TIME Syria

Report Details Hardships Facing Syria’s Refugee Mothers

Syrian Refugees; Lebanon; North Lebanon; refugees
Sanaa, 26, washes clothes in a borrowed washing machine at a shelter in Saida, Lebanon, on March 4, 2014. Lynsey Addario—UNHCR

Some 145,000 refugee households are headed by women

A new U.N. report grimly details the daily plight of thousands of Syrian refugee mothers who have fled civil war and now toil as their household’s primary breadwinner.

Four-fifths of the 2.8 million Syrians who have fled their war-torn homeland since March 2011 are women and children, says the U.N., leading to some 145,000 refugee households headed solely by women. The survey, based on three months of interviews with 135 women in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, provides a snapshot of the complexities they endure while trying to feed and protect their children, find enough work to make rent and retain any semblance of the lives they enjoyed before war broke out.

They represent women who once managed their homes, even as their husbands usually handled physical and financial security, but who now lead households in unfamiliar and often insecure communities. Lebanon, a nation of 4 million, has taken in more than a million people. At least 600,000 have entered Jordan, with most gravitating toward urban areas, an influx that has crushed certain infrastructure. In addition, some 137,000 have made it to Egypt.

António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said “escaping their ruined homeland was only the first step in a journey of grinding hardship” and called their treatment “shameful” as the crisis worsens. “They have run out of money, face daily threats to their safety and are being treated as outcasts,” he added, “for no other crime than losing their men to a vicious war.”

Typically, their first challenge was simply finding a roof. Many make do with overcrowded or makeshift housing, due to few options and difficulties in securing a stable and sufficient income. Only one-fifth of those interviewed had paid work, and many others said they relied on cash assistance from aid groups or generosity from others in their community.

Paying rent is among their top stressors, as is feeding loved ones. With an average of 5.6 people per household, some mothers said their families ate less as a whole or individuals held back so others could eat more. “Rent is more important than food,” one woman who lived with her seven children in Amman told the U.N. “We don’t remember what meat or fruit tastes like,” echoed another, who kept a home of nine people in Giza, Egypt.

The vast majority of women interviewed relied on food vouchers from the U.N. World Food Programme, but very few complained that their households were going hungry.

Among a number of other issues reported were an inability to afford proper medical care, regular instances of verbal harassment and even offers of free accommodation in exchange for sexual favors. A significant portion said they left their homes much less often than they did in Syria.

The U.N. expects these problems to worsen, as it estimates the total number of Syrian refugees will reach 3.6 million by year’s end, unless aid agencies, donors and host governments renew their commitments of support.

TIME

Kerry: Syrian Moderate Rebels Could Help in Iraq

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Secretary of State John Kerry signaled on Friday that the U.S. hopes to enlist moderate Syrian opposition fighters that the Obama administration has reluctantly decided to arm and train in the battle against militant extremists in neighboring Iraq.

Obama sent Congress a $500 million request Thursday for a Pentagon-run program that would significantly expand previous covert efforts to arm rebels fighting both the Sunni extremists and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. The move that comes amid increased U.S. concern that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are becoming an intertwined fight against the same Sunni extremist group.

If approved by lawmakers, the program would in effect open a second front in the fight against militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, that is spilling over Syria’s border and threatening to overwhelm Iraq.

“Obviously, in light of what has happened in Iraq, we have even more to talk about in terms of the moderate opposition in Syria, which has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against ISIL’s presence and to have them not just in Syria, but also in Iraq,” Kerry said at the start of a meeting with Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba.

Al-Jarba thanked the Obama administration for requesting the $500 million, but said his rebels want even more foreign aid to fight two fronts: a bloody insurgency and their so-far unsuccessful effort to oust Assad.

“We still need greater assistance,” al-Jarba said, speaking through a translator. “We hope for greater cooperation with the U.S.” He said General Abdullah al-Bashir, the head of the military wing of the Syrian opposition, “is ready to cooperate with the U.S. side.”

Al-Jarba called the crisis that has gripped Iraq in the last month “very grave” and blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for policies that he said have divided the country. Iraq is 60 percent Shiite, and the rest nearly evenly split between minority Sunnis and Kurds. Iraqi Sunnis, who enjoyed far greater privileges during Saddam Hussein’s regime, have decried al-Maliki’s leadership and accused him of sidelining minority groups from power.

