AMMAN—Last week, a group of humanitarian workers was arrested in the northern city of Raqqa, by the Kurdish-led military alliance, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). While the arrests are part of a security crackdown launched by SDF since the defeat of the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) in March 2018, targeting humanitarian workers seems to be unprecedented and, consequently, invokes concerns about the future of the humanitarian efforts in the city.
‘Reporters Without Borders-Raqqa’, a local media team, documented the arrest of six humanitarian workers from four humanitarian organizations: Suna’a al-Mustaqbal, Inma’a al-Karamah, Afaq, and al-Furat. Talking to Syria Direct on condition of anonymity, a member of the media team described the detention of the humanitarian workers as “strange, considering the international support their organizations receive.”
Syria Direct has tried to obtain a comment from two of the organizations but received no response in time for publication. Additionally, none of the organizations made any statement concerning the detention of their workers.
Ahmed al-Issa, a humanitarian worker in Raqqa, speculates that the cause of the silence on the part of organizations is simply fear. "Organizations will not dare to speak despite their workers being detained,” he told Syria Direct.
Others close to detainees and local activists are wary to talk about the arrests on social media or via private messages out of fear of security consequences, he added.
According to a report published in early August by The Syrian Network for Human Rights, SDF arrested 227 people in northeastern Syria in July, including 14 women and 18 children.
These arrests, according to SDF, are part of the second phase of the fight against ISIS, which constitutes the "final, decisive battle against the active cells" of the terrorist group in the area.
However, detaining activists could be based on "malicious reports," warns Jassem al-Raqawi (pseudonym), a humanitarian activist in Raqqa.
Regarding humanitarian workers, in particular, he told Syria Direct, under the condition of anonymity for security concerns, that “no one knows the reason for the arrests; whether the organizations or their employees are the targets, or if there is indeed a security crackdown based on the involvement of detainees in criminal cases.”
ISIS, the Turks or the Syrian regime?
Days after four humanitarian workers were arrested, on Aug. 16, SDF forces arrested Hassan Fawaz al-Qassab, a project coordinator at US Creative Associates International, from his home in Tabqa, a city in Raqqa, a day after his wedding.
The next day, SDF also arrested Ahmed al-Hashloum, director of Inma’a al-Karamah Organization, from his office in the town of al-Karamah. The reasons for the arrests are unknown, according to local anti-SDF media reports.
Ahmad Al-Hashloum participates in solidarity stand in Raqqa to stop shelling in Idlib (Facebook)
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said in a report published on Sunday, Aug. 18, that the arrests came against a backdrop of accusations that some detainees are working with ISIS while others work for the Turks.
However, a source from SDF told Syria Direct that a number of those who were arrested were actually working with the Syrian regime, and a group of them was affiliated with ISIS cells.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said: "This is not the first time people have been arrested by SDF in connection with the Syrian regime or ISIS or even factions like the Euphrates Shield, which is affiliated with Turkey." He stressed that the recent arrest took place after intelligence received information proving the involvement of those arrested.
Nonetheless, the head of SDF's media office, Mustafa Bali, denied accusations of arrests of activists in Raqqa. He told Syria Direct that SDF forces did not arrest anyone in or outside of Raqqa. “This is not their jurisdiction."
While the reasons behind the arrests of the humanitarian workers in Raqqa remain unclear, al-Issa said, "the charge is ready-made: they are affiliated with ISIS activities."
Paradoxically, SDF itself has been accused of bringing former ISIS leaders and members into its ranks. According to a report by SOHR published on Aug. 3, major corruption is experienced in al-Raqqa in the construction sector by “people who used to be in the ranks of the [ISIS] organization and then became prominent figures in this field.”
According to the report, “a former local leader of the [ISIS] organization participated in the attack against Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) was arrested in al-Raqqah province for several months”, just to be released later and dominated the construction field in Raqqa, “with the blessing of the Syrian Democratic Forces. He controls the construction sector in the city now and mediated the release of former ISIS fighters.”
Following the expulsion of ISIS from its so-called caliphate capital in Raqqa, civil society organizations were a key player in bringing life to the city. In addition to providing humanitarian support, they also contributed to the restoration and delivery of services, per the conditions set by the Raqqa Civil Council of the autonomous administration in northern and eastern Syria, which represents the supreme authority in areas under the SDF.
While a humanitarian activist in Raqqa, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the arrests have not affected humanitarian work so far, they stressed that the workers’ concerns in the sector could limit its effectiveness in the future.
This article was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh