaration adding that the countries would join the military campaign against the group “as appropriate.” For Pollack, such backing is key in the fight against ISIS.

“We don’t want the Americans leading a collation of Europeans on a new crusade in the Middle East against Islamists,” he said. “Even if they are vicious, horrible Islamists, the optics are really bad.”

TIME Iraq

Liberated Iraqi Town Vows to Carry On Struggle Against ISIS

Mourners carry the coffins of Iraqi Shi'ite volunteers, who were killed during clashes with militants of the Islamic State in Amerli. during a funeral in Khalis
Mourners carry the coffins of Iraqi Shi‘ite volunteers who were killed during clashes with militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria in Amerli, during a funeral in Khalis, Iraq, on Aug. 31, 2014 Reuters

Residents of Amerli refuse to join the stream of Iraqi refugees fleeing the north of the country, after Iraqi forces, Shii‘te militia and Kurdish peshmerga break siege by Sunni militants

Iraqi forces and Shi‘ite militiamen entering the formerly beleaguered town of Amerli were greeted with joy and relief by its mostly Shi‘ite Turkmen residents Sunday, after breaking an 80-day siege by Sunni militants with the help of U.S. air strikes overnight.

“First came the Shi‘ite fighters and then the Iraqi army,” says Qasim Jawad Hussein, a 45-year-old schoolteacher and father of five. He also says local residents shot in the air to celebrate as the city was liberated. When Hussein spoke with TIME one week ago, his small community was surrounded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militants, and he could see their black flags flying just a few miles away. Now, he says, “their flags are gone.”

For weeks, residents and Turkmen leaders have been asking for American assistance against ISIS forces around Amerli, hoping for the kind of aerial support that Yedizis trapped on Mount Sinjar received earlier this month. The siege was broken Sunday after days of helicopter evacuations and humanitarian air drops by the Iraqi army.

Hussein was one of many Amerli residents who fought back against the militants when they first approached the village in June. But this weekend, it took the cooperation of three armed forces — the Iraqi national army, the Kurdish peshmerga and Shi‘ite militias — to break this siege, aided by U.S. air strikes.

The threat is not over, however. ISIS still controls the area to the west of Amerli and Kurdish peshmerga forces continue to clash with the militants. “The fighting is still ongoing,” says Major General Marwan Mohamed Amin, who controls a peshmerga unit fighting ISIS in Suleiman Beg to the north of Amerli and Khasa Darli to the west. He says the fighting there remains heavy and they will need more U.S. air strikes to defeat those positions.

“We also need more ammunition,” says Amin, adding that his unit had yet to receive any new American weapons. While today’s operations are being touted as a success, ISIS still controls swaths of Iraqi territory. “We are still fighting with the old weapons we took from Saddam Hussein’s army.”

Villagers say what they need most is supplies. The U.S. dropped around 7,000 ready-to-eat meals and 10,500 gallons of clean drinking water last night, as well as conducting air strikes. Australia, France and the U.K. also dropped humanitarian aid, but this village has been under siege for more than two months and supplies of everything are low.

“People are not going out from Amerli, we just need food, water and medical supplies,” says Mahdi Taqi, a local Turkmen official in Amerli. The village is out of fuel and while yesterday’s humanitarian drops feed hungry mouths, fuel is needed to run the generators, required to produce much-needed electricity.

Despite the shortages, and the fact that local forces have managed to open a corridor to Tuz Khormato, a nearby Turkmen village, Hussein and other residents say they are not leaving to follow the over 1 million Iraqis who have fled their homes since ISIS began its rampage across northern Iraq in June. “No, I will stay in my city. Why should I leave?” Hussein asks.

“We suffered and we resisted and we managed to get the victory,” Taqi adds. “Our moral is high. We just need supplies.”

TIME Iraq

The Rise of ISIS Sows Mistrust Between Kurds and Sunni Arabs

A Kurdish peshmerga soldier looks out over the town of Makhmour from defensive positions, Aug. 11, 2014.
A Kurdish peshmerga soldier looks out over the town of Makhmour from defensive positions, Aug. 11, 2014. Sebastian Meyer—Corbis

While some Sunni Arabs have fought alongside the militants in Iraqi Kurdistan, others are being displaced by Kurds eager to take control of disputed regions

In his home in a village south of Erbil, Soran Sabir shows a video he took of what he says are two dead Islamist fighters.

“That is Saleh,” he says, pointing to the body of a young Arab man lying on the ground surrounded by Kurdish fighters. In this mixed Kurdish-Arab area, relations between the two groups had been relatively good in recent years. Sabir says Saleh was a good costumer, frequently visiting his motorcycle repair shop, and he considered him a friend. In June, when the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) took Mosul, Saleh disappeared, said Sabir. The next time he saw him was when Kurdish fighters were battling ISIS to take back Makhmour. They brought the bodies of two militants back. One was Saleh.

“I was very happy to see him dead,” said Soran. What sense does it make, he continued, for someone like Saleh to support “some stranger from Afghanistan who came here to fight” — a reference to the large number of foreign jihadis fighting with ISIS in Iraq — and attack his own neighbors?

The fight against ISIS in villages like Makhmour where Kurdish and Sunni Arabs live side by side has raised tensions between the two groups. Kurds here suspect the Arab residents of co-operating with the militants, who have vowed to create an Islamic caliphate in the broad stretch of land they now occupy over Iraq and Syria.

Those suspicions are not unwarranted, said Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter. “As the Kurds have become more powerful, the tribes have had to decide if they are going to work with the Kurds or oppose them…now that they’ve got the opportunity to stand up to the Kurds, many of them are doing it.”

But the Kurds are standing up right back. After the Kurdish peshmerga retook the area after ISIS left, Arab residents were stopped from returning to their homes. Kurdish officials say the Arabs aren’t to be trusted, and that the mixed villages actually belong to Erbil. “They occupied our lands for 50 years, and then on such a bad day, they stab us in the back,” said Tariq Sarmami, a senior media advisor of the Kurdistan Parliament in Erbil. “That’s what creates this reaction.”

Arabs and Kurds have always shared the villages of Makhmour, but under Saddam Hussein more Arabs were resettled to these areas as part of his Arabization policies, in an attempt to alter the balance of demographics in mixed areas so that Baghdad could stake claim to the contested regions. When Saddam was ousted in 2003, a wave of Kurds returned to the villages and the current demographics are now contested.

Makhmour is one of the disputed areas outlined in section 140 of Iraq’s constitution, which mandates a referendum on whether the area should join the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, or remain under the control of Baghdad. That vote hasn’t yet been held. In the meanwhile, the residents have been living under two separate administrations; the national government in Baghdad, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Kurdish Erbil, which has been steadily making an administrative creep on the territory it sees as belonging to them.

“The Kurdification, or re-Kurdification has actually been an open policy of the KRG since 2003 onwards,” said Stansfield. The Kurds paid compensation to some Arab families to leave contested areas, but many chose to stay, particularly those from tribes that resided here long before Saddam’s Arabization policies. “There are definitely some Arabs that were brought there by the government of Iraq, but there are others that have their roots there,” said Stansfield.

Now, ISIS’s march through the region has allowed Kurdification to intensify. In a junction between Makhmour and Erbil, Garib Nihayet Ojel sits on the side of the road with his family, his daughter-in-law breastfeeding an infant in the sweltering heat. Ojel, an Arab from Tel-Abta, a village between Makhmour and Mosul, is trying to reach Makhmour, with the promise of work with a Kurdish farmer there.

“We can’t go back home,” said Ojel, who said he is looking for a safe place to take his family. “We escaped ISIS.”

The Kurds don’t see Ojel and his family as refugees of a war, but as a potential threat. “Tell them, Arab people are not allowed to enter these provinces,” said an officer of the Asayish, the Kurdish intelligence, stopping in the junction flanked with peshmerga soldiers. “It’s prohibited for them.”

“We are not fighters, we are not combatants, we are just families. We just want to find a safe place,” said Ojel’s wife. The officer accuses them of spying for ISIS. While officials say there are procedures in place to determine genuine threats, there seems to be little due process here.

The fear among Arabs now is that others like Ojel will never be allowed back to their villages, creating de-facto Kurdish control over the productive farm lands south of Erbil. “We should expect that the situation in the disputed territories will remain disputed even if the Kurds say that it’s Kurdish,” said Stansfield. “This is going to be a very significant flash point for some years to come.”

