TIME Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Hong Kong

What’s At Stake in Hong Kong

Voting restrictions and an ever-tightening Chinese policies are causing unrest amongst Hong Kongers

(HONG KONG) — Hong Kong’s leader refused to meet with pro-democracy demonstrators by their midnight deadline Tuesday, despite their threats to expand the protests that have clogged the streets with tens of thousands of people in the stiffest challenge to Beijing’s authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.

Protesters counted down to midnight and cheered as the deadline passed, but took no immediate action.

Britain’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, meanwhile, said Tuesday that he had summoned the Chinese ambassador to discuss the dispute, saying it was essential that Hong Kong’s people have a genuine right to choose their top leader.

“I am extremely concerned about the recent events in Hong Kong. Britain and China have solemn obligations to the people of Hong Kong to preserve their rights and freedoms,” Clegg said in a statement.

China took control of Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that guaranteed the 7 million residents of the city semi-autonomy, Western-style civil liberties and eventual democratic freedoms that are denied to Chinese living on the communist-ruled mainland.

The protesters want a reversal of a decision by China’s government to screen all candidates in the territory’s first direct elections, scheduled for 2017 — a move they view as reneging on a promise that the chief executive will be chosen through “universal suffrage.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s rejection of the student demands dashed hopes for a quick resolution of the five-day standoff that has blocked city streets and forced some schools and offices to close.

It was unclear what action the demonstrators would take next. There were no immediate speeches or official statements from the protesters, who chanted “Jiayou! Jiayou!” — or “Keep it up!” — while waving their cellphones with the LED flashlights sparkling in the dark.

Earlier Tuesday, Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the organizer of the university class boycotts that led to the street protests, said the students were considering various options if their demands were not met, including widening the protests, pushing for a labor strike and occupying a government building.

As concern mounted over how the standoff might eventually end, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has taken a hard line against any perceived threat to the Communist Party’s hold on power, vowed in a National Day speech to “steadfastly safeguard” Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.

China’s government has condemned the student-led protests as illegal, though so far it has not overtly intervened, leaving Hong Kong authorities to handle the crisis.

Despite the hardening rhetoric from both sides, the mood Tuesday night was festive. Few police were evident, and those who were present appeared relaxed. The crowds were expected to grow, with most people off work both Wednesday and Thursday for public holidays.

Both sides appeared to be waiting out the standoff, as police continued the light-handed approach to the protests they adopted after their use of tear gas and pepper spray over the weekend failed to drive out tens of thousands of people occupying streets near the government headquarters. The sit-ins instead spread to the financial district and other areas.

“We are not afraid of riot police, we are not afraid of tear gas, we are not afraid of pepper spray. We will not leave until Leung Chun-ying resigns. We will not give up! We will persevere until the end!” Lester Shum, another student leader, shouted to a crowd at Admiralty, near Hong Kong’s waterfront.

Leung’s blunt rejection of the demands from the students was not surprising. China’s Communist leadership is wary of any conciliatory moves that might embolden dissidents and separatists on the mainland.

Occupy Central, a wider civil disobedience movement, said in a tweet that the pro-democracy protesters were demanding genuine democracy and Leung’s resignation. It said it would “announce new civil disobedience plans” on Wednesday.

Hong Kong’s free press and social media give the protesters exposure that may help prevent China from cracking down in the same way it has on restive minorities and dissidents living in the mainland, where public dissent is often harshly punished.

The protests have been dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution” by some because the crowds have used umbrellas to block the sun and to deflect police pepper spray.

“We are really basically just calling for the government to speak with us but they’ve been mute,” Peter Chin, a 22-year-old student at Hong Kong University. “We’ll keep staying here until they’re ready to consult with us.”

TIME Thailand

Thailand Proposes Tourist Wristbands After Murders Prompt Safety Concerns

Wristbands will contain contact details of hotels if tourists get lost

Thailand’s tourism minister said Tuesday that visitors to the country will receive identification wristbands listing emergency contact information, a heightened safety precaution in the wake of the murders of two British tourists this month.

“When tourists check in to a hotel, they will be given a wristband with a serial number that matches their I.D. and shows the contact details of the resort they are staying in so that if they’re out partying late and, for example, get drunk or lost, they can be easily assisted,” Tourism and Sports Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, who has already approached several hotels about the idea, told Reuters.

Kobkarn added that a “buddy system” that pairs tourists with local guards was being discussed, and that there may be plans for electronic tracking devices in the future.

