TIME Syria

Syrian Government Increases Barrel Bombing, Rights Group Claims

A civil-defense member looks for survivors at a site hit by what activists said were two barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad in the Syrian city of Aleppo on July 27, 2014 Hamid Khatib—Reuters

Human Rights Watch calls on Russia and China to quit blocking action against the regime, as U.N. Security Council meets on Wednesday

The Syrian government has increased its use of barrel bombs since the U.N. passed a resolution on Feb. 22 ordering all parties to the conflict in Syria to end this and other indiscriminate use of weapons on civilians, Human Rights Watch (HRW) claims. The rights group now calls on the U.N. Security Council to take immediate action as it meets on Wednesday for its fifth round of reports on the resolution.

“Month after month, the Security Council has sat idly by as the government defied its demands with new barrel-bomb attacks on Syrian civilians,” HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement. “Russia and China need to allow the Security Council to show the same resolve and unanimity it brought to the issue of humanitarian aid to call a halt to these deadly attacks on civilians.”

Barrel bombs are large oil drums, gas cylinders or other containers filled with explosives and scrap metal, which are released from helicopters. On detonation, they tend to create more substantial destruction of buildings than other types of air strikes and artillery fire. The use of barrel bombs in Syria picked up in December last year, when over 500 people were killed by the devices in Aleppo.

HRW has documented over 650 new damage sites consistent with barrel-bomb impacts in Aleppo neighborhoods held by groups fighting the Syrian government in the 140 days since the U.N. resolution was enacted — 270 more sites than what was documented in the preceding 113 days. Now the group urges the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on all groups implicated in widespread or systematic human-rights abuses, as well as sanctions against individuals implicated in these violations.

They especially call attention to the obstruction of Security Council action by Russia and China, which in May also vetoed a resolution to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

“Barrel bombs, car bombs, and indiscriminate mortar fire are killing thousands of Syrians — many times the number of those who lost their lives in chemical-weapon attacks,” said Whitson. “What will it take to get Russia and China to allow the Security Council to enforce its own words, and take real steps to address these unlawful attacks?”

TIME North Korea

North Korea Denies Selling Missiles to Hamas

SKOREA-NKOREA-MILITARY-MISSILE
Visitors walk past replicas of a North Korean Scud-B missile, right, and South Korean Hawk surface-to-air missiles, left, at the Korean War Memorial in Seoul on March 3, 2014 Jung Yeon-Je—AFP/Getty Images

Earlier report by British newspaper claimed a secret weapons deal was in the works

On Dec. 12, 2009, a Georgia-registered cargo plane made an emergency landing in Bangkok. The manifest said it was carrying drilling equipment, but working on a tip from U.S. intelligence, Thai authorities decided to check. Inside the hold, they found some 35 tons of North Korean–made weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, rocket launchers and grenades. Officials said the plane was likely bound for Iran, and its cargo to Hamas and Hizballah.

North Korea’s international reputation has become so tied to Kim Jong Un memes that it is easy to lose sight of the country’s real-life role in the global arms trade. Starved for foreign currency, North Korea has a long history of manufacturing and selling weapons, including, according to U.S. officials, deals with Syria and Iran. Earlier this month, a U.S. judge found North Korea and Iran liable for missile attacks by Hizballah in 2006. On July 28, the U.N. imposed sanctions on the North Korean company that operated a ship carrying undeclared Cuban weapons that was seized by Panama authorities last year.

Now a British newspaper says North Korea is negotiating a secret deal to sell missiles to Hamas. On July 26, the Daily Telegraph’s Con Coughlin published a report claiming that Hamas paid the Hermit Kingdom “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for missiles and communication equipment in a deal brokered by a Lebanon-based security company. The story was based on information from an unnamed Western security official who reportedly told the London-based paper that “Pyongyang already has close ties with a number of militant Islamist groups in the Middle East.”