“The borders between Iraq and Syria are practically open,” al-Jarba told Kerry. ISIL seized a key border crossing between Iraq and Syria in the last week.

Kerry traveled through the Mideast over the last week to try to broker a political agreement with Iraqi leaders to give more authority to Sunnis in hopes of easing sectarian tensions and, in turn, help quell the dominantly Sunni insurgency.

Kerry also met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, where it was expected he would seek the monarch’s help in supporting Sunni efforts to combat the Sunni insurgency. More than 90 percent of Saudi Arabians are Sunni Muslims.

Obama has long been reluctant to arm the Syrian opposition, in part because of concerns that weapons may fall into extremist hands, a risk that appears to have only heightened now that ISIL has strengthened. But Obama’s request to Congress appeared to indicate that tackling the crumbling security situation in Syria and Iraq trumped those concerns.

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the military assistance “marks another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against regime attacks, push back against the growing number of extremists like ISIL who find safe haven in the chaos, and take their future into their own hands by enhancing security and stability at local levels.”

The Syria program is part of a broader, $65.8 billion overseas operations request that the administration sent to Capitol Hill on Thursday. The package includes $1 billion to help stabilize nations bordering Syria that are struggling with the effects of the civil war. It also formalizes a request for a previously announced $1 billion to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Central and Eastern Europe amid Russia’s threatening moves in Ukraine.

With ISIL gaining strength, U.S. officials say Assad’s forces launched airstrikes on extremist targets inside Iraq on Monday. The U.S. is also weighing targeted strikes against ISIL in Iraq, creating an odd alignment with one of Washington’s biggest foes.

Obama has ruled out sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq. But he has dispatched nearly 600 U.S. forces in and around Iraq to train local forces and secure the American Embassy in Baghdad and other U.S. interests.

The White House has been hinting for weeks that Obama was preparing to step up assistance to the Syrian rebels. In a commencement speech at West Point on May 28, he said that by helping those fighting for a free Syria, “we also push back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in the chaos.”

Officials said the administration would coordinate with Congress and regional players on the specific types of training and assistance the U.S. would provide the opposition. One potential option would be to base U.S. personnel in Jordan and conduct the training there.

The Senate Armed Services Committee already has approved a version of the sweeping defense policy bill authorizing the Defense Department to provide “equipment, supplies, training and defense services” to elements of the Syrian opposition that have been screened. The Senate could act on the bill before its August recess.

In addition to the covert train-and-equip mission, the U.S. also has provided nearly $287 million in nonlethal assistance to the moderate opposition.

The military program would be supplemented by $1 billion in assistance to Syria’s neighbors — Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq — to help them deal with an influx of refugees and the threat of extremists spilling over their borders.

TIME Iraq

In Iraq, Former Militia Program Eyed for New Fight

Iraq Awakening Councils
In this Jan. 16, 2013, file photo, Sahwa members, a group of Sunni Arabs who joined forces with the U.S. military to fight al-Qaida at the height of Iraq's insurgency, escort the coffin of Ifan Saadoun al-Issawi, during his funeral in Fallujah, Iraq. Hadi Mizban—AP

U.S. officials say they hope Sunnis will be similarly stirred to fight back against the new insurgency

(BAGHDAD) — They were known as the Sahwa, or the Awakening Councils — Sunni militiamen who took extraordinary risks to side with U.S. troops in the fight against al-Qaeda during the Iraq War. Once heralded as a pivotal step in the defeat of the bloody insurgency, the Sahwa later were pushed aside by Iraq’s Shiite-led government, starved of political support and money needed to remain a viable security force.

Now, the Obama administration is looking at the Sahwa, which still exist in smaller form, as a model for how to unite Sunni fighters against the rampant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that has swept across most of the nation’s north. Also known as the Sons of Iraq — “sahwa” is Arabic for “awakening” — U.S. officials say they hope Sunnis will be similarly stirred to fight back against the new insurgency.

As many as 3,000 core ISIS fighters, many of them foreign, are believed to be in Iraq. But U.S. intelligence officials fear twice that many Iraqi Sunnis are vulnerable to being lured into the violence — pushing the country into an outright civil war. That has prompted the White House, State Department and CIA to look for incentives to keep as many disgruntled Sunnis as possible from joining the fight.