And for the Kurds, it’s not just these mixed villages that pose a threat to their demographics. Of the flood of Iraqi refugees who have come to Kurdish cities such as Erbil since fighting between ISIS and Iraqi national and Kurdish forces worsened, Christians have been warmly welcomed. Sunni Arabs, however, are often restricted to camps on the outskirts, eyed with suspicion by local Kurds.

“We regret taking them,” said Sarmami, sitting in his office in the Kurdish Parliament. “We regret that we accepted all these Arabs here. We accept them without having any plans.”

TIME Iraq

ISIS Lays Siege to Iraqi Turkmen Village

IRAQ-UNREST-AMERLI
An Iraqi Turkmen Shi‘ite fighter holds a position on Aug. 4, 2014 in Amirli, Iraq Ali Al-Bayati—AFP/Getty Images

The Turkmen of Amirli, Iraq, have been fending off Islamist fighters for months

In June, when fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) attacked the Iraqi village of Amirli, 45-year-old teacher Qasim Jawad Hussein was one of hundreds of villagers who rushed to pick up their weapons to fight alongside police and other Shi’ite Turkmen villagers as they clashed with the Sunni extremists.

“We tried to leave the village and we saw [ISIS'] Hummers and their black flags. We were taken by surprise,” said Hussein on a crackly cell phone from Amirli, which remains under siege. “Then I heard fire from the next village over. They were fighting with ISIS. So we went back to get our guns.”

But their collection of aging Soviet rifles has been no match for ISIS’ looted arsenal of American weapons and armored vehicles. Amirli has been under siege for more than two months, and supplies are dwindling.

“We are asking Muslims, Christians, anyone — what we really need is milk for the children,” said Hussein.

Hussein said the militants are just few kilometers from the village, and the residents have organized watches of 200 men each working in shifts, fearing that the militants will storm Amirli.

“The situation of the people in Amirli is desperate and demands immediate action to prevent the possible massacre of its citizens,” the U.N. Secretary-General’s special representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said in a statement Saturday.

The Turkmen, who have linguistic and cultural ties to Turkey, have lived in northern Iraq for centuries and are both Shi‘ite and Sunni Muslims. They stake claim to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and populate villages throughout the Kirkuk governorate and further south. In June, many of those villages came under attack by ISIS. Residents told troubling stories of their own Arab neighbors turning on them.

“For two months, ISIS has targeted the Turkmen areas, starting with Tal Afar, Mosul, Tuz Khormato and now Amirli. So I’m worried for the future of the Turkmen people,” said Ali Mehdi, a spokesperson for the Iraqi Turkmen Front, a political organization that seeks to represent the interests of the Turkmen minority in Iraq.

The fear now is that Turkmen residents of Amirli will suffer the same fate as the Yezidis of Sinjar, a minority religious group in Iraq who recently fled to a mountaintop in fear of ISIS fighters, creating a potential humanitarian catastrophe before international efforts were launched to come to their aid. As Shi‘ite Muslims, Amirli’s Turkmen are seen as apostates by ISIS militants, who practice a strict — some say distorted — version of Sunni Islam. Like all those who don’t practice ISIS’ version of the faith, the Shi‘ite Turkmen are a target, and as a small and unique minority, they are particularly vulnerable. Some Iraqi Shi‘ite militias have said they will mobilize to help Amirli, but if the militias do try to rescue the residents of Amirli, they will likely be no match for ISIS. On top of that, most of the Shi‘ite militias are Arab, not Turkmen, and are organized to protect their own neighborhoods, leaving the Turkmen largely on their own.

“Shi‘ite militias are organized as local defense forces. Not like ISIS, which is one coherent military organization. There’s one guy at the top” of ISIS, says Christopher Harmer, a senior analyst with the Washington, D.C.–based Institute for the Study of War, who served several tours with the U.S. Army in Iraq.

“Is it possible that the Shi’ite militia could go up there and try a rescue operation, yeah, sure, but the fact is that if the Shi‘ite militia went head-to-head with ISIS, they would get crushed. And I think they know that,” said Harmer.

Both Mehdi and Hussein are calling on the U.S. to intervene. However, as of yet, there have been no air strikes like those carried out by American warplanes in Sinjar. Those strikes allowed local Kurdish forces to open a corridor, allowing many Yezidis to escape.

