Syria's northeast camps

Photo Source: Al-Monitor

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

Tens of thousands of Syrian and non-Syrian families, who are affiliated with the members of the Islamic State, pose a daunting challenge for the Syria’s northeast. These families live in camps, such as al-Houl and Ain Essa, which have evolved from a few tents in a muddy field into a sprawling grid of shops, cafeterias, falafel stands, schools, clinics, mosques, a full time administration, and offices of more than two dozen local and international NGOs.

For over two years, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of forces including Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrians led by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – has been holding families of these foreign and Syrian ISIS fighters, in these northeast makeshift camps, the largest of which is in al-Houl, Hasaka.

Quite lately, the humanitarian crises loomed, after the UN, yielding to Russian pressure, passed a resolution, halving the number of crossing points for aid deliveries to Syria from four to two. One of those axed was the al-Yarubiyah crossing from Iraq, a critical supply line through which the UN says forty percent of all medical, surgical and health supplies reached the Kurdish-administered northeast, including al-Houl.


Journalists, in general, are not allowed to cover their plight, in these camps, because of the pressure it creates for the SDF. During the winter, the cold is chilling. When there are torrential rains, it transforms the camp into a brown muck. In the camps, the fierce winds often sweep away hundreds of tents, and the black plastic bags often get caught on barbed wires. People have to take a bath in their tents, illnesses are spreading, and children are dying from the cold. When gas canisters caught fire from cooking, children were burned to death in al-Houl. According to Kurdish Red Crescent, around five hundred seventeen people, most of them children, were victims of malnourishment, war wounds and disease.

It was in March 2019, when SDF placed about sixty thousand people, who emerged from ISIS stronghold around the town of Baghouz in Deir Ezzor, in the rapidly expanding al-Houl. Currently, the SDF hold a total of about twelve thousand prisoners suspected of membership in ISIS, most of them local Syrians, as well as tens of thousand of their female relatives and children. Some of the women and children held in al-Houl were members of the ISIS morality police (hisba), or fought for ISIS as ‘cubs’ (child fighters). Others were merely wives, mothers, and housekeepers. The women of al-Houl span from a range of backgrounds, and affiliations, joining through misapprehension, circumstance or coercion.

The Turkish military aggression into northeast Syria in October 2019, as well as the partial withdrawal of U.S. troops, weakened the SDF, and raised questions about their ability to continue to guard the ISIS detainees and their families.

In recent months, SDF accelerated the release of Syrian families, due to unsuitable living conditions, and pressure from the detained families’ relatives. However, the women and children are released into communities that are often unprepared for them, and not willing to help them integrate because of their affiliation with ISIS. At the same time, SDF bars NGOs from providing released camp residents much assistance. Infact, SDF’s own reintegration policy of detainees is waning.

With the Turkish advance, the YPG redeployed over one third of the guard unit for al-Houl camp to the front near Tel Abyad. This reassignment left only one hundred fifty YPG security police (Asayish) officers and two hundred YPG fighters in charge of perimeter security. With the result, around two hundred ISIS linked women, along with dozens of children, escaped from al-Houl in the weeks of Turkish incursion, hoping to reach the Iraqi border. The SDF was only able to recapture a hundred of them to the detention centre.

The situation in al-Houl has remained quite unsettled. At the beginning of the Turkish offensive, nearly all international NGOs removed their staff from northeast Syria. Meanwhile Doctors Without Borders (MSF) withdrew its entire staff from the camp, leaving only Kurdish Red Crescent to function. At the present, most NGOs have resumed their operations in the camp, but medical care and other services remain limited. With the result, women and children residing in the camp have attacked NGO workers, and camp guards, viewing them as ‘apostates’. The attacks mostly happen during food distribution. One of the reason for a spate in security attacks is that in recent months, the detained women’s fear that the Syrian regime, notorious for its custodial abuse, might take control of the area. This takeover could result in a fate of cruel torture and rape in regime’s prisons.

The Turkish incursion also affected the Ain Issa camp. North of Raqqa, and the second largest IDP camp in northeast Syria, Ain Issa is home to nearly thirteen thousand displaced persons and ISIS-linked families, including around a thousand foreigners. As the Turkish backed Syrian factions advance towards the camp, its management and guards are left in dismay, as efforts have been carried out to relocate dozens of Syrian residents. Most families were able to leave the camp.

Turkish backed Syrian fighters have captured some two hundred members of ISIS families, mainly repatriated Turks, but placed the Syrians in local make shift detention centres. Some of these Syrian families are now held in Ain al Bayda camp, near Jarablus, where women detainees claim that they are denied medical attention, are exposed to the cold, and are sexually harassed.  The women convicts also maintain that the guards of the Turkish backed Ahrar al Sharqiya faction offer to smuggle them out for money. Nearly one hundred seventy six Iraqi families, who left the Ain Essa camp are currently residing in unplanned camps in the area of Tel Abyad, under the control of Turkish factions.

Since 2017, the SDF has negotiated with foreign governments about repatriating their citizens. To date, a total of one thousand four hundred thirty foreign fighters have been repatriated to their countries, including Kazakhstan and Chechnya. There were also talks to return western ISIS families between SDF and western governments, amid Turkish offensive. However, the dialogue, between Iraqi government and SDF, to repatriate almost thirty one thousand Iraqi camp residents, is yet to make any progress. It may be due to Iraq’s own political crises, and its desire to shut down camps. Repatriating families is widely opposed in Iraq, and the government fears a backlash, if they do so. Many Iraqi’s in the al-Houl camp feel that they are afraid to return home. A total of almost nine thousand non-Iraqi and non-Syrian nations remain in the camp, as per report of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

After convening a meeting with popular tribal figures in May 2019, the SDF began releasing families of detained or deceased ISIS men from al-Houl through a system of ‘tribal guarantees’, where pledges were made to ensure that those freed would be able to integrate peacefully into their communities. The SDF has released around three thousand individuals from al-Houl, most of them who originate from SDF held towns. The Arab tribes have also put a lot of pressure on the SDF to release ISIS families, believing their involvement with ISIS was not on their own consent.

To leave al-Houl, families have to pay one of the tribal leaders, to include their name on his ‘list of individuals who have obtained a guarantee’. With the result, some tribal figures also received threats from ISIS to include their relatives as individuals deserving of release. The alleged threats and bribes paid to the tribal representatives also raise concerns that families with ties to ISIS, were in a better position to free themselves, as opposed to impoverished displaced persons.

NGO employees in SDF held areas report that there are currently no NGO programs that help reintegrate the released families, whether by providing social, or mental health support, or labour market integration. Over the course of time, it has been noted that only SDF wants to see itself as the sole party overseeing the repatriation of families. That’s why, there is no room to engage.

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