The report has not been independently confirmed; however, it would, theoretically, make sense for both parties. Thanks to U.N. sanctions, the market for North Korean weapons is shrinking, says Daniel Pinkston, a Northeast Asia expert at the International Crisis Group. “The incentives are there to sell arms to earn hard currency,” he says, and amid the ongoing conflict with Israel, “Hamas has an incentive to buy.” But there are still a lot questions: If the report is true, when, where and how would the deal take place?

For its part, North Korea denied any involvement — and did so, of course, with exactly the kind of verbose bluster that fuels the North Korea meme machine. “This is utterly baseless sophism and sheer fiction let loose by the U.S. to isolate the DPRK internationally,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, according to the state-backed Korean Central News Agency.

The news agency went on to berate Washington for its stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Lurking behind this propaganda is a sinister intention of the U.S. to justify its criminal acts of backing Israel driven into a tight corner by its recent unethical killings in the Gaza Strip.” It is the U.S., it said, not Pyongyang, that is the “kingdom of terrorism and chief culprit of international terrorism.”

TIME Australia

Bloodcurdling Images of Australian Jihadists Puts ‘Lucky Country’ on Edge

Australians protest Israeli attacks in Melbourne
Thousands of people stage a demonstration to protest the Israeli ongoing attacks in Gaza on July 26, 2014, in Melbourne, Australia. Recep Sakar—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Shocking photos emerge amid fears that the worsening conflict in Gaza will only prompt more young radical Muslims to enter the fray

The phenomenon of Australian jihadists fighting in the Middle East took a disturbing new turn last week when photos of a Caucasian man in mujahedin fatigues holding decapitated heads were posted on Twitter.

It follows the uploading last month of a YouTube video by the extremist Sunni group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) of two men with thick Australian accents calling on Westerners to join their violent quest to create a Muslim caliphate.

One of the pair, a teenager from Melbourne identified in the video as Abu Bakr al-Australi, later detonated an explosive belt in a crowded Baghdad marketplace, killing five people and wounding 90 more. He was the second Australian suicide bomber praised by ISIS in recent weeks; an estimated 200 Australian jihadists are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq.

The figure puts Australia in the unenviable position as the highest foreign per capita contributor to the conflict in the Middle East, and providing the largest contingent of foreign fighters from a developed nation. And there are fears that the worsening conflict in Gaza will only prompt more radical young Muslims to enter the fray.

“The government is gravely concerned by the fact that Australian citizens are heading to Iraq and Syria not only to fight but to take leadership roles,” Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in parliament last week. She paused before adding, “There’s a real danger that these extremists also come back home as trained terrorists and pose a threat to our security.”

The man holding the decapitated heads in the Twitter feed turned out to be Khaled Sharrouf, a boxer from Sydney who was jailed for four years in 2005 for his role in planning the most serious terrorist plot Australia has ever seen. Despite his notoriety, Sharrouf managed to flee while on parole in January by using his brother’s passport to board a flight from Sydney to Southeast Asia from where he made his way to Syria.

The security breakdown has made Canberra redouble efforts to protect the nation from jihadists in the event they return home. Earlier this month, the attorney general’s office added ISIS to its list of terrorists organizations, making it a crime for an Australian to join them punishable with up to 25 years imprisonment.

On advice from intelligence agencies, the Foreign Ministry has canceled the passports of 40 Australians suspected of extremist links. More than $700 million in additional funding will be injected into customs and border patrol over the next six years. In 2015 the service will be streamlined under a tough new national-security agency named the Australian Border Force.

Professor Gary Bouma, acting director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Melbourne’s Monash University, agrees that returning jihadists pose “a very serious problem, as they will be ideologically energized.” But he adds some will have been pacified after witnessing the “hideous gore of battle and the unrighteousness of all sides.”

“The first thing that needs to happen is those people need to be reintegrated into society,” Bouma says. “That means counseling, getting them a job and ensuring their cultural and social needs are met. It’s a much healthier approach than isolating them.”

The leader of an Australian Muslim organization who spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity says calling foreign combatants in Syria “terrorists” was wrong, as many had gone there to protect family members from President Bashar Assad’s repressive regime, which has unleashed torture, mass killings, starvation and chemical weapons upon Syrian civilians.

“The idea of them being terrorists just because they go to fight overseas, that is not a fair thing to say,” he says. “It’s also unreasonable to say just because they fought in Syria that they’re going to do the same thing when they come back home. There will always be one or two crazy fanatics among them, but they’re a minority. They’d have to be really misguided to try something here.”

Another community leader, Samier Dandan, president of the Lebanese Muslim Association, has accused the government of double standards by outlawing those who fight in Syria while allowing others, namely members of Australia’s Jewish community, to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

“It’s hard when you say something to one side, and they look and say ‘How come we’re not being treated the same?’ The law should be across everyone,” Dandan told the Australian Associated Press.

However, Rafael Epstein, author of Prisoner X, a book about an Australian lawyer who fought with the IDF and worked as an operative with Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, before going rogue, insists Dandan’s comparison is flawed.

“What he is saying is someone who fights for Israel will be just as radicalized and have just as many [warring] skills to pose a security risk to Australia,” Epstein says. “But the values under which someone would fight for Israel, a democratic country with the rule of law, are very different to the values someone would fight for under ISIS, and they’d be much closer to Australia’s values than ISIS’s.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott agrees. “The best thing we can do … is to ensure that jihadis do not come back to this country,” he said last month.

Whether that will be enough to maintain Australia’s record as one of the few major U.S. military partners in Afghanistan and Iraq to not have suffered a terrorist attack on its own soil remains open for discussion.

“U can’t stop me and trust me if I wanted to attack aus [sic] I could have easily,” tweeted convicted terrorist Khaled Sharrouf in a message taunting Australian federal police posted from the battleground in Syria. “I love to slaughter use [sic] and ALLAH LOVES when u dogs r slaughtered.”

TIME Middle East

Hamas Still Has Some Friends Left

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters at parliament in Ankara, Turkey, July 22, 2014.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters at parliament wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh, in Ankara, July 22, 2014. Burhan Ozbilici—AP

Though Egypt has turned its back on Hamas, other countries are coming in from the cold

With the fighting in Gaza intensifying daily, the ruling militant group Hamas is finding itself pushed to the limit. Trying to match Israel’s vast military might is an impossible task, and even finding the resources to launch rocket attacks against Israeli targets could only be achieved by heavy foreign investment.

But which country wants to invest in Hamas? The West certainly doesn’t. The militant Palestinian organization has been a firm fixture on the United States’ Foreign Terrorist Organizations list since 1997. Hamas’ only hope is its neighbors in the Arab world.

Hamas has two clear allies, according to Middle East experts: Qatar and Turkey. Both have given Hamas their public support and financial assistance estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Qatar also hosts Hamas’ political bureau which includes Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal,” says Shashank Joshi, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “Qatar has a long history of providing shelter to Islamist groups, amongst them the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban.”

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, which came to power in 2002, supports what Joshi calls “other neo-Islamist allies.” Though the Turkish government explicitly rejects the label “Islamist”, their social conservatism is inspired by an Islamic ideology that Hamas shares. Last year, Meshaal visited Turkey and met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for several hours.

Both Qatar — one of the world’s richest states — and Turkey are powerful allies to have, but Hamas might wish for more support given the breadth of the Arab world. It once had it, too. Hamas used to be strongly allied with both Iran and Syria, with the former giving Hamas an estimated $13-15 million a month as recently as 2011, as well as long-range missiles. Hamas’ political bureau used to be based in the Syrian capital of Damascus before its move to Qatar in 2012.

But relations cooled dramatically with Iran and Syria amid sectarian divisions following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Iran, a Shia-majority country, backed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad whose Alawite faith is a branch of Shia Islam. Hezbollah, a powerful Shia Islamist group based in Lebanon, also took Assad’s side.

However Hamas, a Sunni-led faction, sided, as most of the Arab world did, with the rebels. Cue Tehran cutting their allowance, Hezbollah allegedly ordering Hamas members out of Lebanon, and Hamas packing their bags for Qatar.