“Why didn’t the U.S. do anything for this village? Why does the U.S. Air Force go to [the] Mosul Dam, Erbil, but they don’t come here?,” asked Mehdi. “That makes us think the U.S. doesn’t care about the Turkmen.”

But the Americans also have a long-standing relationship with the Kurdish forces, which operated around Sinjar, and it would be difficult for U.S. Special Forces to coordinate with Shi‘ite militias, some of which were sometimes lined up against American forces during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. On top of that, the plight of the Shi‘ite Turkmen may simply not have the appeal of the Yezidis, whose little-known faith and desperate isolation on a besieged mountaintop sparked broad sympathy and interest. Harmer says that could change with the U.N.’s recent statements, but it would be a tough decision for Washington to make.

“America took quite a while to decide to intervene [with ISIS]. And once we decided to intervene, we decided to intervene in Sinjar. I think there was sort of this feeling that these are such a unique religious minority,” said Harmer. The U.S. has now hit ISIS across northern Iraq, focusing on the area around the Mosul Dam. “With the Shi‘ites, it just gets lost in the Sunni-Shi‘ite conflict. There’s nothing unique about ISIS targeting a Shi‘ite village.”

TIME Iraq

Can Iraq’s New Prime Minister Keep the Sunnis on Side?

Iraq's new prime minister Haidar Al-Abadi in Bagdad, Aug. 16, 2014.
Iraq's new prime minister Haidar Al-Abadi in Bagdad, Aug. 16, 2014. Michael Kappeler—EPA

Haider Al-Abadi must regain the trust of Sunni politicians and tribal leaders if he's going to unite Iraq against the ISIS threat

Even this Iraqi refugee camp is divided by sect. Displaced Kurds shelter in a large warehouse here in Bahirka, the members of the Shia Shabak minority have their UN tents in a line outside and the Sunni Arabs are gathered by the back fence. There is even a corner for the seven Palestinian families that fled Mosul.

Ibrahim, who gave only his first name, is living in the back row of Sunni tents with his wife and four children.

“Of course I blame the Iraqi government for this,” said Ibrahim, who worked as a day laborer and rented a small apartment for his family in Mosul before they fled June 10. “During Prime Minister Maliki’s time, Mosul was like a fortress. There were check-points everywhere.”

This heavy security in Sunni areas like Mosul created resentment against the central government, as many felt the regions had been occupied by security forces loyal to then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who announced he would step down from the premiership on Aug. 15.

Maliki fostered a sharp sectarian split in Iraq, parceling out resources and ministerial roles to his Shiite allies and alienating the Sunnis who populate much of the northern territory taken by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) earlier this summer. Having been estranged by Maliki’s government, the well-armed Sunni tribes of the Nineveh Province put up little resistance to the militants, allowing the group to expand quickly in the region. The militants now control one-third of Iraq and the organization is easily recruiting from the disenfranchised Sunni population. ISIS is believed to have enlisted thousands of new fighters in recent months.

“People don’t like ISIS, but they just hated al-Maliki. And ISIS was the only alternative,” said Ibrahim.

Now, there is a new alternative — Iraq’s new prime minister Haider al-Abadi, a veteran Shiite lawmaker also from al-Maliki’s Dawa Party. He has promised a more inclusive national government, and compromise with the Kurds. But to beat back the spread of ISIS, he’ll need to win over Sunnis bruised by years of Maliki’s leadership—not just the political leadership, but also the Sunni tribal chiefs.

“We are optimistic about participating in the new government,” says Hamed al-Mutlaq, a member of the Iraqi parliament and an influential Sunni politician. “But first we want a real change, not just a change of faces in the government.”

Real change, says al-Mutlaq, would mean ending the division of powers along sectarian lines, and a rebuilding of Iraq’s armed forces, which many say al-Maliki attempted to mould into his own personal militia. If these changes are met, he says, Sunnis might unite against ISIS. “We want safety and security in Iraq and want to get rid of ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the all the militias in Iraq.”

But while politicians are showing optimism, or at very least willingness, so far the Sunni tribes of the Nineveh Province have shown no signs of pivoting toward the central government from the leadership offered by ISIS — and some analysts are losing hope that they might. “The situation has reached such a level that I’m not sure it’s reversible. I’m not sure we can solve it,” says Maria Fantappie, an Iraq analyst with International Crisis Group.

