The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have captured the majority of ISIS territories in eastern Syria. Consequently, civilians who were forced to live under the group’s harsh rule have been freed. But not all of them feel safe. Many locals have expressed alarming concerns about the arrest waves carried out by special security forces commonly referred to as the anti-terrorist squad.
It is not clear how the anti-terrorist forces gather their information. But it seems that they mainly depend on local informants to target those who are perceived to have worked with or assisted ISIS. While some of the information might be reliable, local rivalries can also be the reason for accusing individuals of being ISIS supporters.
This should not come as a surprise – Syria has a long history of writing false reports to different intelligence agencies as a way to settle differences between neighbours and even family members. A local SDF official, who was not authorized to discuss the topic publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, claimed that some people were falsely reported by someone they know.
Locals were also reportedly arrested at SDF checkpoints due to their appearance and without any prior information about them. I was able to speak to two men who were arrested a few months ago on their way out of the besieged city of Raqqa. Both of them confirmed that they had long beards and were wearing robes similar to the ones used by ISIS, but given the strict dress codes the group imposed, this should not be surprising or raise suspicion on its own.
The two interviewees were lucky to be released after a few weeks because many people vouched for them. But others were less fortunate, as the people who know them have been displaced to unknown destinations. Consequently, the detainees were left with no one to vouch for their innocence. In such cases, suspects remain imprisoned until proven otherwise. However, the respective authorities are overwhelmed with the enormous number of suspects. Thus, these processes become more complicated as there are not enough resources to focus on such complicated cases.
Terrorism cases are handled by the People’s Protection Court, which has a presence in the cities of Qamishli and Afrin. This court is applying a counterterrorism law adopted by the local legislative council of Rojava in 2014. But there are major concerns about the due process implemented by the court. Suspects are denied the right to a lawyer and to challenge the evidence against them. Similarly, defendants cannot appeal their sentences.
The conditions under which the arrests are conducted are also alarming. Families of three detainees have stated that their homes were stormed at night by a dozen armed men wearing civilian clothes. Their relatives were then taken away by force without any proper information about the identity of the armed men, the reason behind the arrest or the location of the detention centre.
It is extremely difficult to get a clear picture of the exact scale of this phenomenon, due to the absence of any systematic data collection and the fear that prevents the detainees’ family members to talk about it publicly. But neither the scale of the threat imposed by ISIS sleeper cells nor its imminence can justify the detention of civilians, in any number, without the right to defend themselves. Doing so will only alienate local communities who are usually the first and most important layer of protection.
Instead, independent human rights organizations should be allowed to monitor such detention facilities – to inform families about their detained loved ones and to show that the rule of law applies to everyone, even ISIS members.
Haid Haid is a Consulting Research Fellow in the Middle East and
North Africa programme at Chatham House and Syrian columnist who focuses
on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist