Syria’s Kurds are to allow thousands of Syrians including families of Islamic State group fighters to leave a squalid and over-populated camp they run, a top official said Monday.
Remaining “Syrian nationals will leave Al-Hol camp and only foreigners will remain,” said Riyad Derar, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), political wing of the region’s main military force.
“In Al-Hol, there are Syrian relatives of Islamic State group fighters and they too will be released” with security guarantees from their families, Derar told AFP.
Syrian IS jihadists held in Kurdish prisons also in northeast Syria will not be included in the releases, the SDC official added.
Kurdish authorities have already released batches of Syrians held in Al-Hol under a series of deals struck with Arab tribes.
A UN report released in July said more than 4,000 Syrians have been freed since June 2019.
Al-Hol hosts more than 60,000 people, including 24,300 Syrians either captured or displaced by fighting, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Iraqis make up the bulk of tens of thousands of foreigners in Al-Hol, which also holds Western nationals, many of them families of IS fighters.
Without giving a timeframe, Derar said Iraqis will also be allowed to leave, although many wanted to remain for fear of being jailed or put on trial in Iraq for alleged links to IS.
Arin Sheikhmous, an official with the Kurdish administration, has said Syrians from the country’s north and east, especially those from Raqa and Deir Ezzor provinces, will be the first to leave.
“For those from regime and Turkish-controlled regions … we aim to find guarantors and release these people too,” he said Monday.
As for Iraqi nationals, Sheikhmous said the Baghdad government was “dragging out the process” for their repatriation.
– ‘Pragmatic local politics’-
Scant resources have strained Kurdish efforts to run the camp, which aid groups say suffers from dire living conditions as well as medical and water shortages on top of a coronavirus outbreak.
Security has also been an issue in the camp that holds IS sympathisers still loyal to the jihadist group which lost the last scrap of its “caliphate” across swathes of Syria and Iraq last year.
“Al-Hol camp is a big burden on the Kurdish administration,” Derar said.
Conditions in the camp have sparked criticism from Arab tribes demanding the release of Syrian nationals, especially women and children captured in battles against IS.
Nicholas Heras of the Institute for the Study of War called the Kurds’ decision to free the remaining Syrians as “the height of pragmatic local politics”.
For decades, Arab tribes in eastern and northeast Syria have been at the core of authority in Arab-majority areas that have fallen under Kurdish control in recent years.
Cooperation between Arab tribes and Kurd forces which have integrated Arabs into their ranks has been a pillar of Kurdish control over a sceptical Arab population.
Kurdish authorities “could no longer hold these women and children at Al-Hol and maintain a working relationship with the tribes”, Heras told AFP.
He said the Arab tribes were a crucial component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the region’s main fighting units.
“The tribes can make or break the SDF, and this move is the SDF admitting that it cannot achieve the goal of stability… without the tribes,” Heras added.
But Dareen Khalifa of the International Crisis Group warned of possible negative repercussions.
“An uncoordinated blanket release would be detrimental,” she said.
“There aren’t any serious programmes in northeast Syria that help reintegrate the released families, whether by providing social or mental health support or labour market integration.”