Bringing tribal leaders back into the fold would require al-Abadi to decentralize authority from Baghdad to empower Sunni provincial leaders, said Fantappie. “But again, to tell you the truth, from the contacts I have with the Sunni tribes even this project is unlikely to succeed. Unfortunately, I think we reached the point where the ISIS project has become very attractive for many Sunnis,” says Fantappie.

Some, but not all. Maysar, a Sunni from Mosul living in the refugee camp in Bahirka, voiced worries that everyone who remained in the city will be accused of siding with ISIS when they are simply attempting to live under the new regime. The 35-year-old, who would only give his first name, says he was one of the few police who tried to fight back against the militants when they entered the city three months ago, and now feels like an outcast.

“When Haidar Al-Abadi chooses his government he must be very careful. He must deal very carefully with people of Mosul,” he says. Many in these areas are sitting quietly because they fear ISIS as long as the group remain in control, he says. “Yes, some people there are with ISIS. But he can’t just consider everyone who remains in Mosul to be a terrorist.”

TIME Iraq

Iraq Fighting Is Driving Weapons Prices Through the Roof

An Iraqi Kurd inspects a machine gun at an arms market in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq on Aug. 17, 2014.
An Iraqi Kurd inspects a machine gun at an arms market in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq on Aug. 17, 2014. Safin Hamed—AFP/Getty Images

A fight against ISIS militants leads to skyrocketing prices

Next to a criminal prison in Erbil, Kurdish traders hawk Kalashnikovs, pistols and even American made M16s.

“This is $1,500,” says Saleh Mahmoud, stroking the wooden shaft of a Bulgarian-made Kalashnikov. “Last week this gun was $2,000. The day the terrorists came near Erbil everyone was buying weapons.”

Mahmoud has dealt in arms since 1991, when the Kurds were battling Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army. In more than two decades in the arms trade, he says he’s never seen prices skyrocket like they did 10 days ago as Islamist militants showed up on the Kurds’ doorstep. And while Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga, retook the critical Mosul Dam from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Monday, the fighting against the extremists is far from over. The peshmerga were only able to retake the dam with assistance from the Iraqi national army and heavy American air cover. The fact that it took three armed forces to recapture just one structure from ISIS shows the strength of the militants—and doesn’t bode well for Iraqi and Kurdish forces. The semi-autonomous Kurds are considered to have the most capable army in Iraq, but they have mostly light artillery, and no air force.

Outside the headquarters of Asayesh, the peshmerga’s intelligence arm, three large Kurdish men stand on guard with Russian made weapons—a couple of aging Kalashnikovs and a newer Izhmash. A lot of the weapons carried by peshmerga forces were looted from Saddam’s army bases in 1990s, and they weren’t top shelf even then.

President Barack Obama said Monday that the United States had “urgently provided additional arms and assistance to Iraqi forces, including Kurdish and Iraqi security forces who are fighting on the front lines.” But Colonel Hersh Muhsin, who heads the Asayesh munitions unit in Erbil, says he hasn’t seen any new guns.

“Come with me,” he says, opening a closest with a few RPGs and rifles leaning against the wall and mounted PKC machine gun sitting on the floor. “These RPGs are useless against America-made armored vehicles. On the front lines, ISIS all have American made weapons, and we do not.”

But while they may be poorly armed, Muhsin says the peshmerga are strong because they are fighting to protect their land. “Less important is the gun, and more important is the strength of the ideology of the hand that holds it,” he says.

The peshmerga are known for being passionate fighters, raised on guns and nationalism in the mountains of Kurdistan, but Muhsin may be underestimating the conviction of the ISIS fighters who pledge their allegiance to the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and fight for the dream of an Islamic caliphate.

The lack of budget and supplies has pushed Kurdish fighters to buy their own guns. That, combined with the fear of the general population, pushed up weapons prices early in the month.

“But now people are looking to the media which says everyday that France, Germany and America will send weapons,” Muhsin says.

Back at the market, the buyers and sellers say that prices have finally dipped, a sign people here have faith the weapons are coming from aboard. The market is filled with peshmerga fighters buying their own guns, but everyone here calls for the international community to give more.

