ISIS detention centre and camps in Syria do not only harbour foreign ISIS fighters and their families but also Syrian families of ISIS fighters. These families form approximately half of the people who live in detention camps for ISIS sympathizers. Syrian tribal leaders have been attempting to sponsor the exit of some women and their children from the camps and facilitate their return to their regions, but they face obstacles that prevent these families from integrating back into their local communities.
In cooperation with tribal leaders in eastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) issued ‘tribal sponsorships’ to release women and children from al-Hol camp last July. According to this agreement, those who want to leave the camps must first obtain tribal sponsorship, which is a guarantee from a tribal leader in the area that they come from that the released person is not a security risk. Based on this agreement, more than 1,200 women and children were released from the camps to al-Tabqa city, Manbijj and the countryside of Deir Ezzor.
One of the SDF’s conditions is that anyone who is released should not pose a security risk and should not have blood on their hands. ISIS conscripted and trained many women to undertake various tasks within its ranks. The SDF faces the challenge of continuing to deal with female followers of ISIS.
If the SDF decides to keep some of the Syrian women in detention camps because they pose a security risk, this means that their children will have to stay with them in these camps. These children were born and raised in a harsh and cruel environment, surrounded by men who are killers and mothers who had to join them. Keeping them in these camps will not help them grow to easily integrate into society.
Most of these sponsorships are from tribal leaders who live in areas controlled by the SDF. Currently, there is no similar initiative in areas that are under the control of the Assad regime. This leaves the fate of Syrian families that are currently in the camps but are originally from communities that are under regime control unknown.
Women who have been released from the camps will most likely face discrimination from other Syrians. Local people suffered from an oppressive life for many years under ISIS’s rule. Some women were part of the organization’s police. For many locals, it is hard to accept people who were part of ISIS.
For example, Om Mahmoud, who returned to Raqqa with her two daughters as part of the tribal sponsorship programme, told The Arab newspaper that she has encountered an aggressive, unwelcoming society. She says that no one cares about them, not even her relatives.
Om Mahmoud says that she feels neglected because no one talks to her or her daughters. She had to sell her golden bracelets in order to survive. She complained about living in darkness because their neighbours refused to share the electricity from their diesel generators.
Many of the women in the camps are young girls who were forced to marry foreign fighters by their families. Many of them were married without even knowing their groom’s real name. Some spent a year or two with these foreign fighters, who ended up either being killed on the battlefield or being captured by the coalition forces. Many of the women have children from these marriages who do not have local registries and it is not known what their citizenship is.
In a tribal society that places great importance on lineage, particularly from the father’s side, these children of foreign fathers will always feel alienated from their community.
Despite many reassurances from tribal leaders about the safety of these people, revenge attacks against them from those who lost family members at the hands of ISIS remain a high possibility. Although SDF officials and tribal leaders did not reveal the details of the families that have been released, in order to prevent them from being exposed to violence, many of these returning families belong to a rural, tribal community where people know each other very well.
During ISIS’s rule, the group divided and subjugated the tribes for years, allying with some while brutally massacring others. After the group’s defeat, local clans are seeking revenge for abuses committed under ISIS and some will not hesitate to target the Syrian families of ISIS fighters who are returning to their communities.
The tribal sponsorship programme is a successful method of enabling Syrian families to leave the camps. But the major obstacles that stand in the way of its full implementation mean that some Syrian families will not be able to leave the camps in the near future while those who managed to leave the camps still face many obstacles that stand against their integration into their own communities. The future of a stable Syria relies heavily on helping these Syrian families overcome these challenges.