Concerns over tourist safety in Thailand have increased after beach workers discovered the bodies of British backpackers Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, on Sept. 15 at Koh Tao, a Thai resort island. The brutal slayings—for which no suspects have been identified yet—has prompted discussion over the lack of police presence at tourist destinations like Koh Tao, as well as Thailand’s reputation for both petty and violent crimes involving visitors.

TIME Environment

See How a Siberian Lake Has Almost Disappeared

The Aral Sea has shrunk to a fraction of its original size

Aral Sea
NASA; Gif by Joseph C. Lin for TIME

New photos from NASA show that a lake in Siberia has almost disappeared since 2000, thanks to a Soviet water diversion program from the 1960s.

The Aral Sea, in Uzbekistan, was once the fourth largest lake in the world. Now it’s now a fraction of the size it was in 1960, according to the photographs. Even since 2000, the lake has shrunk dramatically, and seems poised to disappear altogether.

The lake was fed by the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers before the Soviet Union diverted them in the 1960s in order to irrigate the arid deserts in Kazhakstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Since then, the lake has almost completely dried up, which spells disaster for communities that depend on it, and the water has become too salty and polluted to support native fish populations.

Check out the dramatic change between the Aral Sea in 2000 and the Aral Sea today.

TIME Companies

L’Oreal Halts Business Travel to Hong Kong Amid Protests

Hong Kong has been embroiled in protests this week

The cosmetics company L’Oreal said Tuesday that it’s suspending all business travel to Hong Kong amid pro-democracy demonstrations that have brought the city to a standstill, in a troubling sign for the global hub of business and finance.

The company has “a ban on business travel to Hong Kong until October 6,” a spokesperson told AFP.

Hong Kong has been embroiled in protests this week as pro-democracy activists seek concessions from Beijing.

[AFP]

TIME U.K.

U.K. Edges Toward Departure from European Union

Prime Minister David Cameron walks with Mayor of London and Parliamentary candidate Boris Johnson at the Conservative party conference on Sept. 29, 2014 in Birmingham, England.
Prime Minister David Cameron walks with Mayor of London and Parliamentary candidate Boris Johnson at the Conservative party conference on Sept. 29, 2014 in Birmingham, England. Peter Macdiarmid—Getty Images

As Britain's Conservative Party holds its last party conference ahead of May's general elections, the Euroskeptic message looks like a winning one

It’s hard to imagine anything more insular than a British party political conference—except, perhaps, for an island.

The ruling Conservative Party is currently meeting in the U.K.’s second largest city, Birmingham, but delegates tightly ringed by security and focused on the narrow issue of how to win the next election may as well be on a coral atoll for all the connection they have with the wider world.

Events in Hong Kong go unremarked. U.K. participation in the military campaign against ISIS barely merits a mention. A lone protestor standing beyond the crowd barriers bellowed rage against Britain’s fresh involvement in Iraq for hours Monday, but his words whispered in the convention center like distant waves. Even so, events on this artificial island may yet carry global significance. Britain is getting ever closer to the brink of leaving the European Union.

That is the probable outcome if the Conservatives win the U.K. general election next May, as they have pledged to allow Britain’s increasingly Euroskeptic population a referendum on whether to stay or go. Polls suggest a sizeable majority would vote to leave the E.U. under the current terms of membership.

Admittedly a Conservative victory is far from a sure thing in 2015. The Labour Party enjoys a lead of several points in most opinion polls and the Conservatives, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats since 2010, should expect to be punished by voters for implementing painful austerity policies that have reduced the budget deficit (but not by as much as they promised). But even though Labour may look like the likelier winner, it doesn’t act like it. Neither party members nor the wider public have faith in the current Labour leader Ed Miliband, who capped a lackluster conference last week by forgetting key chunks of the speech that should have energized his troops and instead demoralized them.

In truth all three mainstream parties are suffering from a loss of connection with the public — voters feel they’re untrustworthy, and incapable of championing Britain, whatever form that might take. This disenchantment is fostering the rise across Britain of populist parties that promise a new, more honest mode of politics and more localism. In Scotland this means the Scottish National Party strengthening largely at the expense of Labour, which will struggle to retain its 41 Westminster seats there at the coming election.

But in England, it is the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) that has been attracting support on the back of its strident views, which it calls “unashamedly patriotic”. The party’s manifesto not only calls for departure from the European Union, but also restrictions on the numbers of immigrants entering the country, less foreign aid, and priority in the allocation of social housing given to “people whose parents and grandparents were born locally”.