“I bought this to fight ISIS,” says Niro Talat, a 34-year-old driver who managed to find $3,000 to buy a brand-new M-16. He twists the sleek black weapon in his hands. “This is better than a Kalashnikov. It’s more accurate. It’s a good weapon.”

No one here seems to know how a new M-16, stamped, “Property of the U.S. GOVT,” ended-up in this market, but it raises questions about the fate of foreign arms provided to the Kurds to fight ISIS.

The position of this gun market, a few hundred meters from a criminal prison, may be an indication of the Kurdish forethought when comes to weapons. “Do you want to take a picture of an RPG,” asks a man leaning into the car wearing military fatigues and the very-popular-here faux ‘US Army’ shirt. “Come, it’s in my house.”

The peshmerga were born of Kurdish resistance and trained as guerilla fighters to protect their mountainous territory and fight for independence. The Kurdish leaders are preaching about ISIS’s brutality and the militants’ superior American arms, demanding equally good weapons to fight the extremists.

But where will those guns be pointed when—or if—ISIS is defeated? The goal of theses Kurdish fighters has always been an independent Kurdistan.

TIME Iraq

Fears Rise in Northern Iraq Despite U.S. Support

Kurdish "peshmerga" troops take part in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants, on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh
Kurdish Peshmerga troops take part in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants, on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh, Aug. 6, 2014. Reuters

Worries that help from Obama in Iraq is too little, too late

Even as President Barack Obama authorizes U.S. airstrikes against militants in Iraq, fears are rising that the fighters are advancing on Kurdish territory in the north of the country.

The Kurdish fighters—known as Peshmerga—had kept the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) out of their territory for months, but the more than 1,000-km border they share with the militants is now under attack. “Now, the Kurds have more than one front open,” said Hoshang Waziri, an Iraqi analyst based in Erbil.

So despite Obama’s promise that “America is coming to help,” some fear it may be too little, too late.

The Kurdish government in Erbil welcomed Obama’s authorization of airstrikes—strikes that started Friday—but Kurds have been calling for U.S. intervention for months. From senior officials to shopkeepers in Erbil, American intervention has been seen as key for Kurds ever since the militants began claiming swaths of northern Iraq.

“Where was America?” asked Majid, a 28-year resident of Qaraqosh who fled his home this week with thousands of other Christians. He wouldn’t give his last name for fear of being targeted by the Islamists. He said as Peshmerga forces withdrew, the militants entered and took control of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city and home to some of the world’s oldest Christian communities. Some Christians have been told to convert to Islam or leave.

“They took the cross off our church and replaced it with a black flag of the Islamic State,” said Majid, who is seeking refuge in Erbil. Thousands of Christians have fled into the Kurdish territory and are sleeping on the floors of churches and community centers.

They are comparatively lucky. As many as 50,000 members of the Yazidi minority sect are trapped in the Sinjar mountains, surrounded as they were trying to escape the militants. The U.S. air-dropped humanitarian supplies overnight to the stranded Yazidis, but rescuing them will be difficult.

For Christians like Majid, it seems unlikely they will return home soon.

“I can’t live under the [ISIS]. Because every minute they do something different,” he said.

It may have been the element of surprise that allowed ISIS to gain so much ground, said Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. While Kurdish officials say they warned the government in Baghdad about ISIS’ offensive on Mosul and northern Iraq in June, many were surprised how quickly and easily the militants claimed Iraqi territory. They were even more surprised that the extremist Sunni militants were able to push the Peshmerga out of areas in the last week.

The Kurds may have become too comfortable as militants said their sights were set south, on the capital Baghdad, with no mention of Erbil. So when they attacked, the Kurds were caught off guard.

“The most interesting and frightening thing that happened is the fact that [ISIS] really has been able to beat-up on the Peshmegra,” Pollack said. “That’s not something anyone anticipated.”

Throughout June and much of July, the Kurdish region felt like an oasis of security protected by the Kurdish fighters. While there was little actual combat between the Islamists and the Peshmerga, the Kurdish people—and the world— praised the might of the Kurdish armed forces. But that might went untested.

“This is not the same Peshmerga of the 1960s and 70s,” Pollack said. The Peshmerga were known throughout the region as a strong fighting force as they resisted Turkish and Iraqi dominance. “Kurdistan has changed dramatically. They’re not these tough mountain boys anymore who were brought-up learning how to shoot. Now they are city kids and they don’t have the same exposure and they don’t have the same commitment.”

