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.

TIME Middle East

Meet the Americans on the Front Lines in the Fight Against ISIS

Dean Parker in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniah after spending weeks on the front lines with Kurdish fighters in Syria. Jan. 14, 2015.
Rebecca Collard Dean Parker in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniah after spending weeks on the front lines with Kurdish fighters in Syria. Jan. 14, 2015.

The U.S. has said it won’t be sending soldiers to fight ISIS but some Americans have found their own way there

When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) surrounded the Yezidi tribes on Sinjar Mountain in August last year, Dean Parker was at his job as a commercial painter in the U.S.. That evening, he saw news reports of Kurdish fighters trying to liberate the mountain.

“I made the decision right there,” says Parker, now sitting in his hotel room in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah. “I was online booking a ticket.”

He packed body armour, boots, clothes and downloaded a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War on his e-reader. He left the U.S. without telling his family. A month later the 49-year-old grandfather and surfer had traded his paintbrush and board for a rifle and was inside Syria.

For some, the motivation seems to be a cocktail of feelings that the U.S. is doing too little to combat the extremists, and the desire for action.

“[ISIS] people are bad people. They use religion, but it’s not anything about Islam. They pervert it,” says Parker. “You know, you could probably take the Bible, you could take the Koran, you take Betty Crocker’s cookbook and twist the words around enough to justify anything you wanted to do.”

The U.S. has repeatedly said there will be no American combat boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria, but these Americans have jumped this policy and landed in Syrian Kurdish territory. There are at least three Americans among around a dozen Western volunteers now fighting with Kurdish forces.

Most of the foreign recruits who have joined the fight have done so with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known by their acronym YPG. The group’s facebook page — The Lions of Rojava — features a cover photo of half-dozen armed foreign fighters in military fatigues with a lion posing in front of a burning cityscape. “I wanna go f–k S–t up!!!!!! PM me,” posted Anthony Coletti , who appears to be from New York, expressing interest in joining the fight.

Parker says he chose the YPG because they are not designated as a terrorist organization in the US, though he says carrying a weapon in Syria is likely to earn him the attention of U.S. authorities when he returns.

“I’m sure the Department of Homeland Security is going to want to have a talk with me. And the FBI is going to want to have a talk with me,” says Parker. “That’s understandable. I don’t have anything to hide. I’m sure we’ll have a five or six hour chit-chat when I get to the airport.”

Dean Parker with Kurdish forces in Syria in December via .
FacebookDean Parker with Kurdish forces in Syria in Dec. 2014.

While Parker has no military experience, some of the other volunteers are former soldiers who served in tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. American forces lost soldiers fighting to suppress al-Qaeda in Iraq from which ISIS emerged and some veterans feel the U.S. should be doing more to destroy the group which has also been beheaded Americans.

“We let ISIS grow and did nothing about it,” Jordan Matson told a Kurdish journalist after entering Syria in August. “Me and several others are going to stay here until this fight is over.”

Matson, from Wisconsin, is believed to be the first American to join the YPG. He was wounded by a mortar bomb while fighting ISIS in Syria. Matson served in the U.S. army, but while he makes a great poster boy in military fatigues and a keffiyah, the YPG says these volunteers aren’t exactly what they need.

“Arms are more important than fighters,” says Ahmad Shiekh Hassan, head of the defense committee for Kurdish forces in Syria. He says the number of Western fighters to join his forces against the militants is less than 15, a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated 15,000 foreign fighters who have joined ISIS.

While the YPG says they are not actively recruiting foreign fighters, they have been pleading with the U.S.-led coalition for better weapons and more air strikes to help their battle, particularly in the border town of Kobani. “What do we need more fighters for if we don’t have the necessary arms and weapons to give them?” asks Hassan.

Kurds in Iraq and Syria have been promoting the idea that they are the front line in the fight against ISIS and extremism. “We are the only entity fighting terrorism in the whole Middle East,” says Hassan. “We are fighting terrorism on behalf of the whole world.”

While Kurdish forces have been more successful than others in taking ground from ISIS, U.S. law may cloud their claim that they are leading the fight against terrorism. The YPG is closely related to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), classified a terrorist organization by the U.S. and other NATO countries. And the PKK is fighting alongside the YPG in Syria. That puts these fighters in a murky area. Human Rights Watch also has raised concerns about the YPG’s use of child soldiers and accused them of violent crackdowns on Kurdish political opponents.

However, while Americans caught fighting with ISIS in Syria will face charges and jail time, State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki has said in October that she’s not aware of any specific law against what these men are doing. “We also of course remain concerned about any citizen traveling to take part in military operations,” she added. “We recommend any U.S. citizens remaining depart immediately.”

And beyond the risk of combat casualities, American and other Western fighters risk becoming ISIS trophies to be paraded in orange jumpsuits and possibly beheaded if they are captured on the battlefield.