It’s a message that appeals to many who might otherwise be inclined to vote for the Conservative party. The eastwards expansion of the E.U. was enthusiastically supported by past Conservative governments, because they thought a larger union might be less inclined to move towards federalism and consequent impingements on British sovereignty. But enlargement has increased the pool of E.U. citizens entitled to work in the U.K, and fostered resentment among conservative voters, as the British economy struggles to recover from the economic slump. UKIP has capitalized on that resentment; two Conservative MPs have recently defected to UKIP and more are rumored to be considering jumping ship.

“The biggest issue on the doorstep is immigration,” says Phillip Lee, the Conservative MP for Bracknell, west of London, “but this is also related to Europe.” His constituents would like to see an Australian-style points system applied to jobseekers from abroad, he says. That’s a policy UKIP already proposes for all immigrants, whether they come from the E.U. or further afield.

Even so, the Conservatives are better positioned than Labour—which opposes giving Britons a vote on E.U. membership—to fight UKIP on its own turf. Prime Minister David Cameron’s post-Scottish referendum promise of “English Votes for English Laws” plays to demands for more local control, while his party is ramming the message home at every opportunity during its conference that only a Conservative government will deliver an in-out referendum on the E.U. It will doubtless be a pivotal passage in Cameron’s keynote address to delegates tomorrow.

Cameron first made the offer partly in an effort to hold together a fractious party that has a long history of falling out over Europe. But his official position—that he wants Britain to remain in the E.U., but on renegotiated better terms—also happens to be his real preference, not least because many British businesses worry that an E.U. exit will load costs and obstacles on to their European operations. His ideal is to retain the advantages of E.U. membership while shielding Britain against moves to closer E.U. integration precipitated by the euro zone crisis. But in a BBC interview this morning, Cameron made clear that he wouldn’t be too upset if Britain left the E.U. entirely. The sales pitch being rolled out in Birmingham is clear: vote UKIP, get Labour, lose the chance of a referendum.

Despite what the polls say, many Conservatives believe this is a winning formula, and they could well be right. But the same urges the Conservatives would be tapping to win election victory would inevitably still be in play if and when Britons voted on their relationship with Europe. An exit would mean a period of extended turbulence for Britain and for the E.U., used to British intransigence but also used to Britain as a counterbalance to German muscle and French protectionism. The rest of the E.U. hopes Britain stays put, and so does Washington, which still often looks to the U.K. as a bridge to Europe.

British politicians hear these voices but their message, like the shouts of the man outside the Conservative Party conference, are muffled. This island nation with its parochial politics could well be headed for greater insularity.

TIME States

California Becomes First State to Ban Plastic Bags

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.) — Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation imposing the nation’s first statewide ban on single-use plastic bags.

Brown on Tuesday signed the bill by Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles.

Plastic bags will be phased out of large grocery stores starting next year and convenience stores and pharmacies in 2016. The legislation is meant to encourage consumers to bring their own bags and as a way to reduce litter.

The bill preserves more than 100 local plastic bag bans, including in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Grocers support the ban because it sets a statewide standard and allows them to charge consumers a 10 cent fee for using paper bags.

Plastic and paper bag manufacturers opposed to the legislation say it will result in lost manufacturing jobs in California.

TIME Gaza

Gaza Lions Sent to Jordan After War Damages Zoo

(BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip) — A trio of scrawny lions was brought into Israel from Gaza on Tuesday en route to a better life at a wildlife sanctuary in Jordan after their zoo was damaged in the recent Israel-Hamas war.

The three, a pair of males and a pregnant female, were sedated at Al-Bisan zoo in Beit Lahiya before the big cats were placed in metal cages and loaded onto a truck that transferred them through the Erez border crossing into Israel.

Amir Khalil of the Four Paws International welfare group said the zoo’s animals were in urgent need of care after the 50-day war. He said the zoo was badly damaged and more than 80 animals died as a result of the fighting.

Al-Bisan is one of five makeshift zoos in Gaza that have spotty animal welfare records.

Most of the zoo animals in Gaza have been hauled into the isolated territory through smuggling tunnels linking the territory to Egypt. In one famous scene captured on film, Gazans used a crane to lift a camel over the border fence by one of its legs as the animal writhed in agony.

Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade on Gaza since 2007, when the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power there.

Last year a pair of newborn lion cubs died shortly after they were proudly unveiled by Gaza’s Hamas rulers.

Gaza’s main zoo once turned to improvised taxidermy to keep its deceased animals on exhibit while another painted stripes on donkeys to try and make them look like zebras.

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Protesters Up Ante on Eve of China’s National Day

Sit In Protest Continues In Hong Kong Despite Chief Executive's Calls To Withdraw
Protesters take part in a rally on a street outside of Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong. Anthony Kwan—Getty Images

Wednesday marks the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China

Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators continued to clog central Hong Kong on Tuesday, as the movement’s leaders vowed to maintain their campaign of civil disobedience until the city’s Chief Executive (CE) resigns.