While the Peshmerga have experienced generals, they haven’t fought a war in almost two decades. Pollack said they may need more assistance than just the “limited strikes” suggested by Obama to defend their territory against ISIS.

Waziri said it’s not just military support the Kurds and Iraq need now from Washington. “The U.S. left Iraq but it still needs to use its leverage,” he said.

For months now, Sunnis and Kurds and an increasing number of Shi’ites have been calling for Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step aside and allow the formation of a new, more inclusive government to pull Sunnis away from allegiance with ISIS and mount a more united fight against the militants.

Instead, the factions remain divided and the Sunni tribes, who can play a key role, are discontent with al-Maliki’s leadership.

“Washington needs to put real pressure on Baghdad to get its s–t together,” Waziri said.

TIME foreign affairs

Death Count Rises As Parties Scramble for Israel-Gaza Ceasefire

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet with Hamas leader to promote a deal proposed by Egypt

JERUSALEM — The death toll continues to rise as a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel becomes more and more elusive.

At least 100 Palestinians have been killed since the start of Israel ground offensive, according to Palestinian officials in Gaza.

Among the dead is a family of eight, killed by Israeli tank fire in the northern Gaza Strip last night, adding yet another tragedy to the now 11-day-old Israeli Operation Defensive Edge, which has killed more than 340 Palestinians. Most of the dead are civilians, including at least 73 children. According to the UN, more than 50,000 people in Gaza have been displaced from their homes, but there are no refugees as Gazans are unable to leave the tiny coastal territory.

“My children ask me questions about why this is happening and I don’t have any answers,” says Mahfouz Kabariti, who lives near the Gaza seafront with his wife and six children. The buzz of Israeli drones, which are now a constant backdrop to the frequent sound of explosions, can be heard through the phone. “I can see the Israeli navy ships from my window.”

As Israel’s navy fired from the sea and the air force struck Gaza from above, Israeli troops engaged with Hamas fighters on the border Saturday after eight militants tried to enter Israel from the territory through an underground tunnel.

“This illustrates that our concerns are real,” said Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Lerner says the IDF has already destroyed 5,000 of the 10,000 rockets it believes Hamas has in its arsenal. Israel now has thousands of troops inside Gaza and says it will widen its offensive, which aims to crush Hamas’ infrastructure.

“We have our hands full to complete these missions,” Lerner said.

At least two Israelis were killed Saturday after militants breached the territory’s northern border, bringing the Israeli death toll to five. The Israeli army says they have identified at least 20 tunnels on the Gaza-Israel border, and that militants planned to sneak into Israel with the aim of committing attacks.

While the Israeli army battled Hamas fighters, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas flew to Qatar and will meet with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to promote a ceasefire proposed by Egypt. After years of division, a unity deal was struck in April between Abbas’ Fatah party–which rules in the West Bank–and Hamas, but this military escalation has put a new wedge between the factions.

So far all these diplomatic efforts have been in vain. Israel claims it launched its ground offensive only after Hamas rejected several ceasefire offers. Israel’s cabinet voted to approve a ceasefire deal earlier this week, but it was turned down by Hamas.

“We rejected the Egyptian initiative because it wasn’t fair, giving the Israelis whatever they want,” said Ehab Hussein, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. “Nobody can accept that when you are getting hit and killed, that at the same time you should stop defending yourself without getting anything.”

Hamas is looking for more than just an end to hostilities. The leadership wants to gain new conditions from any deal to end the fighting.

“It’s not strange things we are asking for. We are saying, give us our freedom. Lift the siege. Open the borders. Implement the past agreement of 2012 and the agreement of the prisoner exchange,” said Ehab al-Hussein, in reference to prisoners who were re-arrested this month after being released in the swap for Gilad Shalit in 2011.

Egypt has been trying to broker a deal between Israel and Hamas in Cairo, but some speculate that Egypt is not a neutral mediator. Egypt’s new president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has an ongoing campaign in his country to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ parent organization, and many argue his sympathies lie with Israel. However, Hussein says they have not shut down that channel.

UN secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is expected in Israel today in attempt to push for a ceasefire.

“Hopefully we will reach something,” said Hussein, “because we didn’t want this war. The Israelis started it.”

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