TIME Iraq

Meet the Men Being Trained to Fight ISIS by the U.S.

Iraq Police Fighting ISIS
Rebecca Collard Policemen from Mosul train at a camp in Dubardan, Iraq.

Under the watch of American advisors, dozens of Iraqi police practice marching in unison through a large gravel clearing, 20 kilometers from Mosul. Others sit as a trainer lectures them on how to use a mounted machine gun. Some practice searching an SUV for explosives.

This is the Mosul Liberation Camp, where more than 4,000 Sunni Arab police are training to retake their city from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). “It’s my responsibility to take back my city from ISIS,” says Saad Mohmmed Khalaf who fled Mosul along with other police and army in June.

Mosul is the largest city ISIS controls, and the north-eastern edge of its caliphate which stretches through Iraq to western Syria. Ousting ISIS from Mosul may be the most difficult task facing the anti-ISIS coalition.

“Fighting in Mosul is like working in a minefield,” said Sadi Ahmed Pire. Pire, now a Kurdish politician, commanded Kurdish forces as they fought to take Mosul from Saddam Hussein’s army in 2003.

While the city is home to Christians, Kurds, Shi’ites and other minorities, it is majority Sunni Arab and many in the city welcomed the Sunni ISIS fighters after years of neglect and oppression from the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad. There are some indications that the population has now become resentful of ISIS’s restrictive rule, but communications to the city have been mostly cut-off for more than a month and intelligence about the city is limited.

“The single most important aspect of insurgency warfare is control, or support, of the population,” said Christopher Harmer, a senior analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, who completed several tours with the U.S. army in Iraq. “One of the reasons that ISIS had such an easy time in conquering Mosul was that the existing Iraqi Security Forces…had lost the support of the local population.”

If the residents side with ISIS, taking the city will be almost impossible.

Iraq Police Fighting ISIS
Rebecca CollardIraqi national Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi visits the Mosul Liberation Camp in Dubardan, Iraq.

The dense urban nature of Mosul poses another problem. Much of the ground reclaimed by Kurdish and Iraqi national forces in recent months has been small, sometimes empty, villages and scarcely populated land. In Mosul, ISIS positions are embedded among the civilian population.

“It’s virtually impossible to do air strikes in dense urban area unless U.S. special forces are on ground, calling them in,” said Harmer. An air campaign against ISIS installations with limited intelligence in urban neighborhoods could result in high civilian casualties, he says.

So the offensive for the city will rely on ground troops. Kurdish leaders have made it clear they don’t plan to send their forces into the city this time. Mosul is outside the territory of the aspirational Kurdish state and their forces are already stretched along the 1,000 km-front they share with ISIS.

Few have faith the Iraqi army could, or would, retake the city. Manned with commanders and recruits from other parts of the country, the soldiers proved unable, or unwilling, to defend the city against the ISIS attack in June, according to the men here. Thousands of troops deserted their posts, dropping their weapons and uniforms as they fled.

“That was the main reason the city fell so quickly, because the commanders were from outside Mosul. They lacked both good management and good intentions,” says General Khalid al-Hamadani, the police chief for the Niveveh governorate, which includes Mosul. “From my experience, those from outside the city won’t sacrifice their lives for the city.”

The only hope then, he says, is the men training here. “The police here, we are all from inside Mosul,” said General Hamadani, adding they know streets and the layout of neighborhoods.

But the challenge is turning a few thousand policemen, who already ran away from ISIS, into a combat force able to retake an urban center from determined defenders.

“You can’t just inject men with courage and morale,” said Pire.

However, the trainers are trying and at times the camp seems more pep-rally than military exercise. Nationalist tunes and songs about defeating ISIS blast from a set of speakers next to a trailer that serves as General Hamadani’s office and men hoist their weapons — empty of bullets — as they chant and bounce up and down.

Over the music some of the men grumble that the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad has been reluctant to support Sunni fighters here. Their salaries haven’t been paid since June and weapons are limited.

Rebecca CollardMoshir Al-Jabour (left) in a training camp for police from Mosul.

“You can’t liberate a city with these weapons,” says Moshir Al-Jabouri, who brags he shot down two American planes while fighting for Saddam Hussein’s army and earned 13 medals of bravery for his service under the deposed ruler. “The Americans and the coalition need to arm us now. We can’t depend on Baghdad to do it.”

While these men may be the front line ground troops, both Jabouri and General Hamadani say, they will need the support of the US-led coalition, Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army to take the city from ISIS. But many here are skeptical about getting the support they need from the central government.

“Baghdad doesn’t care about Mosul,” says Jabouri. “They don’t care how long it stays in the hands of ISIS.”

TIME Syria

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

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

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
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.”

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