“Iran’s relationship with Hamas was always problematic,” says Chris Doyle, director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. “Hamas is a Palestinian Sunni group and Iran is Shia. Nevertheless, Hamas was their entry into the issue of Palestine.”

Seeking to regain its influence over this issue, Iran has attempted to foster a reconciliation with Hamas over the last 18 months. Farwaz Gerges, professor on the Middle East at the London School of Economics says the conflict in Gaza is the reason. “The current crisis has brought a kind of rapprochement between Iranian leaders and Hamas.”

Hezbollah too, Gerges notes, has invited Hamas back into the fold. On Monday, the Hezbollah-owned television channel Al Manar reported that Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, praised Meshaal for “the persistence of the Hamas resistance.” The TV station added he “strongly supported their rightful demands to end the current battle.”

Gerges is quick to point out that this doesn’t signal “a return to the warm days of the Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas leaders.” However he adds: “Out of this particular crisis, a new realignment might happen.” That may sound like good news for Hamas, but there’s another Arab country that is of late vehemently opposed to it. That would be Egypt, the largest and most influential country in the Arab world and the one responsible for drafting a potential cease-fire.

From 2012 to 2013, Hamas enjoyed Egypt’s munificence under the leadership of former President Mohamed Morsi, a longtime member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is an offshoot. When Morsi was ousted last year and replaced with Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Hamas knew the good times were over.

“The most devastating thing that has happened to Hamas is the ousting of Mohamed Morsi,” comments Gerges. Sisi, whose government has orchestrated a violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, destroyed Hamas’ tunnel network into Egypt and closed the border crossing at Rafah, devastating Hamas’ finances. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, two of Egypt’s financial backers, are also hostile to Hamas. Like Egypt, they view the Muslim Brotherhood as a clear domestic threat — and Hamas is guilty by association.

But perhaps Hamas doesn’t need Egypt. As the death toll continues to rise in Gaza, there is a groundswell of public sympathy across the Arab world for the group.

“Hamas in terms of people on the street is at the height of its political power in every single Arab country with the exception of Egypt,” says Gerges. “The longer the conflict continues, the more they gain in popularity. And for Hamas, what really matters is the public pulse.”

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 24

1. Ten years after the 9/11 commission urged Congress to simplify oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, the problem is worse. Today, the department deals with 92 Congressional committees. That must change.

By the Sunnylands-Aspen Task Force

2. Operation Lifeline Syria: The International Community must tackle this humanitarian crisis head-on. Here’s how to do it.

By Madeleine Albright and David Miliband in Foreign Policy

3. When enforcement of the Clean Water Act becomes a political football, our communities and the nation’s economy will suffer.

By Naveena Sadasivam in Pro Publica

4. It’s easier to move people than jobs: How better public transport can solve the jobs crisis.

By Danielle Kurtzleben in Vox

5. Drones will change – and monitor – the way food gets from farm to table.

By Mary Beth Albright in National Geographic

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Syria

Cancer Wages Its Own War Against Syrian Refugees

A higher rate of cancer among Syrian refugees is forcing doctors, patients and humanitarian organisations to make difficult decisions about who does, and does not, receive care

+ READ ARTICLE

It was just before Syrian civilians started rising up against their government in 2011 that Fayhaa al-Dahr, 22, from the northern city of Raqqa, noticed a strange swelling in her neck. Doctors advised surgery to excise the tumors growing on her vocal chords, but even though Syria has one of the best government-subsidized medical systems in the Middle East, the operations and the follow-up treatment would be expensive.

To pay for al-Dahr’s care, her father sold some land than had been in the family for generations. When another tumor appeared, he sold more land. By the time the third tumor was taken care of, there was no more land to be sold, and the uprising had turned into a war that made it impossible for al-Dahr to travel to the capital for her chemotherapy appointments. When a rocket destroyed her home in December, al-Dahr and her family saw no choice but to take refuge in neighboring Lebanon. At least there, they believed, al-Dahr could continue her treatments. They were wrong.

