TIME Syria

See the Ancient Syrian City of Palmyra That Was Just Captured by ISIS

The Syrian town of Palmyra is home to Roman ruins, which experts fear ISIS could destroy

After months of fierce fighting, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) captured the town of Palmyra northeast of Syria’s capital Damascus on Thursday, leaving the group in control of more than half of the country’s territory—and raising fears among experts that its fighters will begin smashing spectacular ancient sites.

Read more: ISIS Must Be Stopped From Destroying Ancient City, U.N. Says

TIME Middle East

Iran Challenges U.S. and Saudi Arabia by Sending Aid Ship to Rebels in Yemen

A Saudi border guard watches as he stands in a boat off the coast of the Red Sea on Saudi Arabia's maritime border with Yemen, near Jizan April 8, 2015.
Faisal Nasser—Reuters A Saudi border guard watches as he stands in a boat off the coast of the Red Sea on Saudi Arabia's maritime border with Yemen, near Jizan April 8, 2015.

A Saudi-led coalition is trying to defeat an insurrection against the Yemeni government that they believe is partly funded by Iran

An Iranian aid ship has entered the Gulf of Aden in a direct challenge to Saudi Arabia and the United State’s blockade of Yemeni ports, Iranian media has reported.

The Iran Shahed is carrying 2,500 tons of aid and is bound for the port of Hodeidah, which is controlled by the Shiite Houthi rebels. The ship was chartered by the Red Crescent Society of Iran and its passengers include a medical team, journalists and anti-war activists. Saudi Arabia has vowed that it will not allow Iranian ships to dock in any of Yemen’s ports to prevent the supply of arms to the Houthis.

In April, a convoy of Iranian ships that Iran claimed contained aid turned back from Yemen after their route was blocked by the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. A few days later an Iranian aid plane was forced to turn back when Saudi jets bombed the airport in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a’s airport to prevent it from landing.

Saudi Arabia is worried about the increasing influence of Iran in the Middle East. Iran wields great influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq with the help of proxies such as Hizballah.

This time Iran has asked its navy, which has a small convoy on an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, to provide special protection for the ship. The Iranian military has warned it will retaliate if the Iran Shahed is prevented from reaching Yemen. “Both the new rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United States should pay attention, if they keep on hindering the Islamic Republic of Iran from sending aid, an inferno will arise that they will most certainly not be able to extinguish,” Masoud Jazayeri, a General in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, told Iranian TV last week. “I am distinctly stating that the patience of Iran has limits, if the Iranian aid ship is prevented from reaching Yemen then they [Saudi Arabians/United States] should expect actions from us.”

The ship is due to meet the Iranian convoy and then head into the Red Sea before arriving in Hoedeidah on May 21. However the ship’s passengers do not seem worried about future conflict. “During the day we all have something to do, in my case send in reports when I can with the unreliable internet we’ve got, but in the evenings we all gather up and play games and have fun. The crew says they can hear our laughter throughout the ship,” said Mehdi Bakhtiari, a journalist with Iran’s Fars News Agency.

Bakhtiari, who was speaking via satellite phone from the deck of the ship, said their vessel was approached by a ship on Sunday morning, which requested information by radio. “It kept a 6-mile distance and asked our port of origin and destination and followed us for some time. But when our ship’s captain asked it to identify itself it just said it is part of the coalition and didn’t say whether it was the anti-piracy coalition or the Saudi-led coalition.”

Bakhtiari said he had seen no arms on board the ship “We asked to be shown the cargo as soon as we got onboard. We went over all of the containers, we even took pictures and film, and it’s just rice, grain, bottled water and antibiotics, there are no weapons on board this ship.”

TIME Middle East

Saudi-Led Coalition Air Strikes Resume in Yemen

(SANAA, Yemen)—Yemeni security officials and witnesses say Saudi-led coalition airstrikes targeting Shiite rebels have resumed in the southern port city of Aden after the end of a five-day humanitarian ceasefire.

The ceasefire expired at 11 p.m. Sunday (2000 GMT, 4 p.m. EDT), and the coalition airstrikes hit rebel positions and tanks in several neighborhoods of Aden, the officials said. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, and the witnesses requested anonymity because they feared reprisals.

Since late March, Saudi Arabia has led airstrikes against the Shiite Houthi rebels and allied military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The air campaign is aimed at weakening the Houthis and restoring ousted President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country in March.

TIME Middle East

These 5 Facts Explain the Troubled U.S.-Arab Relationship

Obama Hosts Gulf Cooperation Council Summit at Camp David
Kevin Dietsch—AP Obama encourages Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah to make a statement alongside Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, following the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. summit at Camp David on May 14, 2015.

A summit in Camp David shows the growing gap between the U.S. and its Arab allies, thanks to changing oil politics and aging leaders

President Barack Obama just concluded a two day summit with America’s Arab allies. The meeting wrapped up a rocky week that started when Saudi Arabia’s King Salman publicly withdrew from the summit and sent his son and his young nephew in his place. These 5 stats explain the tense relationship between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies, and the challenges those alliances will face going forward.

1. It’s the Oil, Stupid.

Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia comprise the grouping of monarchies in the Persian Gulf known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). They are all major oil producers, with Saudi Arabia the heavyweight of the lot. Together they account for 24% of the world’s crude oil production. But after decades of critical dependence on their oil, America, thanks largely to the mid-2000s shale boom, has surpassed Saudi Arabia and Russia to lead the world in oil production. The GCC has felt this acutely—Saudi Arabia saw its oil exports to the US plummet 23.74% between 2008 and 2014. The Saudis are not content to take this lying down. Riyadh is busy ramping up its own production (achieving a record high of 10.3 million barrels per day this past April) in an effort to drive down oil and price more expensive U.S. shale producers out of the global market.

(Middle East Monitor, Bloomberg, Energy Information Administration, Financial Times)

2. The Paradox of Plenty

While Saudis are increasing production largely to strengthen their long-term market position, the gambit poses significant short-term risks. Oil prices had already been tumbling for months, and the price of oil directly affects economies like that are heavily reliant upon the commodity. 45% of Saudi Arabia’s GDP comes directly from oil and gas, 40% of the UAE’s, and around 50-60% each for Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. By keeping production high, Saudi Arabia is helping to keep oil prices low.

Economists often talk about the “resource curse,” when a country’s abundance of natural resources stunts the rest of its economy. In a healthy and balanced economy, the private sector should drive research, development and innovation. But only 20% of Bahraini nationals work in the private sector. The rest of the GCC are worse: a pitiful 0.5% of UAE nationals have the misfortune of private employment. The GCC countries have relied so long on oil that their workforces can’t compete in a globalized world. The ruling powers are keenly aware of this fact.

(Forbes, OPEC – UAE, OPEC – Qatar, OPEC – Kuwait, EIA, Al Jazeera)

3. Arab Spring, Still Blooming?

The GCC countries had a front-row seat to the Arab Spring. Beginning in 2011, countries throughout the Arab World erupted in demonstrations and protests, even bleeding into Bahrain and Kuwait. One of the main drivers of the movement was mass unemployment, which afflicts the affluent GCC as well. Ernst & Young estimates that unaddressed unemployment of youths aged 20-24 could eventually reach 40% across GCC member states. Those are numbers ripe for revolution.

The only thing scarier than the uprisings to the Gulf monarchs must have been the U.S. response to them. For years the understanding was that so long as the Gulf countries would keep the world market flush with oil, the U.S. would provide them with protection. Egypt had a variation of this type of relationship with Washington, but Obama wasted little time in throwing Hosni Mubarak under the bus in 2011—at least as the GCC see it. If Egypt could be sacrificed at the altar of democracy, why couldn’t Saudi Arabia be next?

(Bloomberg, Ernst & Young)

4. The Threat of Iran

Looming over the GCC Summit is America’s reengagement with Iran. Washington’s greatest leverage over Tehran is the possibility of lifting sanctions in exchange for a nuclear deal. Experts estimate that Iran’s economy could grow anywhere from 2% to 5% in the first year after lifting sanctions, and then 7-8% the following 18 months. Those are rates on par with the remarkable growth of the ‘Asian Tigers’ in the 1990s.

It’s not just the additional economic competition that worries the GCC. Saudi Arabia has spent the better part of the last decade combatting Iran’s influence across Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, even Bahrain—the end of sanctions would give Tehran additional financing to escalate the regional rivalry. Further destabilizing the region are serious threats posed by groups like ISIS. This is why the GCC sought a formal, Japan-style security alliance with the U.S. The leaders who showed up in Washington couldn’t get the pact they wanted—a treaty requiring Congressional approval is a nonstarter—but they did get assurances of America’s continued military support and significant arms sales.