Being Sahwa can be dangerous. One Sunni militiaman, Abu Ahmed, said he began receiving text messages from Iraqi insurgent groups four months ago, threatening him if he remained a Sahwa member. He said he reported the threats to security forces, “but nobody cared.”

“The security officials told me that the safety of my family is my own responsibility, not theirs,” said Abu Ahmed, a father of five in Muqdadiyha, a Sunni enclave outside Baghdad. Like many Iraqis, he would only identify himself by his nickname out of fear for his family’s safety. “It seems that both the government and the insurgents hate Sahwa.”

The Obama administration knows it cannot recreate the original Sahwa security movement, which was supported and bolstered by American troops in Sunni-dominated areas of western and northern Iraq. Over a three-year period after the Sahwa campaign began in late 2006, the U.S. military paid them at least $370 million.

The Obama administration has no immediate plans to arm or fund the Sunni security militias, and there are too few American personnel in Iraq now to try to duplicate the original joint force.

It’s thought likely that Iraq’s Sunni neighbors — notably Jordan and Saudi Arabia — will use their cross-border tribal networks to bolster the security militias with financing or weapons, but it’s not clear whether Washington would even support that privately. The U.S. probably would want to vet the tribes before they received any money or arms, even from other nations, to ensure that the aid does not get passed along to ISIS or other extremist groups.

A similar process in Syria has delayed assistance to the frustrated moderate Sunni rebels in their three-year civil war to eject President Bashar Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiism.

Secretary of State John Kerry was in the Mideast this week to push Iraq toward creating a more inclusive government that equally empowers Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and potentially replaces Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as the best option to quell ISIL.

“The problem is, there are far too many tribes sitting on the sidelines,” said retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, who helped build the original Sahwa program and is now a professor at Ohio State University. “But if the Iraqi government can re-form the alliance with the tribes, and present itself to the Arab Sunnis as a government they can support, then I think the portion of ISIS that’s composed of foreign jihadists could be defeated in short order.”

Kerry is also meeting with diplomats from Saudi Arabia and Jordan to discuss Iraq, and the issue of trying to keep Sunni fighters out of the insurgency will be high on their agenda, officials said. Requests by The Associated Press for comment from Saudi and Jordanian diplomats and intelligence officials were either refused or not immediately granted.

“We’re hearing from Sunni leaders across the board that they really want to do something about ISIS. They’re figuring out how to do it,” said one senior State Department official who, like more than a half-dozen other U.S. officials interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue by name.

He said many of the Sunni tribes first want to unseat al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki for years promised American officials he would hire the Sahwa to diversify the overwhelmingly Shiite government security forces and ensure the Sunni militiamen would continue to be paid once the U.S. troops left the country. But the vast majority of an estimated 90,000 Sahwa never got government jobs and, if they are paid by local authorities in the areas they protect, they receive less than a few hundred dollars each month.

Betrayed by al-Maliki’s broken promises, and threatened by insurgents, many Sahwa now feel that joining forces with extremists is a safer bet. Abu Ahmed is among them, and said he recently began fighting with a different Sunni extremist group that calls itself the Islamic Army.

“They are more moderate than ISIS, and they do not kill Shiites or other people randomly, and they are able to protect my family from ISIS,” Abu Ahmed said. He added, bitterly, “We have sacrificed a lot and risked our lives in fighting al-Qaeda, and our reward from al-Maliki was less money.”

U.S. officials believe a significant number of Sunni tribal fighters are now fighting alongside ISIS, including the Sahwa and an estimated 1,000 former Baathists and others loyal to the late President Saddam Hussein. There are still large numbers of Sunni fighters who have not sided with ISIS, the officials said, but there is a fear they might join in if Iranian-backed Shiite militias begin playing a prominent role in the fighting. That would mirror the kind of sectarian bloodshed that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war at the time the Sahwa were created.

The U.S. hopes the majority of Sahwa and other disgruntled Sunnis will resist allying with ISIS simply because they reject extremism and an insurgency that, over the years, has killed thousands of civilians and bystanders in random attacks. And at least some Sunnis agree.

“I have no intention to join the insurgents because they do nothing but kill people,” said Abu Humam, who joined a Sahwa militia near Ramadi in 2007 and suffered severe leg wounds while fighting al-Qaeda a year later. But he, too, voiced anger at al-Maliki, whom he accused of neglecting the Sahwa and making them easy targets for insurgents.

