Although the Islamic State territorial “state” suffered its final defeat in the village of al-Baghouz in eastern Syria nearly three and a half years ago, the terror group remains alive and well.
In the past two weeks alone, the group has been responsible for at least five attacks in northeast Syria, while three ISIS vehicles and several suicide bombers have been intercepted en route to carry out attacks additional.
Days after these latest incidents, an intelligence-driven raid by the Syrian Democratic Forces resulted in the largest seizure of ISIS weapons in at least two years – including dozens of assault rifles , more than 100 rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank rockets, as well as grenades, explosives and hundreds of thousands of cartridges.
These incidents were not just another reminder of the continuing threat from ISIS – they also served to underscore that the group’s most powerful rallying cry today remains the mass internment of 56,000 women and children. and the detention of 12,000 male fighters in camps and prisons in northeast Syria. ISIS’s own propaganda and recent statements claiming responsibility for the attacks have all placed the goal of getting women, children and men out of detention as ISIS’s number one objective.
The release of prisoners has long been a matter of great importance for the “jihadists”, but for the Islamic State it has been strategically vital. In 2012 and 2013, ISIS waged a year-long “Break Down the Walls” campaign in Syria and Iraq, attacking several prison facilities and breathing new life into its transnational insurgency. The fact that ISIS is already prioritizing the same goals in 2022 should serve as a stark warning of their intent.
Today, the Syrian Democratic Forces control a network of nearly 20 makeshift prisons in northeast Syria, holding around 12,000 male fighters – 5,000 Syrians, 3,000 Iraqis and 2,000 from dozens of “third countries”. “. While an influx of UK funding in 2021 and US defense spending in 2022 has improved the security of these facilities, they remain vulnerable to attack. Similar to ISIS’s major assault on Ghweiran prison in Hasakeh in January 2022, the prisons are also vulnerable to ISIS’s attempts to infiltrate Syrian Democratic Forces guards.
Ultimately, the fate of these 10,000 detained men remains unknown, as few if any governments abroad are willing to consider repatriation, given the associated risk and cost. However, the challenge associated with the 56,000 women and children currently detained in al-Hol and al-Roj camps should be something the international community can more realistically address. Of this number, 29,000 are Iraqis; 18,000 are Syrian; and 9,000 come from at least 51 third countries. At least 50% of camp residents are under the age of 12
The Iraqi government is engaged in a near-monthly repatriation program and eligible Syrians are returned to their communities under tribal mediation arrangements.
Since early 2019, at least 34 governments have repatriated some of their citizens from al-Hol and al-Roj. Last year, at least 18 governments carried out repatriation operations and this month three more are planned. But even today, 9,000 women and children from third countries remain buried, in squalid conditions rife with disease, malnutrition, violence and extremism.
Of the 34 governments publicly known to have engaged in the repatriation of women and children, only three are from the Middle East: Saudi Arabia (two children, as of 2019); Palestine (two children, in August 2021); and Morocco (specific details to be confirmed).
To put this into context: of the nearly 2,500 women and children repatriated to third countries since 2019, less than 0.2% were from the Middle East. And yet, in reality, a sizeable proportion of third-country nationals in al-Hol and al-Roj are from the Middle East.
Within international diplomacy in recent months – both in public and behind closed doors – the “detainee’s dilemma” has garnered considerable attention and significant political momentum. For the first time, there is the feeling that a consensus is emerging that ignoring the problem is no longer an option and that action on repatriation is now essential.
While individual governments are tackling the issue in their own ways – some openly and some more quietly – the situation for governments in the Middle East seems to remain largely frozen. It’s not sustainable.
When ISIS expanded dramatically across Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2014, killing thousands and threatening genocide against Iraq’s Yazidis, the world rallied like never before. previously. Within weeks, an international coalition of unprecedented scale was formed to fight the terrorist group – which included 10 regional governments: Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen . At this pivotal moment, the world united around a common goal: to fight terrorism.
We face an equally pivotal moment today, as the global coalition seeks to turn a tactical victory (ISIS’s territorial defeat) into a strategic victory. This challenge cannot be met without the participation of the Middle East and until the al-Hol crisis is resolved, only the Islamic State will benefit.