In speeches before the teeming crowd in ritzy Admiralty district, leaders of the Hong Kong Students Federation and Occupy Central threatened to expand the protests if Leung Chun-ying, who holds a position similar to mayor, refuses to step down. “[Leung Chun-ying] is not in control anymore,” Alex Chow, the leader of the student federation, told the press.

The groups also raised the possibility of increased labor strikes, in an escalation of their confrontation with the governments of both Beijing and Hong Kong. “The protests are accelerating because the government is doing less and less,” said Chan Kin-man, one of the leaders of Occupy Central, as he addressed the crowd. Behind him lay several umbrellas painted with the phrases “popvote” and “join us.”

The groups on Tuesday also urged their throngs of supporters to continue the sit-in until their demands are met, contradicting an earlier statement by Chan, who had told TIME the previous evening it’s “unrealistic” to expect protesters to continue to occupy key downtown locations for much longer.

Although Chan backtracked Tuesday, the confusion demonstrates the movement is made up of stakeholders with “different interests and aspirations,” says Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Center for China Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He cautioned that protesters “cannot afford to fight amongst themselves because they face a very powerful enemy.”

Since British colonial rule ended in 1997, Hong Kong has been run according to the “one country, two systems” principle and enjoys various freedoms and considerable autonomy compared with mainland China. However, many in the Special Administrative Region accuse Beijing of increasingly meddling in the territory’s affairs.

On Wednesday, China celebrates the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Although this day of pomp is also typically one of popular protest in Hong Kong, the sheer scale of the current demonstration, and intractable nature of its demands, is clearly exacerbating an already strained relationship.

“In China people think Hong Kong belongs to China. But people in Hong Kong think that Hong Kong is part of China, but belongs to the world,” Julian Lam, a 20-year-old student, tells TIME.

Chao Seng, a 57-year-old private chauffeur, says the Hong Kong government just “wants to polish China’s shoes,” adding that he accepted the governing style of the British and does not approve of Chinese rule. “I’m not from China, I’m from Hong Kong. Every year when they enjoy [National Day], I have no feeling.”

Though protest leaders now say that their principal demand is for Leung to step down, they reiterated that their secondary objective is for Beijing to let Hong Kongers choose their CE by a popular vote in 2017 — and so reversing an Aug. 31 decision by the Communist Party’s Standing Committee that insisted all candidates must be approved by a committee widely perceived as loyal to Beijing.

“If CY Leung steps down it will be a big change,” says student Natalie Chan, 26. “The universal suffrage is something we can’t [control] because the Communist Party is very powerful.”

On Tuesday, Leung insisted that he would not resign and that Beijing would not budge in its insistence of vetting future holders of his job. “The central government will not rescind its decision,” he said.

As the protest leaders addressed the crowd Tuesday, with a huge orange banner reading “Can U Hear The People Sing” hanging nearby, thousands of demonstrators in black T-shirts roused from listlessness, ending their naps and putting packages of crackers aside. One group of students popped their laptops closed and put away the schoolwork they’d brought out.

The protests, which began with a student class walkout last Monday, now represent a mosaic of Hong Kong society. Asked for how long he would support the students, the 65-year-old Eddie Wong replied, “Forever,” adding, “I will be here, I will support this always.”

Numbers swelled after local people grew incensed that police fired 87 tear gas canisters at protesters on Sunday. “To be honest, I didn’t really support this, since I’m not really into politics,” says university student Stephanie Cheung, 20. “But then I saw how the police reacted to unarmed protesters. Now I’m here fighting against violence and how the government treats people.”

Late Tuesday, the heavens opened and umbrellas, adopted as the symbol of the protests, resumed their usual function — yet the seasonal downpours failed to dampen the anyone’s spirits, and the resilient crowds chanted “We will stay here until the end despite the weather!”

Over the last few days, supplies donated by well-wishers — including water, chocolate cake and bananas — piled in the protest’s multiple hotspots have not dwindled, but grown. Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong media mogul and frequent critic of Beijing, told TIME that he did not see the demonstrations ceasing anytime soon. “There’s no compromise for anyone involved,” he said.

—With reporting by David Stout, Rishi Iyengar and Helen Regan / Hong Kong

 

TIME Bizarre

The 35 Most Surprising Photos of the Month

From eating ice cream in the senate to kissing Tony Bennett, each photograph will give you an intriguing experience, as TIME shares the most outrageous images from September 2014

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