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Can the SDF Continue to Secure ISIS Prisoners?

  • Haid Haid

    Consulting Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    زميل مشارك استشاري، برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا

The ongoing Turkish operation in northeastern Syria has exacerbated what was already a difficult security situation, and raised the prospect of a return of many captured ISIS fighters to the battlefield.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in charge of guarding ISIS prisons have started abandoning their positions to focus on countering Turkey. This vacuum, among the chaos caused by the fighting, has allowed some ISIS prisoners to escape and encouraged others to try.

What’s more, Ankara’s attack has pushed the SDF to reach out in desperation to Russia and the Assad regime for help. The deal brokered between the SDF the regime, which seems to have been intentionally left vague, allows for the deployment of regime forces to SDF areas. And while the regime is unlikely to take control of areas with ISIS detention facilities, this will undoubtedly have an impact on the SDF’s ability to secure ISIS prisoners.

There are over 10,000 ISIS detainees in around 30 prisons and collective detention facilities across northeastern Syria. A separate camp for internally displaced persons known as al-Hol, located in northeastern Syria, holds nearly 70,000 people, including thousands of ISIS family members, according to a recent US Defense Department Inspector General’s report. With technical and monetary support, the SDF, and its affiliate internal security forces, has been the main force in charge of securing captured ISIS members.

Private conversations the author had with the sources close to the SDF and the regime strongly indicate that the deployment of regime forces will mainly be deploying to areas that are likely to be targeted by Turkey, namely Ein Issa, Manbij and other towns on the border, including Kobani. None are locations of ISIS prisons.

But the offensive has already appeared to hinder the capacity of the SDF to carry out its day to day operations, including those of guarding ISIS members. This was reflected in an interview General Mazloum Kobani Abdi, the commander-in-chief of the SDF, gave to NBC News on 7 October. He highlighted that finding people to watch over the ISIS prisoners had become more difficult as the fighters of the SDF rushed to Syria’s northern border in response to the Turkish offensive.

But what remains unclear is whether the redeployment decision is taken by the individuals themselves or by the institution (the SDF command). It is, somewhat, understandable if the soldiers involved asked to be reassigned to the frontlines to defend their families in the border area or to simply be part of countering the more imminent threat. However, if this signals that the central SDF leadership has started considering guarding ISIS prisoners a secondary priority, or even a pressure point on Western partners, this would be a provocative policy shift.

According to recent internal estimates, the SDF currently number about 40,000 fighters deployed across the northeast region. It would be reasonable to assume that thousands from the Kurdish component of the SDF would prioritize fighting Turkey over any other task.

But it would be equally fair to assume that there still thousands of members from Arab formations of the group, which comprise somewhat half of this force, who prefer not to fight, either because they have no perceived interests at stake or to avoid killing other Syrians fighting alongside Turkey. There are also tens of thousands of other forces (namely the Self-protection Forces and the Internal Security Forces) who can be called up to help secure ISIS members.

Notably, the Turkish incursion, despite its enormous humanitarian impact, has thus far been limited in terms of geographic locations (Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad).
This would indicate that most of the SDF leadership remains fully functional and has responded to the challenge.

The SDF also recently announced the restructuring of its forces in order to overcome the shortcomings of its centralized system. To that end, local military councils were created in all regions to allow local military leaders to manage their areas. The existence of this decentralized system should make it easier for the various military councils to ensure that all ISIS facilities as properly secured.

But the problem of securing ISIS prisoners may not arise from the availability of resources but rather the ability to manage them. The SDF may still need to consider reaching out to the US-led coalition to provide them with the needed technical assistance to ensure the protection of those facilities.

Despite the US recent announcement regarding the withdrawal of its forces from Syria, information about when that will happen remains somewhat vague. US officials inside Syria have told the author recently in private conversations that their forces are still on the ground and the wider US technical and monetary support for opposing ISIS-related activities, including the detention centres, remains active.

Local sources in the northeast told the author that on top of the ISIS facilities, the SDF are guarding many internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, which are filled with local civilians with no ties to ISIS. Many of those IDPs are forced to stay in the camps because of the security situation in their area and due to the sponsorship requirement that prevents people who do not have a sponsor outside the camp to leave it.

The SDF, with the help of the local communities and international coalition and humanitarian actors, should allow people to move to areas of their choices outside the camp. This will decrease the suffering of the people involved and allow the SDF to reassign the guards of those locations to the ISIS detention facilities.

Ultimately, every step taken right now by the SDF or international forces will be short-term solutions. Comprehensive and community-led strategies are needed to find a sustainable solution to ISIS and the root causes that allowed it to emerge. But in a chaotic situation, there is little space for those.