(Financial Times, Vox, Reuters, Economist)

5. Age Matters

The absence of the Saudi king, along with his counterparts from the UAE, Bahrain and Oman, sent the message that the status quo in the Middle East cannot continue. Their snub of Obama was intended to project an image of strength in the region. But the reality is that the oil-dependent GCC countries have serious structural problems that will take generations to solve. Instead of dealing with four rulers with an average age of 75, Obama sat across from representatives with an average age of 56. This younger generation is poised to lead their countries for decades to come. After 70 years of intense engagement, it is clear that the GCC countries need America as much as ever. The question is how much America needs them.

(Crown Prince Court – UAE, Kingdom of Bahrain (a), Kingdom of Bahrain (b) AlJazeera, Reuters, BBC, Forbes, Al-Monitor, White House )


Why the Gulf States No Longer Trust America

President Barack Obama sits with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, left center, Secretary of State John Kerry, right center, and other Gulf Cooperation Council leaders and delegations at Camp David, Md., on May 14, 2015.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP President Barack Obama sits with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, left center, Secretary of State John Kerry, right center, and other Gulf Cooperation Council leaders and delegations at Camp David, Md., on May 14, 2015.

Arab Gulf leaders meeting with President Barack Obama at Camp David this week are expected to seek big security guarantees from the United States. Some states want new, advanced weaponry such as the F-35 fighter jet and Gulf diplomats in Washington said they wanted a formal defense treaty with the United States.

For its part, the Obama Administration has said the Camp David summit will focus on defense cooperation on ballistic missile defense, cyber warfare, and terrorism. Washington is also expected to argue that a negotiated nuclear deal with Iran won’t allow that country to secure atomic weapons.

But as the leaders sit down at Camp David, Gulf countries’ concerns over Iran are more than just nuclear weapons.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are likely to highlight what they see as a dangerous rise in Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. Since 2011, Tehran has backed both state- and non-state actors that Riyadh argues have destabilized the region: Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon’s Hizballah, Shiite militias in Iraq, and most recently Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, which is now leading a coalition of countries fighting the Houthis in Yemen, fears any U.S. rapprochement with Iran would only embolden Tehran’s proxies.

“The U.S. silence against the Iranians has encouraged Tehran to do more, because they think no one will stop them,” argues Mohammed al-Sulami, a fluent Farsi speaker and assistant professor of Iranian history and literature at Saudi Arabia’s Umm al-Qura University. “Now, with the nuclear negotiations, if they reach a final agreement, how would Iran react? With more money they can do more to help their proxies throughout the region.”

As long as the U.S is warming to Tehran, few promises or handshakes are likely to reassure leaders in Riyadh, Doha, or Abu Dhabi, who see Washington’s role in the Middle East in decline. These countries have been frustrated by the U.S.’s rapid pullout of Iraq, its reticence to intervene in Syria, and its general dismissal of an Iranian threat.

“It’s almost clear what Obama will tell them [the Gulf leaders]: that we are as committed to your security as we used to be, and now you should do your homework. In the end, Iran is your neighbor, so it’s up to you to create the balance with it,” says Awadh al-Badi, an advisor in the office of former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal.

“The issue is that reassurances aren’t convincing anymore. We already experienced what it means when the U.S. leaves its responsibilities — that’s what happened in Iraq, when American troops pulled out and left the country to thuggish political forces.”

Saudi Arabia’s concerns about rival Iran may not find a welcome audience in Washington. In Iraq, as well as in Syria, and Yemen, Iranian allied Shiite militias are in some cases fighting against a common enemy: terrorist groups including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.

Oman, the state that helped broker the initial discussions between Tehran and Washington, is also unlikely to agree with Riyadh’s view. Instead, Muscat has long argued that bringing Iran in from the cold will open up new diplomatic channels on the regions’ myriad crises.

But Saudi leaders are likely to make the argument to Obama that Iran will always do more harm than good: Even as they battle groups like ISIS, Iranian proxies drive recruits to the their arms. Shiite militias in Iraq, for example, have undertaken reprisal attacks against Sunni civilians, who see no choice but to turn to ISIS for protection.

Other Iranian allied forces in the region have been implicated in gross human rights abuses too. Syria’s Assad regime for example, with the help of fighters from Hizballah, has killed tens of thousands of civilians and sent jets to bomb civilian areas. Most recently, U.N. and American officials have indicated that Damascus is using chlorine gas against its enemies and the many civilians nearby.

“The U.S. has the wrong definition of terrorism in the Middle East. They include all the Sunni groups, but you have to equally look at the Quds force, the Iraqi Shia militias, Hizballah, and the Houthis,” says Sulami. “These groups are actually more dangerous because they are backed by a state — Iran.”

Whether it gets what it wants at Camp David or not, Saudi Arabia in particular may be more willing to veer away from its U.S. allies in the region, taking security into its own hands. While highly dependent on U.S. military equipment, the Saudi military is increasingly capable of fighting on its own. And increasingly willing to do so.

“Saudi Arabia under King Salman will not really wait for other countries to come and help,” says a Riyadh-based Saudi analyst and academic, who declined to be named. “We will act according to norms and prudence, but we have to look out for our interests, without waiting for approval.”

The reporting for this story was undertaken with the support of a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting

TIME Jordan

U.S.-Led Coalition Begins Training Syrian Rebels to Fight ISIS

Rebel fighters from the "First Battalion" under the Free Syrian Army take part in a military training on May 4, 2015, in the rebel-held countryside of the northern city of Aleppo.
Baraa Al-Halabi—AFP/Getty Images Rebel fighters from the "First Battalion" under the Free Syrian Army take part in a military training on May 4, 2015, in the rebel-held countryside of the northern city of Aleppo.

About 350 American forces will help train rebels in Jordan and three other countries

(WASHINGTON) — After months of delays and vetting, the training of Syrian rebels has started in Jordan as part of a broader effort to build a force capable of fighting Islamic State extremists, U.S. and Jordanian officials said Thursday.

Jordan is the first of four training sites to begin the instruction. The others are in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and Turkish officials have said that the training would start this weekend.

More than 3,750 Syrian fighters have volunteered for the training, and about 400 have completed the prescreening. U.S. officials have previously said that each training class could have up to 300 participants.

Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed Momani told The Associated Press that the program to train the Syrians started “a few days ago.

“Jordan confirms that the war against terrorism is our war, and it’s the war of the Muslims and Arabs, first and foremost, to protect our interests and the security of our countries, peoples and the future of our children, and to defend our tolerant religion, ” he said.

There are about 450 coalition forces involved in the training at the four sites, including about 350 Americans.

U.S. officials discussed the program on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the training publicly.

The U.S. has spent months vetting the fighters to try to make sure that any enemy combatants or extremists are weeded out. Pentagon officials have said it would be a very deliberative process that initially identified specific rebel groups and then moved to a lengthy vetting program that checks each fighter individually.

The rebel fighters, who come from several moderate groups in Syria, will get training on basic military equipment and skills, including firearms, communications and command and control abilities.

The U.S. military has been launching targeted airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq since August, and expanded the campaign into Syria in September. The group has declared a self-styled Islamic state ruled by its strict religious views in territory it seized across much of Iraq and Syria, marked by a brutal campaign of mass murders, beheadings, torture and slavery.

Congress passed legislation authorizing the military to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels, providing $500 million for the U.S. to train about 5,000 fighters over the next year.

Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Jordan contributed to this report.

TIME europe

These 5 Facts Explain Europe’s Deadly Migrants Crisis

Ship with large number of undocumented migrants runs aground at Rhodes
Loukas Mastis—EPA Illegal migrants arriving at Zefyros beach at Rhodes island, Greece, April 20, 2015.

Over 1,500 migrants have died trying to reach Europe—and the numbers are only likely to increase unless the EU takes real action

On April 19, more than 600 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean when their boat capsized on its way from Africa to Italy. On April 12, about 400 people died in a separate shipwreck. So far in 2015, 1,600 migrants have lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean, and authorities fear that the number will surge as the weather warms. These five stats explain the rising tide of migration problems for Europe and for the desperate migrants of Africa and the Middle East.

1. Political Refugees Fleeing to Europe

EU member states received 216,300 applications for asylum last year. A large number of these asylum seekers are fleeing from Syria (civil war), Eritrea (dictatorship) and Mali (another civil war). Many of them are officially recognized as “refugees” by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a status that affords certain legal protections. But navigating the red tape takes time. Rather than waiting for a reluctant host country to take them in, many of these refugees entrust their fates to smugglers. As we’ve seen time and again, this can lead to tragic results.


2. Trouble on the Rise

75% of migrant deaths worldwide occur in the Mediterranean Sea. Europe has already seen a 43% increase in migrants through the first two months of 2015, and peak migration season (typically May through September) hasn’t yet begun. In 2014, the top countries of origin of people attempting to enter Europe by sea were Syria (67,000), Eritrea (34,000), Afghanistan (13,000) and Mali (10,000). Currently, an estimated 600,000 people are waiting in Libya to emigrate, according to Vox. These people represent three years worth of migration to Europe at the present rate.

(Guardian, BBC, Economist, VOX)

3. The Insufficient European Response

Even for those migrants who safely reach European shores, their troubles are far from over. The EU requires that asylum petitions be processed by the country in which migrants first arrive. As a result, southern countries such as Malta, Italy and Greece have found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of incoming migrants, while richer northern countries receive relatively few. Until last year, Italy had a program in place to find and rescue migrant ships, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Italy had to spend $9.7 million a month to fund the program, and so turned to the rest of Europe for help. The United Kingdom and others made it clear that they would not offer support for rescue operations, for fear doing so would encourage more people to attempt to make the dangerous sea crossing. This past fall, the EU’s border patrol agency Frontex took over responsibility from Italian authorities—with a budget that is about a seventh of what Italy was spending on its own.

(FiveThirtyEight, VOX, Economist)

4. Turkey Stands Apart

While Italy and the rest of the EU struggle, neighboring Turkey has been busy hosting 1.6 million displaced Syrians within its borders, or about half the people who have fled that country since the fighting began there nearly four years ago. Taking in refugees is not cheap; the total cost to Turkey is estimated to be $4.5 billion and rising. Turkey has introduced new regulations to give the Syrians a more robust legal status in the country, which includes access to basic services like health care and education. But Istanbul has stopped short of granting these migrants official refugee status, which would provide them with additional social services.

(New York Times, World Bulletin)

5. Rise in Xenophobia

The cost of taking in migrants is not measured only in dollars or euros. As Europe’s economy has struggled to rebound, anti-immigrant attitudes have risen across the continent. In a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2014, a median of 55% of Europeans surveyed wanted to limit immigration. The percentages were much higher in struggling countries like Greece (86%) and Italy (80%). The rise in xenophobia has propelled new far-right parties to the political forefront, and older parties like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France are looking to play a much larger role in their countries’ politics in years to come. As long as high-unemployment persists in the Euro region, rising xenophobia in EU countries will be an important driver in shaping EU migrant policy.

(New York Times, Pew Research Center)

TIME Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How a Marvel Comic Hero Became the Icon of the Fight Against ISIS

The Punisher skull logo seen painted on the helmet of an Iraqi army soldier patrolling in Baghdad in 2007.
Patrick Baz—AFP/Getty Images The Punisher skull logo seen painted on the helmet of an Iraqi army soldier patrolling in Baghdad in 2007.

The creator of The Punisher says he is 'flabbergasted' by the appropriation of his image by Iraqi fighters

The stencils of skulls on the vests of Iraqi fighters entering Tikrit last week may look familiar to many Americans. The long fanged, wincing face is that of the Punisher, a Marvel comic character whose mission is to fight evil employing all means necessary.

The Punisher’s journey from the mind of a Californian comic-book writer to the battle for Tikrit has been a long one. He was created 40 years ago as an anti-hero cameo for a Feb. 1974 edition of The Amazing Spider-Man.

“The Punisher was originally conceived as a secondary, one-issue, throw-away character,” says Gerry Conway who created the Punisher along with artists John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru. “But readers really responded to him. He was sort of like an anti-villain, as opposed to an anti-hero.”

In his regular life the Punisher is Frank Castle, a veteran of the Vietnam War whose family was killed in the crossfire of a mob dispute. Angry that the police fail to bring his family’s killers to justice, Castle takes the law into his own hands as the Punisher, using torture, murder and kidnapping in his anti-crime crusade. For the Punisher the ends justify the means in fighting evil.

“That is paralleling the Shi’ite militia,” says Aymenn al-Tamimi, a researcher at the Philadelphia-based think tank Middle East Forum.

As a poorly-guided vigilante the Punisher is a well-suited icon for the Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite militia that have been accused of looting towns, burning homes and murder in their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Italian journalist Daniele Raineri documented the popularity of the Punisher image throughout Iraq in a series of tweets last week.

“I think they forget the American association and just think, ‘oh, look how cool we are with these death skulls’,” says Tamimi. He points out that Iraqis appropriate “American symbols, despite of course the rampant anti-Americanism particularly with the Shi’ite militias. It’s an interesting discord.”

These Iraqi fighters are not the first Middle East militants to appropriate American insignia. Tamimi points to the example of the Iraqi Shiite militia Faylaq al-Wa’ad al-Sadiq, which uses the famous image of American soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II on their logo—despite its association with the U.S.

Faylaq al-Wa’ad al-Sadiq “is about as anti-American has you can get. It was a proxy group set up to attack U.S. forces in the days of the Iraq war,” says Tamimi. “‘I think they come to the point where they forget about the American connection and they just see these as general symbols of military might and strength.”

In the case of the Punisher, it was actually U.S. soldiers that first brought him to the battlefield in Iraq. The unit of Chris Kyle, the American Sniper, called themselves the Punishers, labeling their gear with the four-fang skull and painting it on walls of Iraqi homes and buildings to mark their territory.

“He righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him,” wrote Kyle in his autobiography, which details his life as the U.S.’s most deadly sniper. “We spray-painted it on our Hummers and body armor, and our helmets and all our guns. We spray-painted it on every building or wall we could, We wanted people to know, We’re here and we want to f**k with you.”

For Conway, the appropriation of his comic character by gun-toting soldiers and militiamen is uncomfortable, if not depressing.

MarvelPunisher Vol 6 #9

“I was an anti-war person. I argued against it and certainly wrote against it,” says Conway who was 21-years-old when he invented the character. At the time he filed for conscious objector status before being excused from the draft for the Vietnam War on medical grounds. “We’d probably be considered the weak-kneed hippies they’d want to punch out.”

Perhaps the strangest thing for Conway is how popular the Punisher has become despite the character’s moral ambiguity and violent actions. People wearing t-shirts with the skull emblem regularly approach Conway at comic-book conventions, proclaiming the Punisher is their favorite character.

“In my mind he’s not a good guy,” say Conway.

However, Conway says he can understand how the Punisher may appeal to soldiers and militiamen who risk their lives for a cause in sometimes morally difficult situations.

“Here’s a guy that never questions himself. He never asks, ‘am I doing the right thing?’ say Conway. “I think there is something really attractive about that to people.”

It was so attractive, that in Kyle’s memoir he notes that his unit’s sister platoon had wanted to use the Punisher also.

“We told them we are the Punishers. They had to get their own symbol,” wrote Kyle. But while they might have stopped their American comrades from adopting the Punisher, they clearly had no control over the Iraqi fighters of today. And Conway has no control at all over who uses his character.

“I’m flabbergasted by the whole thing,” says Conway. “It’s very strange for me as creator to see this. Nobody asked my permission.”

Read next: The New Spider-Man Will Be a Teenage Peter Parker, Again

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TIME Middle East

U.N. Warns of ‘Slaughter’ in ISIS-Held Refugee Camp

Palestinian refugees demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinians in Yarmouk refugee camp, overrun by Islamic State militants last week, in the Ein el-Hilweh camp near the southern city of Sidon, Lebanon, Lebanon, on Apr. 10, 2015.
Mohammed Zaatari—AP Palestinian refugees demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinians in Yarmouk refugee camp, overrun by Islamic State militants last week, in the Ein el-Hilweh camp near the southern city of Sidon, Lebanon, Lebanon, on Apr. 10, 2015.

ISIS controls roughly half of the Palestinian refugee camp in Syria

The United Nations warned Friday of a “potential massacre” in the Palestinian refugee camp in Syria that was partially seized by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

ISIS now controls roughly half of the Yarmouk camp, which is home to some 18,000 people, according to the U.N.

“Today, this hour, we are looking at nothing short of the potential massacre of the innocents,” Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said in a call with journalists on Friday.

“We have called for a cease-fire,” Gunness said. “We have called for humanitarian access so that people can have aid administered to them where they are.”

The camp is located in the outskirts of the capital Damascus, which is mostly controlled by government forces.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon warned that the refugee camp “is beginning to resemble a death camp.”

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