RIC_HiddenBattlefields_-DEC2020

You can download the full report here.

A “general amnesty” for all Syrian nationals held in Hol Camp was recently announced by the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political authority representing the autonomous regions of Syria known as North and East Syria (NES) connected to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The decision was followed a week later by an amnesty for low-ranking Syrian ISIS members. These announcements drew fresh attention to the struggle to cope with ISIS detainees and remnants in NES. Despite ISIS’ territorial defeat, the region is struggling with the legacy left behind by the terrorist group. At its height, ISIS was able to diffuse its ideology through large swathes of what is now NES. Nowadays, ISIS affiliates fill prisons and other detention centers operated by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Global media have closely followed the dire humanitarian and security conditions in Hol Camp, branding it a ‘ticking time-bomb’ from which ISIS will be able to rise anew. Less is known about the attempts that are being made by the AANES to fight ISIS on the battlefield of ideology inside the prisons and camps, and to promote long-term reconciliation with those parts of society who were most likely to support ISIS. This report offers an overview of how the enduring legacy and impact of ISIS’ rule and ideology is being handled in NES. Despite harsh material conditions, several organizations related to the AANES are attempting to address this crisis by offering education programs, discussion sessions and other activities to former ISIS affiliates, while the SDC and AANES’ own program of justice reform is also intended to break the cycle of violence and retribution which led to ISIS’ rise.

This report will cover:

• The broader political context and the politics of amnesties and releases in NES. The recent amnesties must be understood as part of a long term process which aims to secure the situation within the detention facilities, and comes with a perspective of reconciliation with the Arab population.

• Rehabilitation measures within detention facilities. Several institutions host rehabilitation measures in NES. The Huri Center is a detention facility located near Qamishlo, specifically built to host teenage boys from the age of 11 up who have been trained as fighters by ISIS. Educational programs are underway for adults in prisons which hold ISIS affiliates, like the women’s prison in Derik. Rehabilitation efforts are also made in Hol and Roj camps, both home to thousands of relatives of ISIS fighters and female ISIS affiliates. In particular, local NGO Waqfa Jin is developing seminars and other activities in order to establish a dialog with camp residents and teach skills that facilitate future return into society. RIC visited all these sites to conduct research and interviews.

• The development of a new political and religious culture through the promotion of ‘Democratic Islam’ in areas previously under ISIS rule. Through institutions such as the Religious Assembly and the Academy for Democratic Islam, religious authorities in NES hope to promote a secular yet inclusive political culture and encourage interfaith dialog. 

The report will highlight the potential of these initiatives for achieving successful rehabilitation of former ISIS affiliates, but also outline the challenges they are currently facing, notably:

• A shortage in the resources (material and human) needed to expand detention facilities, improve the conditions of inmates and develop existing initiatives on a broader scale;

• Political and security instability as Turkey threatens new assaults on the region, while ISIS sleeper-cell attacks continue;

• Economic isolation (partial embargo on NES, a pan-Syrian economic crash, sanctions targeting the Syrian Government but also affecting the AANES). 

The international community can play its role in preventing a resurgence of ISIS by strengthening ongoing initiatives in NES, the report concludes. Concretely, this would mean:

― Providing material support;

― Offering psychological, social, and legal expertise to existing rehabilitation initiatives;

― Repatriating foreign ISIS suspects to their countries of origin and/or providing support for the establishment of a local or international court in NES;

― Facilitating trade between NES and the outside world;

― Promoting inclusive negotiations on the region’s fate, incorporating Arabs, Kurds and all communities resident in NES into official political processes;

― And preventing Turkey from conducting further attacks on NES.