As the crisis in Ukraine grips the world’s attention, international interest in the war in Syria is once again waning. Yet, what happens in Syria remains tremendously consequential, for the stability of the Middle East and the world at large.
Notwithstanding the US raid that earlier this month resulted in the death of Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, the Islamic State is undergoing a resurgence in northeast Syria. The clearest evidence of this trend was the 2022 Hasakah prison break—the largest Islamic State operation since the collapse of its self-proclaimed caliphate in 2019, involving hundreds of heavily armed fighters and scores of suicide bombers. The Syrian Democratic Forces and the United States military took nearly two weeks to subdue the assault on the Al-Sina prison in Hasakah, and heavy fighting caused the deaths of up to 140 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and several hundred Islamic State militants. Still, a significant number of Islamic State detainees managed to escape, among them senior leaders.
Beyond the Hasakah prison break, the Islamic State exploited a number of recent developments to regain momentum, including a particularly severe drought in 2021, which enabled the militants to recruit desperately poor farmers with offers of cash. Islamic State fighters also became proficient in slipping through the no-man’s lands between checkpoints, frontlines, and borders manned by rival or otherwise disconnected authorities, namely the Syrian Democratic Forces, Assad’s Syrian Arab Army and aligned Iran-backed militias, the Iraqi Armed Forces, the Peshmerga, and Turkey. A recently released US Department of Defense report found that the Islamic State has managed to entrench itself as a low-level insurgency in both Iraq and Syria, and that its core leadership, which is most likely based in Syria, remains actively involved in overseeing the group’s branches and affiliates on a global scale, including in Europe, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and South and Southeast Asia.
An even more intractable problem is what to do about the restive prisons and camps holding Islamic State fighters and their families. The Syrian Democratic Forces currently detain more than 10,000 Islamic State fighters, among which are at least 2,000 foreigners. In addition, the Syrian Democratic Forces also run sprawling camps holding tens of thousands of women and children linked to the Islamic State. The Al-Hol camp alone holds more than 57,000 people, of which 8,213 are non-Arab foreigners, according to the United Nations. About 800 are European citizens.
Armed Islamic State enforcers living undetected among the camp population regularly threaten and assassinate those who collaborate with camp authorities. They also organize riots and attacks on security forces. Women are responsible for much of the violence but there is evidence that large numbers of minors are growing up radicalized and ready to kill in the name of the Islamic State.
For the most part, the countries of origin of Islamic State-linked individuals—be they men, women or minors—remain reluctant to repatriate them, considering them security threats and political liabilities. In many European countries, in particular, civilian courts would likely struggle to secure convictions due a lack of evidence. Yet, dropping the problem on the Syrian Democratic Forces is hardly a solution.
It is undeniable that ever since their establishment in 2015 the Syrian Democratic Forces have demonstrated an impressive degree of professionalism and integrity. With the support of the United States, these multiethnic forces spearheaded the ground war against the Islamic State in Syria and liberated much of the country’s northeast from its grip. These achievements are all the more remarkable when one considers that the Syrian Democratic Forces consistently upheld a firm commitment to minimize civilian casualties and provide security and governance to all, Arabs and Kurds, Muslims, Christians, and Yazidis. The Syrian Democratic Forces also proved extraordinarily progressive regarding women’s rights. Their commitment to secular rule, freedom of religion, and equal rights, regardless of gender or ethno-confessional background, contributed to the organization’s popularity. As Syrians from across the country joined the Syrian Democratic Forces, Arabs came to constitute a majority in the ranks of the organization. Raqqa—once notorious as the de facto capital of the Islamic State caliphate—is today experiencing a social and economic rebirth. So are several other cities and towns that are under the security umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces, as part of the autonomous administration of north and east Syria.
However, for all their achievements and sacrifices, the Syrian Democratic Forces and their autonomous administration lack the resources to adequately run and police the many prisons and camps housing Islamic State fighters and their families. On one hand, up to 16,000 Islamic State fighters remain at large in the desert borderlands of Syria and Iraq, and they are bound to make new attempts to free their imprisoned comrades. On the other, the camps and prisons of northeast Syria have become increasingly restless and serve as de facto incubators for a new generation of Islamic State fighters. Even General Kenneth Franklin McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, has repeatedly warned that unless the international community finds a solution “we are buying ourselves a strategic problem 10 years down the road when these children grow up radicalized.”
To avoid such a scenario, the international community ought to take greater responsibility for the situation in northeast Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces long demanded the establishment of an international tribunal to prosecute Islamic State-linked detainees. Such a course of action is unfortunately fraught with complex political and legal challenges, including lack of international consensus and commitment.
In the absence of an international tribunal, the second best course of action would be for the countries of origin of Islamic State detainees to either repatriate their citizens or otherwise provide financial and professional support to the Syrian Democratic Forces, so that they can pursue reconciliation and reintegration programs, when appropriate, and secure the detention of irreconcilable elements and war criminals.
As for Syrian and Iraqi citizens in prisons and camps, the Syrian Democratic Forces are running important reconciliation programs, in partnership with local tribes and with input from US intelligence sources. Hundreds of Islamic State militants and their families have been allowed to return to their communities of origin in 2020 and in 2021, but it is important to note that the reintegration of individuals with connections to the Islamic State often generates stiff opposition at the community level. The crimes of the Islamic State divided and polarized entire communities, and caused widespread death and destruction. Distrust and even hatred of anyone with links to the Islamic State still runs deep in both Syria and Iraq. Once again, the financial aid and professional expertise of the international community is vital for the success of ongoing reconciliation efforts.
The tenuous peace in northeast Syria remains at risk. Urgent international action is especially needed to address the unsustainable status quo of makeshift prisons and camps. If the international community fails to address these pressing challenges in a timely manner, the Islamic State may well stage a comeback and new outbreaks of conflict in Syria could once again send aftershocks of instability across the Middle East and beyond.