“Hundreds of Sahwa fighters have given up during the past months,” Abu Humam said. “Either they have stayed home or joined insurgent groups.”

___

Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.

TIME Iraq

Sunni Militants Push for Control of Iraq’s Western Border

IRAQ-UNREST
Members of Kurdish forces hold their position in the Iraqi village of Basheer on June 21, 2014 Karim Sahib—AFP/Getty Images

Sunni militants in Iraq have captured major border posts connected to Syria and Jordan and a string of towns in a western province

Sunni militants in Iraq have captured major border posts connected to Syria and Jordan and a string of towns in a western province, as they tighten their grip on key areas of the country, Iraq’s military authorities announced on Sunday.

The takeover of the Walid crossing to Syria and the Turaibil crossing to Jordan follow the recent captures of a number of towns in Anbar province, which has been controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Associated Press reports. ISIS, a militant extremist group once allied with al-Qaeda, has been pressing on toward Baghdad in recent weeks.

The capture of Rutba, a town located approximately 150 km east of the Iraqi-Jordanian border, gives insurgents major control over a key route to Jordan. The control of border posts and towns like Rutba will allow insurgent forces to more easily move weapons and soldiers between countries.

The seizure of Rawah and Anah suggest movement toward the city of Haditha, where a major dam lies — which, if destroyed, could wreak havoc on the country’s electrical systems and cause major flooding. Iraqi authorities speaking to the AP on the condition of anonymity say 2,000 troops have been dispatched to protect the dam.

Iraqi military spokesman General Qassim Atta commented on the captures, saying security forces in Rawah, Anah and Qaim had previously been pulled to support other troops elsewhere, the New York Times reports.

During a Sunday appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation, U.S. President Barack Obama called ISIS a “medium- and long-term threat.” While ISIS is one of several groups the U.S. should continue to monitor, he said, the organization poses a “destabilizing” threat to Iraq and neighboring countries that makes it a particular concern in the region.

Obama said while the U.S. needed to address unrest in the region, action needed to be a “more focused, more targeted strategy” done in partnership with local law and military officials. Obama’s remarks follow both Iraq’s request for air-strike support and comments from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, who accused the U.S. of stirring up unrest in the region to advance its own interests.

During a visit to Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called ISIS a threat to “all the countries in the region,” Reuters reports.

TIME Pope Francis

Photos: The Pope’s Historic Holy Land Visit

In his first visit to the region since becoming the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis made stops in Amman, Jordan, and Bethlehem in the West Bank

TIME Jordan

Pope Calls for Peace in Syria During Historic Holy Land Trip

JORDAN-VATICAN-RELIGION-POPE
Pope Francis leaves the Amman stadium after celebrating a mass on May 24, 2014 in the Jordanian capital. Patrick Baz—AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis commended Jordan's commitment to "lasting peace for the entire region" during his first trip to the Holy Land as pope

Pope Francis called for a peaceful end to Syria’s three-year-old civil war during a Saturday stop in Jordan on his first Holy Land trip as pope.

“This great goal urgently requires that a peaceful solution be found to the crisis in Syria, as well as a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said alongside Jordan’s King Abdullah II in remarks that departed from the script, Reuters reports.

The pope also commended Abdullah for his efforts in seeking “lasting peace for the entire region.” Millions of Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan and other nearby countries during Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 160,000 people so far.

Pope Francis also addressed the conflict during Friday mass at the International Stadium in Amman.

“Peace is not something which can be bought; it is a gift to be sought patiently and to be ‘crafted’ through the actions, great and small, of our everyday lives,” he said.”I also embrace with affection the many Christian refugees from Palestine, Syria and Iraq: please bring my greeting to your families and communities, and assure them of my closeness.”

Christians in the area hope Pope Francis’ visit will bring hope to the region’s declining Christian minority.

[Reuters]

TIME Pope Francis

Pope Francis Kicks Off Holy Land Visit in Jordan

JORDAN-VATICAN-RELIGION-POPE
Pope Francis blesses the crowd before celebrating a mass at the Amman stadium in the Jordanian capital on May 24, 2014. Khalil Mazraawi—AFP/Getty Images

The Pontiff's historic, three-day journey to the Middle East begins with a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman. In a papal first, he is traveling with both a rabbi and an imam

Pope Francis arrived in Amman, Jordan on Saturday morning, kicking off a jam-packed three-day trip to the Holy Land.

