Azad Nebi & Zozan Yasar
Following the Turkish offensive against Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria, the concerns over the fate of ISIS prisoners have been a fundamental issue. Turkey-US and EU had many discussions at the past time to try the International ISIS prisoners. Meanwhile, in the middle of the Turkish invasion, it has been among the most dangerous bottlenecks.
The Kurdish-led self-administration confirmed that around 800 members affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) have escaped from a camp in northern Syria. In a statement, the self-administration announced it will dismantle Ayn-Issa camp following heavy shelling by the Turkish side as the ongoing clashes moved closer. The United Nations estimated that some 13.000 individuals were in Ayn-Issa camp, of whom a large portion are families affiliated with ISIS who have fled from the city of Raqqa during the coalition campaign against the stragglers in 2017, according to the Raqqa Civil Council.
With the Turkish incursion into north and north-eastern Syria into its eighth day, the situation on the ground is worsening. On 11th October, a video posted on social media websites shows a security loose and riot inside al-Hol camp where many ISIS families were protesting while Kurdish security forces had been deployed elsewhere to respond to ongoing clashes. Al-Hol camp, which is located in north-eastern Syria on the border with Iraq, contains over 70.000 persons, of whom around 50.000 children and 20.000 women evacuated from the last enclave of ISIS-held territory in rural Deir ez-Zor.
An Assistant Secretary-General of the Syria Future Party, Nobahar Mustafa slammed Turkey’s President Erdogan for facilitating the escape of IS prisoners, allowing a potential resurgence of the Islamist group. Last September, Abu Baker Al-Baghdadi, leader of the terrorist group, called via a voice message for his supporters to release the Islamic state women and fighters from captivity in camps held by what he referred to as “infidel” forces.
“Erdogan, by intentionally shelling the prisons where Islamic State militants are incarcerated (as happened in Al-Hasakah and Qamishlo), seems to be responding to Al-Baghdadi call,” said Mustafa.
Further, Turkey is aiming to free Islamic State prisoners in order to rehabilitate and integrate them in its proxy army: “Turkey has always created and trained similar factions under multiple names, but with the analogous background.” This is evident with those who accompany the Turkish Armed Forces in their operation to take over the north and eastern Syria under the name of the Syrian National Army (SNA), she concluded.
There are some 12.000 Islamic State militants currently held in several prisons by SDF. The fate of these fighters has been among the most critical issues following the collapse of the “caliphate” last March. The majority of them are foreigners belonging to over 50 countries including those from the EU, according to SDF officials.
On 6th October, President Trump announced handing over the responsibility of IS prisoners to Turkey following a phone call with President Erdogan.
Trump stated that the 100 percent territorial defeat of the “caliphate” had taken place and he intended to pull out some 1000 U.S troops from Syria. However, this decision has led to stark criticism from American and European officials. US figures suspect that Turkey is only concerned with crushing the American-Kurdish alliance and that this would threaten US national security, as US senator Lindsey Graham clarified.
From the European perspective, Turkey’s incursion destabilizes the region and paves the way for re-emergence and regrouping of the Islamic State, as French Prime Minister said on Tuesday. In the meantime, President Trump’s failure to convince European counterparts to take back their nationals affiliated with IS pushes European leaders to seek alternatives.
European countries are unlikely to bring back those fighters, and instead are considering moving them into Iraq. The French Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian will discuss this issue with Iraqi authorities to find a judicial ground, which might try all these fighters, including the French ones, while 9 French women are reported to have escaped from the enclosed camp in Syria. The Iraqi Defense Minister has for his part expressed deep concern over IS militants escaping from Syrian captivity.
However, Human Rights Watch (HRW), on Tuesday, warned the European countries about plans to move hundreds of these fighters from Syria into Iraq. HRW rather called on EU countries to repatriate their citizens and try them on national soil.
Clearly, all concerned countries persist to get rid of these fighters and avert bearing the burden. Despite Erdogan’s attempts to convince Trump to administer over them, Turkey’s own approach has focused on obtaining control over them. Likely, it looks to be a powerful “bargaining card” that Turks might use it as blatantly as the refugee one. “Turkey is also in the middle of a global public relations crisis, and wants to be seen as responsible and not an enabler of ISIS,” Nicholas A Heras, a Fellow at Middle East Security told us.
For the past few years, Turkey has been a fertile and comfortable environment for ISIS militants and their families. ISIS had it’s main and indispensable human resource routes across Turkey’s border. The foreign fighters have been flowing to Syria via border crossings with Turkey. In addition to that, fighters – and women and children affiliated with Islamic State – demand to be transferred from current camps and prisons under SDF custody into Turkish soil. Fehim Taştekin, a Turkish expert on Syrian Affairs says that ISIS has found Turkey to be an ultimate ground for its operative style during the current ruling of the Development and Justice Party (AKP). “The Turkish government’s approach to confine these people is very lax.” included Taştekin
Turkey’s offensive has brought spontaneous fragility and instability in some locations. It has already been difficult and messy to adjust and secure the situations of these camps and prisons. Within ongoing chaotic conditions, the re-emerging activities and escaping of those militants remains inevitable.
“Essentially, they have been looking forward to an attack by Turkey and hundreds, thousands, remain hopeful of such an opportunity to escape.” Added Tastekin.
As Turkey seems incessant in its military operation against Kurdish fighters in Syria, the Islamic State resuscitation looms.
With the SDF inaction to reassert the security grip on these camps and prisons, as soon as possible, the IS will have a chance to reorganize and become active again across the entire region.
“They hence will be able to cross over to other countries and carry out operations and Turkey will be responsible for that.”