Lebanon is host to some 1.1 million Syrian refugees, part of an exodus of 2.9 million seeking shelter from a war that has claimed more than 160,000 lives and has wrought untold damages to the middle-income country. Unlike refugees fleeing conflicts in Africa, where diseases of poverty such as diarrhea, malaria or cholera take their toll, Syrian refugees are afflicted with chronic and costly illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The international humanitarian agencies that provide for refugees the world over simply do not have the funds to treat these diseases, leaving many, like al-Dahr, without access to proper medical care. Her cancer has metastasized, and she now has a tumor in her upper thigh so excruciating, she says, “I am living on painkillers.”

A recent study published in The Lancet Oncology journal documented a high demand for cancer treatments among refugees from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria, with host countries and refugee organizations struggling to find the money and the medicines to help. Cancer, writes Dr. Paul Spiegel, Chief Medical Expert at United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is likely to play a much greater role in refugee care going forward. “Cancer diagnosis and care in humanitarian emergencies typifies a growing trend toward more costly chronic disease care. Something that …. is of increasing importance because the number of refugees is growing.”

As it is, the UNHCR warned on July 3 that the organization had received only 30 percent of its $3.74 billion budget for Syrian refugee programs for this year, a shortfall that would see many vital programs, including health care, slashed.

Al-Dahr’s doctor in Damascus had warned her of the consequences of missing chemotherapy appointments, and when she first arrived in Lebanon, she did try to continue her treatment. But the costs—$1,900—were twice what she paid in Damascus. Her family was able to borrow enough cash to pay for one round in January, but when her Lebanese doctor called a few weeks later to remind her of her follow up, she knew she couldn’t afford another session. “He was very worried about me, and called several times to beg me to come, but there was nothing we could do and nothing he could do.” The doctor may have been willing to volunteer his time and expertise, but the drug and hospital costs are immutable.

“It’s a sad story,” says Dr. Dr. Elie Bechara, an oncologist in Beirut who works with other doctors to treat refugees pro-bono. “We are overwhelmed by these cases from Syria. Sometimes we are standing still, watching, and we are not able to help them. It is frustrating.”

Lebanon boasts some of the finest medical facilities in the Middle East, but nearly 90% are privately run, and most of them are for profit. UNHCR has spent tens of millions of dollars on treatment for refugees at private hospitals, but funds are limited. With the rising number of refugees — 1.5 million, a third of the Lebanese population, are expected to have registered by the end of the year — costs too will rise, forcing UNHCR to choose between funding emergency care and primary health clinics that can save thousands of lives and spending thousands of dollars to save one life.

Last year UNHCR covered medical treatment for 41,500 refugees in Lebanon, but each of those cases was judged on specific criteria: the cost of the intervention against the chances of a positive outcome. “It’s a horrible decision to have to make,” says Spiegel. “If there is a poor prognosis, we can’t go that route. It doesn’t mean the patients won’t get treatment—they may search elsewhere, and sometimes embassies or private donors step in—but we can’t afford to help where there is no hope.”

Palliative care, at least, is not that expensive, adds Spiegel. “We never say, ‘There is nothing we can do, go away.’ We just say we can’t treat the cancer but we will treat the consequences.” Al-Dahr falls into that category. Instead of chemotherapy, she gets painkiller injections at her local pharmacy, and she tries not to dwell on her illness. “When you don’t know what is going to happen, it is better to stay in the present,” she says. “Thinking about the future only brings more problems.”

Given the funding shortages, cases like al-Dahr’s are likely to become more common, says Spiegel. “Syria is our biggest and most expensive operation to date, and there is a question of how long donors will continue supporting it as things get worse. If we continue like this, there will be more like this woman who will not be able to receive treatment.”

Like a cancer patient with a poor prognosis, Syria is starting to look like a hopeless cause, and thus less likely to receive aid.

With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Anjar, Lebanon

TIME Syria

Report: Pentagon Plans Combat Training for Syrian Rebels

Free Syrian Army fighters help a fellow fighter wounded after what they said was clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Morek in Hama province
Free Syrian Army fighters help a fellow fighter wounded after what they said was clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the town of Morek in Hama province, Syria on May 22, 2014. Reuters

But critics say the U.S. plan to train a 2,300-man force would not significantly shape the conflict

The Pentagon has drawn up plans to train a small group of Syrian rebels opposed to the regime of President Bashar Assad in an effort to influence the bloody civil war that has engulfed the country since 2011, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Citing anonymous sources, the Journal reported that defense officials told key congressional committees at closed-door briefings last week that preliminary military estimates call for training a 2,300-man force over an 18-month period.

The fighters would be vetted to ensure they are ideological moderates and not Islamic extremists, who have flocked to the country to fight against Assad’s Shi’ite-aligned forces.

The training would not begin until next year and would require congressional approval.

The plan, which would cost up to $500 million, would also provide military equipment to a pool of additional fighters. Training could be completed in Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, or Jordan, although officials said Jordan has said it fears retribution from the regime of President Bashar Assad and doesn’t want a training program within the country’s borders.

Some Pentagon officials and other critics inside the administration have said President Barack Obama is moving too slowly to aid the moderate Syrian opposition, whose support has dwindled as Assad has gained the upper hand.

“We’re losing ground every day,” Aiad Koudsi, deputy prime minister of the opposition Syrian interim-government, told the Journal. He said the U.S. was moving “very slowly, resulting in undercutting the moderate Free Syrian Army.”

The Obama administration has supplied Syrian rebels with nonlethal aid, including communications equipment and other items, but has hesitated to supply rebels with weapons out of fear they will fall into the hands of extremists.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in April that 150,000 people have been killed in Syria’s Civil War, Reuters reported.

[WSJ]

TIME Syria

Syrian President Assad Sworn in for 3rd Term

(DAMASCUS, Syria) — Proclaiming the Syrian people winners in a “dirty war” waged by outsiders, President Bashar Assad was sworn in on Wednesday, marking the start of his third seven-year term in office amid a bloody civil war that has ravaged the Arab country.

Looking confident and self-assured, occasionally making jokes, Assad declared victory over “terrorism” and said countries that supported the Syrian opposition “will pay a high price.”

The grandiose ceremony at the presidential palace in Damascus caps what has been a recent reversal of fortune on the battlefield for Assad’s forces battling the rebellion against him. In the past year, the 48-year-old leader has managed to seize the momentum in the civil war, with his troops making steady advances on several fronts against outgunned rebels bogged down in infighting.

Syrian state TV broadcast what it said was a live ceremony Wednesday during which Assad took the oath of office. The TV showed Assad arriving at the People’s Palace in the Qassioun Mountain, the scenic plateau that overlooks the capital from the north.

A band played the Syrian national anthem after which Assad was seen walking a red carpet past an honor guard into a hall packed with members of parliament and Christian and Muslim clergyman.

Wearing a dark blue suit and a blue shirt and tie, Assad placed his hand on Islam’s holy book, the Quran, pledging to honor the country’s constitution.

“I swear by the Almighty God to respect the country’s constitution, laws and its republican system and to look after the interests of the people and their freedoms,” he said to thunderous applause from the audience.

He then launched into a speech in which he praised the Syrian people for holding the vote and for “defeating the dirty war” launched on the Syrian people.

“They wanted it to be a revolution but you were the real rebels,” he said. “They failed in trying to brainwash you, or break your will.”

Throughout the crisis, Assad has maintained that the conflict that has torn his nation apart was a Western-backed conspiracy executed by “terrorists” — and not a popular revolt by people inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, seeking democracy and disenchanted with his authoritarian rule.

As the conflict slid into civil war, Assad refused to step down and last month, he was re-elected in a landslide victory in a vote dismissed by the opposition and its Western allies as a sham.

He won 88.7 percent of the ballots cast in the first multicandidate elections in decades. The voting didn’t take place in opposition-held areas of Syria, effectively excluding millions of people from the vote.

Syria’s civil war, now in its fourth year, has killed more than 170,000 people and displaced one third of the country’s population.

Reflecting the security threat surrounding Assad, the inauguration ceremony was for the first time held at the presidential palace and not in the Syrian parliament as has been the tradition.

Syrian TV announced Wednesday morning he would be sworn in at noon. His previous term in office was to expire on Thursday, and he had been widely expected to be sworn in then.

Assad’s wife, Asma, was also in the audience Wednesday, sitting alongside several women in the front row.

“Congratulations for your victory and congratulations for Syria and its people who have defied all kinds of terrorism,” Assad said.

He mocked Arab and regional backers of the Syrian rebels fighting to topple him. “Whoever has supported terrorist whether in the West or the Arabs will pay the price sooner or later,” he said.

Assad did not mention recent developments in Iraq and Syria, where militants from the so-called Islamic State group have taken over large chunks of territory, declaring it a self-styled caliphate.

He vowed, however, to continue to fighting “terrorism” to liberate Syrian cities from rebels, including Aleppo and Raqqa in the northeast. Raqqa is under the full control of Islamic State fighters.

“We will not forget our beloved Raqqa, which we will liberate from the terrorists, God willing.”

TIME Syria

Western Families Struggle With Loss of Relatives to Jihad

Abubaker Deghayes at home in Saltdean, United Kingdom, mourning the death of his son Abdullah, 18, who was killed in Syria after he volunteered with some of his brothers, to fight alongside the rebels in the civil war.
Abubaker Deghayes at home in Saltdean, United Kingdom, mourning the death of his son Abdullah, 18, who was killed in Syria after he volunteered with some of his brothers, to fight alongside the rebels in the civil war. Andy Hall

Some 12,000 foreign fighters from 81 nations are estimated to have entered Syria over the past three years, leaving behind angry and distraught families and friends

Two British men admitted last week to preparing acts of terrorism, after returning from fighting with jihadist militants in Syria. Mohammed Nahin Ahmed and Yusuf Zubair Sarwar, both 22, had been fighting with rebel groups in the country for eight months but were arrested as soon as they set foot back in the U.K.

Intelligence officers, who had been investigating both men for months and amassing significant evidence against them, were first alerted to their whereabouts not by deep embedded sources or intelligence analysts in the field, but by Sarwar’s parents, who acted to protect their son in one of the only ways they had left.

Sarwar’s family is hardly an outlier. Some 12,000 foreign fighters from 81 nations are estimated to have entered Syria over the past three years. Faced with such staggering numbers, intelligence services are increasingly relying on the fighters’ families to supply them with information, who face the agonizing decision of whether to betray a loved one. But how else can you protect your relatives when they’re fighting for groups whose sole purpose is to kill or be killed?

Some families refuse to call the police, instead traveling to the Turkish-Syrian border to beg their relatives to come home. Others contact law-enforcement authorities in the hope they can somehow extract their family member from danger. Many others simply never hear from their loved ones again.

When Amer Deghayes, 20, traveled to Syria with an aid convoy in November 2013, his father Abubaker thought he’d be working in the Atma refugee camp in the north of the country. A few weeks later, Deghayes heard from his son. He’d joined al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaeda.

Struggling with his son’s news, Deghayes was dealt another blow when sons Jafer, 16, and Abdullah, 18, followed their brother at the end of January. “I realized they’d gone on the second day when I saw their passports were missing,” he says. Deghayes traveled to the Turkish border to persuade them to come home, but they refused.

In an April firefight, Amer was shot in the stomach and Abdullah was killed. His father learned of his death on Facebook.

Deghayes, who considers Abdullah a martyr, believes the West bears some responsibility for his son’s death. “Why didn’t the West do something before these organizations popped up like mushrooms? They have the capability to stop this war like they did in Libya … Syria would move the emotions of any Muslim, or anyone who is human.”

That may be why Deghayes refuses to censure his sons Amer and Jafer, who are still fighting in Syria. “They want to help the Syrian people and join the fight against Assad,” he explains. “There are always people who get attracted to what they think is a just cause.”