In his first official visit to the region, the Pontiff will meet with King Abdullah II, then celebrate mass at the International Stadium, visit the site of Jesus’ baptism, and meet with refugees from neighboring Syria and Iraq. On Sunday, he will take a helicopter to Bethlehem in the West Bank, then head to Jerusalem later that night.

As TIME’s Elizabeth Dias writes, the Pontiff’s reputation as a trend-bucker will be on display throughout the trip. He has refused to use a bulletproof car and is traveling with an imam and a rabbi, marking the first time an official papal delegation has included members of other faiths.

The Pope’s visit is under particular scrutiny from Palestinians, many of whom are Christian, who are hoping that he will spotlight the Israeli occupation. Francis has emphasized that the pilgrimage to the region is for “strictly religious” purposes, but his decision to fly directly into the West Bank rather than go through Israel’s security barrier from Jerusalem has already drawn note.

“We feel he has been able to speak about the poor in Latin America,” Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest, told TIME ahead of the trip. “Now we would like to see him speak about the oppressed in Palestine.”

Christians in the region are also hoping that the Pope’s visit might rejuvenate the dwindling minority of Christians in the region.

But the Pope, who was TIME’s Person of The Year in 2013, is set to meet with representatives of many faiths and groups. He is expected to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday and with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday.

TIME Religion

Pope Francis Visits Jordan, Israel, Palestine: Expect the Unexpected

Pope Francis
Pope Francis Leads his General weekly Audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on May 21, 2014. Alessandra Benedetti—Corbis

In a region where politics and religion have been enmeshed for centuries, the Pope's simplest actions will carry both spiritual and social weight. It will be the first time that an official papal delegation will include members of other faiths—an imam and a rabbi

Pope Francis hasn’t even left for his weekend tour of the Holy Land and his trip is already breaking with tradition.

He won’t use a bulletproof car, unlike most every head of state to visit the region, opting instead for an open-top vehicle. He has invited an imam and a rabbi to travel with him—the first time an official papal delegation has included members of other faiths; Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, a leader of Argentina’s Islamic community, are the Pope’s longtime friends from Argentina. He’s also emphasizing that his trip is a pilgrimage with a “strictly religious” purpose, as he said in his general audience on Wednesday.

Pope Francis is also packing an enormous amount into a short weekend: three regions in three days, and at least 13 speeches or homilies.

On Saturday, he flies to Amman, Jordan, where he will meet King Abdullah II, whom he has already met with twice at the Vatican, celebrate mass at the International Stadium, visit the site of Jesus’ baptism, and meet with refugees. Sunday morning he will helicopter to Bethlehem in the West Bank. There he will meet with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, whom he met in Rome last October, and then celebrate mass in Manger Square, tour the Church of the Nativity that marks Christ’s birthplace, and meet with children from the refugee camps of Deheisheh, Aida, and Beit Jibrin.

Sunday evening he will head to Jerusalem and meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. On Monday, he will visit the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the Western Wall, and Yad Vashem. He will spend time with the two Chief Rabbis, and with Israel’s president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To wrap it all up, he will meet with men and women religious in the church of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives, celebrate mass one more time, and then depart for Rome at 8 p.m.

The rigorous schedule aside, the trip’s unexpected and symbolic moments may be the most significant. The Holy Father has made it clear that, in all things, the church must affirm mercy, and no doubt that theme will emerge again this weekend. Francis is a canny operator, aware that saying mass at the island of Lampedusa indicates that the Vatican stands with the immigrant, or that washing the feet of Muslim women pushes the church towards humility. This trip’s immediate focus may not be political, but in a region where politics and religion have been enmeshed for centuries, it is hard to imagine that even his simplest actions—where he celebrates mass, for whom he prays, and what or whom he blesses—will not carry both spiritual and social weight.

Anticipation for what is to come, both planned and unexpected, is running high. Jordan has a website, far more sophisticated than the Vatican’s, dedicated solely to the less-than-24-hours visit. Israel has assigned an extra 8,000 officers to security detail in Jerusalem. For now, however, Francis has asked people worldwide to simply pray. He has two prayer requests: one, for his meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who represents the Eastern churches, and two, for peace in the region. The land, as he said in his Wednesday audience, “has suffered greatly.”

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