AMMAN- As it contends with the Islamic State’s (IS) new post-caliphate strategy, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is struggling to deal with tens of thousands of detained IS fighters and their families, undertaking a strategy of community-led releases and calling for an international IS tribunal for prosecution.
In the last two months, there have been 84 attacks attributed to IS in the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA) territory, illustrating the evolving threat posed by the terrorist group, which no longer controlling territory, has changed its tactics from frontal assaults to guerrilla style attacks.
A map detailing IS attacks and influence in Syria and Iraq. Source: Institute for the Study of War 16/04/19
Further, the danger posed by the group extends past improvised explosives devices (IED) and car-bombs as it attempts to consolidate support within IDP camps and foment unrest in areas disaffected by SDF rule, notably in the Arab-majority Deir e-Zor province in eastern Syria where IS is actively creating and maintaining sleeper cells.
Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) Commander, Tohildan Raman, told Syria Direct that: “[IS] has once again rebuilt its structure, specifically in the [refugee] camps. In addition, they [have] started far-reaching ideological activities and are working to create a new generation of IS ‘cubs’ who will threaten the region and [inspire] hope for the group’s return.”
Currently, the AA holds about 80,000 IS fighters and affiliated members, made up of mostly family members in makeshift prisons and camps. Conditions in holding sites and camps are dire, prompting humanitarian and security concerns.
The AA is holding around 10,000 IS fighters in ad-hoc facilities: described as “pop-up” prisons by the August 1 US Department of Defense Inspector General (DOD-IG) quarterly report on Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led mission to defeat IS in Syria and Iraq.
Detaining and providing services for so many has proved to be a weighty economic and political burden for the nascent Kurdish-led political authority, whose international political support has thus far come in the form of military funding and training to defeat IS.
“The cost of guarding [the prisons and camps] is estimated to be millions of dollars per day, which falls on the citizens of the liberated cities and the communities of AA,” Raman said. “There are thousands of [the Kurdish intelligence apparatus] Asayish members, as well as Self-Defense Forces [HXP] and interior security forces that guard detention centers.”
“Old industrial facilities are being borrowed and transformed into arrest and detention [centers]. They do not meet safety standards, neither for detainees nor for citizens due to the dilapidated buildings,” Raman added.
Though prisons have historically served as recruitment and breeding grounds for terrorist networks, as was the case with IS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Iraq’s Camp Bucca, Dr. Anne Speckhard, the Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), told Syria Direct that the majority of the detainees “are not very open to further radicalization,” due to their experiences with the terrorist group.
Still, the indefinite detention of thousands of IS fighters in aging facilities pose a security risk for the surrounding region, as a security breach or destabilization of local authorities could lead to their escape.
The AA warned of this possibility early August when Turkey threatened to invade east of the Euphrates. On August 4, Aldar Xelil, a prominent Kurdish politician in AA said that they can “either fight” “or guard” the prisoners, not both.
For his part, Ömer Özkizilcik, an analyst at the independent Ankara-based think tank, SETA, accused the AA of using a similar technique to Hafez al-Assad, who periodically released Islamists from prison as a tactic to consolidate power.
Referring to the SDF as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Turkish-Kurdish group labeled as terrorists by both Turkey and the United States, Özkizilcik told Syria Direct that: “The PKK is using the terrorists in their prisons as a bargaining chip to threaten the world and themselves. This is nothing else but saying that if Turkey attacks us, we are going to release IS terrorists.”
Children at risk of ‘being radicalized’
The largest refugee camp in AA territory is al-Hol camp, whose 68,823 residents are made up of those living in IS-controlled areas prior to its defeat by the SDF. Its population is 94% women and children, the former receiving intense coverage for their continued support of IS’s ideology.
However, differentiating between those residents who eagerly await the return of the caliphate and those who were simply living in areas under the group’s rule before its defeat at the hands of the SDF remains difficult.
“Most of the former IS members in the camps and prisons administered by the Syrian Democratic Forces are deeply disillusioned from their experiences inside ISIS,” Dr. Anne Speckhard said. “IS’s own actions, particularly toward its foreign fighters, has made many totally immune to believing any more IS lies.”
Still, terrorist ideology has spread “uncontested” within the camp, according to the DOD-IG report.
Though many adult residents who lived under IS rule have grown disillusioned with the group, youth are particularly vulnerable to this ideology and are at risk of “falling prey to recruiters,” according to Dr. Speckhard.
In an open letter addressed to western governments, top U.S. counterterrorism officials urged governments to address the situation in al-Hol, warning that “detained children, growing up in brutal conditions and subjected to persistent indoctrination, are at particular risk of becoming radicalized and pursuing the path of terrorism.”
Syrian camp residents beginning to be released
Since June, the AA has released over 1,000 Syrian women and children from al-Hol under a “tribal sponsorship” system in which local tribal elder vouches for a certain resident’s character to secure their release.
“In order to release [residents] from the camp, a security system was established which takes the necessary administrative and security procedures,” Raman explained.
Both the AA and the International Coalition have stressed the necessity of returning camp residents to their homes, as efforts to do so are “critical” to thwarting any recruitment efforts by IS within the camp, according to the DOD-IG report.
However, others see the “tribal sponsorship” system as a hasty political concession to tribal leaders in Arab-majority areas, especially Deir e-Zor, where many al-Hol residents are from. The initial decision to begin releasing residents was reached after the Arab Tribal Forum in Ain Issa in May, where SDF leaders met with tribal leaders amidst larger protests of SDF rule in the area.
Raman denied that there was any possibility of tribal leaders exerting pressure on which residents would be released, or that releasees were a product of wasta, or connections.
“The final decision to release or leave them in the camp relies on a security [center] which is distinguished in its independence in decision-making without being influenced by any external pressures,” she said.
“Of course there are many risks in taking this step [releasing detainees]; all of us depend on the “guarantors” and heads of the tribes, in addition to the security measures that we take,” Raman added. “People are aware that they have to take responsibility for this class [of people] and observe them in case they return to their extremist behavior or in the case that there are signs of cooperation with or a return to [IS].”
Discussing the possible risks of the release program, Dr. Speckhard compared it to a policy the U.S. enacted years earlier in Iraq in 2007:
“This is an issue we have seen before in Iraq when the U.S. forces made massive releases to the tribes in Anbar. Tribal leaders, if in a position of strength, may be able to control those released into their care, but Syrian tribes have not been historically as strong as in Iraq”
“The important issues are how well is the SDF doing on integrating minorities and minority rights into their governance so that resentments do not flourish and provide a reason to go back to IS. Leaders have a strong say in this also and any bad actors may be happy to use IS sleeper cells to delegitimize and attack the authority of the Autonomous Administration and work towards its failure.”
Trying IS fighters
On July 6, 2019, the Center for Kurdish Studies held a three-day conference, “The International Forum on ISIS,” in which it called for an international court to deal with the tens of thousands of IS fighters and members currently held by the AA. The international community has largely remained intransigent on the issue.
“Legal processing is wide open,” Dominique Inchauspé, a professor at Paris Law University and member of the Paris Bar who spoke at the Forum, told Syria Direct. “There is already UN resolution , which instructs the [Global Coalition Against Daesh] to find IS members and to sue them…[However], it is not specified whether to sue before domestic courts or before an international court,” Inchauspé clarified.
The issue is further complicated by the presence of foreign fighters who traveled to Syria to fight alongside IS. The AA is currently holding 14,500 foreign IS fighters and IS affiliated members but has held off on bringing charges against them as it tries to convince foreign governments to repatriate their nationals.
“We consider this an abandonment of responsibility by these countries that are shying away from their moral responsibilities in repatriating and trying their citizens,” Luqman Ibrahim, a lawyer and member of the Human Rights Committee of North and East Syria for IS Tribunals, told Syria Direct.
Among these foreign IS affiliated members are children who were either young when they immigrated to Syria or were born in Syria itself.
“In all of these camps, innocent and very young children are being held as prisoners for crimes they did not commit and by virtue of their parents judged status as former IS members—parents who also have no openly published charges made against them,” Dr. Speckhard said. “There is no excuse for any child being left by their home country in these dangerous conditions.”
Though some countries, such as the United States and Kazakhstan, have repatriated citizens, most states refuse to do so. Instead, citing security concerns, states have either insisted foreign fighters be tried locally in northeast Syria and Iraq, or in Britain and Germany’s case, stripped them entirely of their citizenship, as was done with British teen Shamima Begum.
“If they continue to refuse [to repatriate their citizens], then we will try them locally,” Ibrahim said. “There is a court in Qamishli and Kobane that has been trying fighters since 2014… We have enough experience to try [foreign] Daesh fighters.”
Though the courts in northeast Syria have tried over 7,000 Syrian IS fighters since their establishment in 2014, according to Ibrahim, there have been reports of improper trials within the AA. Human Rights Watch has alleged that defendants have been tried without access to legal defense and without the ability to appeal, among other things.
Addressing these allegations, Ibrahim said “When we set up the people’s defense courts which tried terrorists, [IS fighters] had the right to be represented by lawyers. However, most of the lawyers won’t represent IS fighters because they witnessed the terror that they caused.”
“I’m a lawyer with a practice and my cousin had his head cut off [by IS]. If the family of a Daesh [the Arabic acronym of IS] fighter came to me and said they would give me one million dollars to defend him, I wouldn’t. There is no lawyer who wasn’t affected by Daesh. Maybe lawyers who haven’t suffered from Daesh can come from abroad. This is the primary reason [we want an international court].”