The boys are nephews of Omar Deghayes, a U.K. resident who was held as an enemy combatant at Guantánamo Bay between 2002 and 2007 before being released without charge.

Some would-be martyrs go to Syria from across the Atlantic. The mother of a Canadian jihadist who calls himself Abu Muhajir spoke exclusively to TIME from Windsor, Ontario, on condition of anonymity, about her son’s departure to Syria.

The man, whose real name is known to TIME, told the New York Times in May that he was a high school science teacher, raised in a religious family in North America, who had decided to wage jihad in Syria with Islamist groups. His mother gives an alternative take of his background.

“We don’t go to mosque, a few times only,” she says. “Before Syria, my son went to Egypt to study Arabic. The Canadian intelligence services got him at the airport and questioned him. They were always after him and interviewed him many times.”

Aware that her son was becoming more secretive, Muhajir’s mother tried to stop the inevitable. “The Canadian police asked for information about my son, they told me to tell them if I saw any changes.”

Then one Sunday in November, Muhajir said he was going to Niagara Falls with a friend. Suspicious, his mother called the authorities. But the police didn’t respond, and intelligence services said they would deal with it on Monday. By the following day, however, her son and his friend had gone. “They let him go,” she says.

Like Deghayes, she speaks to her son regularly online. Audibly upset, she doesn’t know where her son is or whom he is with. “He doesn’t share these things with me because he knows I’m against it,” she says. “I am crying for my son, I am praying for him.”

When TIME contacted Muhajir, he refused to respond to news of his mother’s grief, though he claimed, “Any mother would be upset. But mine isn’t upset”.

“Whenever I ask him how he is, he just says ‘alhamdulillah [praise God],’” says his mother. “He said, ‘Mom I want to stop that oppression because it’s un-Islamic.’” Muhajir has also told his mother he’s working in a humanitarian team and not to worry, she says.

For his mother though, that is easier said than done. “I used to go to al-Jazeera [to read about Syria]. The miserable things I saw, I was always crying and it impacted my health … I am a mother and I have a mother’s heart.”

Her son’s travel companion eventually returned from Syria, dragged back by his wife. In her community, where neighbors fear police monitoring if they’re seen to be sympathetic, Muhajir’s mother is now alone in her grief.

This is not the case in Minnesota, whose Somali population has seen 15 of its young men leave for jihad. In June, Minnesota Public Radio spoke to a Somali-American man who called himself Abdirahmaan Muhumed who had left the Twin Cities for Syria. His brother Abdirahman Ahmed, who has been estranged from his sibling for 10 years, told TIME that his brother’s real name is Abdifatah Ahmed.

Though he spoke to Minnesota Public Radio, Ahmed hasn’t been in contact with his family since he left for Syria in December 2013. They don’t know where he is or whom he’s with, said his niece, who spoke exclusively to TIME on condition of anonymity. “I’ve tried to contact him, but there’s no answer,” she says. “I feel really upset, like I’ve lost my best friend. I was the closest to him and used to see him every day.”

Fiercely protective of her uncle, she declares, “I believe that he’s doing the right thing. I’m supporting him with whatever he decides as long as he’s O.K. He’s always been a believer. I feel like he’s trying to prove a point by fighting for what he believes in.”

Ahmed was one of the first Somali Minnesotans to go. At the end of May, Abdi Mohamud Nur left Burnsville, Minn., for Syria along with 12 other men. He graduated high school only one year before. His elder sister, Ifrah Mohamud Nur, told TIME that she has had no news of her brother’s whereabouts.

Nur believes her brother is fighting chiefly because he has been led astray. In a Facebook status posted shortly after he left, she wrote, “It’s still so unreal that my brother could leave us all behind for what? May Allah … punish these so called Muslims sending young boys to do their dirty work.”

Angry and distraught at her brother leaving home to fight on a foreign battlefield, Nur suggests challenging extremists who might ensnare young minds. “We as a community have to stand up to these [people] or else it’s gonna keep on happening,” she wrote.

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