The Kurdish militias and governing institutions hope that leniency with local fighters will calm relations with local Arabs. But is this policy storing up trouble?
What will become of the enormous number of ISIS fighters – both local fighters and those who came from abroad – now that the organization has lost all of its territory in Syria?
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are now grappling with this question after taking thousands of fighters prisoner following the final battles. Mustafa Bali, the SDF’s media spokesperson, says that ‘the influx of thousands of militants and civilians has become a burden on the Syrian Democratic Forces and the self-administration in northeast Syria’ for both material and security reasons.
Bali added that the SDF have dealt specially with local militants and put them in places that are isolated from militants from abroad (except in certain cases). He said that they number around 17,000–20,000 militants and civilians, although they have not issued a precise figure.
Bali said the SDF have treated this group separately because their path is different from that of the foreign fighters both in terms of the investigation process and their fate.
The fighters are divided into three basic categories. First, there are fighters implicated in combat missions and proven crimes, who will be detained for an indefinite period of time. The second group are individuals who worked with ISIS but as non-combatants. The third group comprises people who have only alleged connections with ISIS. This last category is subject to the most lenient penalties, whereas the second group who participated in non-combatant operations are to be held for a period not exceeding six months.
In the past, the SDF has dealt carefully with local militants, limiting their time in prison to less than a year, with the goal to avoid inflaming tensions between Kurds and Arabs in areas under their control. By contrast, the SDF refused to release foreign militants until they were sent back to their home countries.
Bali affirmed that ‘talking about trials at this point is very premature’, given that there are huge numbers and this will require a period of time for the Kurds’ regional administration to consult with Arab tribes and the Syrian Democratic Council – which is the political wing of the SDF (and which has an Arab majority) – to look at each of their situations.
However, a legal course will be very difficult for the administration, known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, given that it is the only entity dealing with these detainees, both local and foreign. The administration made numerous appeals to international organizations to assist with expenses but received no direct support.
There is broad agreement between the Kurdish governing institutions and the Arab tribes over how to deal with local ISIS militants. But there is more complexity around dealing with people who were forced to work with ISIS even though they were non-combatants.
Arab tribal sheikhs in Deir ez-Zor have mediated requests from families to release some who have worked with ISIS but as non-combatants. The SDF have generally accepted these requests if the individuals were judged low risk and the sheikhs were willing to give a guarantee that they would not return to involvement with ISIS. The tribal sheikhs were also held responsible for the behaviour of individuals that were released if they committed a crime or communicated with ISIS sleeper cells.
In spite of this, the SDF have faced some local criticism as a result of their leniency with local elements, in the midst of concerns about those militants becoming re-activated and turning into ISIS sleeper cells, as happened in Iraq in 2013.
The Kurds hope that by showing leniency with local fighters, they can calm community relations and prevent the emergence of new extremist elements.
Still, the ghost of ISIS looms large. Its structures have perished, but it lingers on; no one knows where or when it might reappear. Will releasing local militants sooner or later give it new life east of the Euphrates?