Tens of thousands of Syrian families affiliated with members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State pose a daunting challenge for Syria’s northeast. For a little over two years, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—an umbrella force including Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrians led by the Kurdish People’s Protections Units (YPG)—has been holding families of foreign and Syrian ISIS fighters in northeastern makeshift camps, the largest of which is in al-Houl, Hasaka. In March 2019, the SDF placed about 60,000 people who emerged from ISIS’ last stronghold around the town of Baghouz in Deir Ezzor in the rapidly expanding al-Houl. Currently, the SDF hold a total of about 12,000 prisoners suspected of membership in ISIS, most of them local Syrians, as well as tens of thousands 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. But the women of al-Houl are not a monolithic group—they span a range of backgrounds and affiliations, and many of them have joined through misapprehension, circumstance, or coercion.1
The Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria in October 2019, as well as the partial withdrawal of U.S. troops, weakened the SDF and raised questions about its ability to continue to guard ISIS detainees and their families. In recent months, the SDF accelerated the release of Syrian families—a result of unsuitable living conditions and pressure from the detained families’ relatives. These women and children are released into communities that are unprepared and often unwilling to help them integrate because of their affiliation with ISIS—perceived or real. The SDF’s capacity to manage the reintegration of thousands of detainees is waning, but at the same time, the SDF bars NGOs from providing released camp residents much needed assistance.
Security Conditions in the Camps
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 150 YPG security police (Asayish) officers and 200 YPG fighters in charge of perimeter security.2 Around 200 ISIS-linked women, along with dozens of children, escaped from al-Houl in the weeks following the Turkish incursion, hoping to reach the Iraqi border. The SDF was only able to recapture over a hundred and return them to the detention center.3
The situation in al-Houl remains unsettled. At the beginning of the Turkish offensive, nearly all international NGOs removed their foreign staff from northeast Syria. Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) withdrew all of its staff from the camp, leaving the Kurdish Red Crescent to make up for the shortfall in health care.4 Most NGOs have resumed their operations in the camp, but medical care and other services remain limited in the foreigners’ annex housing non-Syrians and non-Iraqis.5
The reduction in services has contributed to the growing instability in the camp. Women and children residing in the camp have attacked NGO workers and camp guards more frequently, viewing them as “apostates,” just when reduced deployment left the security forces vulnerable.6 “We are being attacked by angry camp residents during food distribution,” a female SDF guard reported.7 One reason for the spate of security incidents in recent months is the detained women’s fear that the Syrian regime, infamous for its track record of custodial abuse, might take control of the area. Their takeover could easily consign the women to a fate of torture and rape in the regime’s notorious prisons. Such concerns have subsided somewhat in recent weeks, driving down the demand and cost for being smuggled out.8
The Turkish incursion also affected Ain Issa camp. North of Raqqa and the second largest IDP camp in northeast Syria, Ain Issa is home to nearly 13,000 displaced persons and ISIS-linked families, including around a thousand foreigners. As the Turkish-backed Syrian factions advanced toward the camp, its management and guards left in a hurry. Several dozens of residents were relocated, but most families were able to leave the camp. Turkish-backed Syrian fighters captured some 200 members of ISIS families, reportedly repatriated Turkish citizens, but placed the Syrians in local makeshift detention centers.9 Some of these Syrian families are now held in the Ain al-Bayda camp, near Jarablus, where women detainees claim they are denied medical attention, exposed to the cold, and sexually harassed. They also maintain that the guards of the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sharqiya faction offer to smuggle them out for money.10 Nearly 176 Iraqi families who left the Ayn Issa camp are currently residing in impromptu camps in the area of Tel Abyad, under the control of Turkey’s factions.11
The Release and Repatriation of Foreign and Syrian ISIS-Affiliated Families
The departure of non-Syrians has reduced due to governmental refusals to repatriate their nationals. Since 2017, the SDF has negotiated with foreign governments about repatriating their citizens. To date, a total of 1,430 foreigners have been repatriated to their countries, many to Muslim-majority countries and regions, such as Kazakhstan and Chechnya. Furthermore, the Turkish offensive briefly interrupted the return of Western ISIS families, but talks between the SDF and Western governments resumed a few weeks later.12 As a result, three British orphans, a German woman and her three children, an American child, two Finnish orphans, and a Norwegian family, a mother and two children were repatriated by mid-January 2020.13 A total of almost 9,600 non-Iraqi and non-Syrian nationals remain in the camp.
As for families with perceived ISIS links from neighboring countries, the process is equally slow-going. Dialogue between the SDF’s autonomous administration and the Iraqi government about repatriating almost 31,000 Iraqi camp residents have yet to make real progress. An SDF official stated that in early 2019, a delegation from Iraq “visited the camp and we asked the Iraqis that people who return do so willingly…We agreed that they’ll take about 5,000 nationals who wish to return and they will set up a camp [in Iraq] and take them back. Those who do not wish to return, we will not force them to do so.” Since then, however, he said that “they have not taken them back… the process has stopped and the [Iraqi nationals] are still present in the camp.”14 According to humanitarian NGO workers involved in receiving the Iraqi camp residents in Iraq, talks have stalled due to personnel changes in Ninewa governorate, Baghdad’s desire to shut down camps, and Iraq’s recent political crisis and paralysis. Repatriating families is widely opposed in Iraq, and the government is disinclined to take such a step for fears of a popular backlash.15 From their side, many of the Iraqis in al-Houl say they are afraid to return home, where they may face retribution.
Yet, Syrian families face a particular challenge when released into reluctant communities. The SDF has released approximately 3,000 individuals from al-Houl, most of whom originate from SDF-held towns.16 After prominent tribal figures with close ties to the Kurdish-led administration convened in May 2019, the SDF began releasing families of detained or deceased ISIS men from al-Houl through a system of “tribal guarantees.” Through this process, tribal figures pledge to ensure that those freed–mostly women and children–would reintegrate peacefully into their home communities. In reality, tribal notables often do not know the families in question, as they may be from different tribes and towns.17 “Many of the women, once they get to Deir Ezzor, they travel to their families in Idlib. They are not from Deir Ezzor at all,” said the director of a local humanitarian NGO in Deir Ezzor, stating that the tribal guarantees are not worth much.18
Arab tribes have put pressure on the SDF to release ISIS families, believing their involvement with ISIS was not of their own volition.19 Locals in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor report that while some families resisted giving their daughters to ISIS fighters, other families did so willingly—however, it was very rarely the decision of the woman herself.20 A humanitarian NGO employee living in Deir Ezzor reported that many ISIS fighters compelled their sisters to marry senior ISIS commanders to improve their position within the group.21 In an effort to improve their status with relatives of the released and obtain financial payoffs, local tribal leaders insert themselves as brokers in the release process. To leave al-Houl, families must pay one of the tribal leaders to include their name on his list of individuals who have obtained his “guarantee.”22 Some tribal figures also receive threats from ISIS to include their relatives as individuals deserving of release.23 The alleged threats and bribes paid to the tribal representatives raise concerns that families with ties to ISIS, who are more likely to be able to finance their release, are the ones being set free, as opposed to impoverished displaced persons.24
Reintegration of Syrian ISIS families into their communities
While Western and Arab countries resist repatriating their nationals from al-Houl, the SDF has intensified its release of ISIS-linked Syrian families. These families often encounter hostility and isolation. The Kurdish leadership is cognizant of the fact that alongside ideologues are regretful women whose familial pressures, personal circumstances, or delusions decided their ISIS-affiliated fate. However, all of them—the believers, the victims, the regretful and the children alike—will require the kind of support the SDF simply cannot and should not bear on its own.
Once released from detention camps, families of ISIS fighters encounter different communal responses. Some are shunned by their neighbors and victims of ISIS crimes. “Some people want to harm us, saying we’re Dawaesh [derogatory term for ISIS members]. Some want to take revenge against ISIS. Some mistreat us because they want to kiss up to the SDF,” said a woman who recently returned to Raqqa after being released from al-Houl camp through a “tribal guarantee” of a sheikh who did not know her. She spent nine months in the camp with her sister and cousin, all of them married to slain ISIS fighters. Her brother was killed fighting for ISIS and her sister remains detained in al-Houl.
Over multiple conversations, she complained about being forced to uncover her face inside government buildings, and for looks she and others get in the street for donning the full-face veil (niqab). Others, she said, shun her and other families’ release from al-Houl to Raqqa “because they are afraid of the Kurds [SDF]. They don’t want problems because of us.” She believes that many of those who reject them are ISIS sympathizers and mistreat them to avoid being labeled as ISIS supporters: “their hearts are with the organization [ISIS], so they are particularly afraid of being viewed with suspicion by the SDF.”25
On other occasions, particularly in tribal or conservative areas, families do not report major challenges, but some are treated with suspicion. An activist living in Hajjin, Deir Ezzor, said: “Of course there are prejudices against them. People are still fearful of ISIS and it’s normal that they would marginalize those who are perceived to be aligned with them.” In contrast, he said, the area’s social makeup makes it easier for a tribe or family to protect women and children released from al-Houl. Individuals rely heavily on their extended family for protection and support the centrality of familial and blood ties.26
Activists in the communities receiving al-Houl returnees believe they require special care as a result of their prolonged exposure to ISIS indoctrination. Ahmad is an activist who worked in rehabilitation programs for ISIS-related women and children in the Raqqa countryside following the area’s liberation in 2017. He argues their thinking could be changed gradually, especially if programs are established to reintegrate them into society and the local economy. “In al-Houl, extremist voices are amplified, but when these women return to their families, these voices will dissipate” among a more moderate community. He added that in the camp “it’s all one school of thought, while here, it’s different. The relatives of those released from al-Houl do not all hold the same types of beliefs.”27
The communities receiving the families, however, are struggling to offer de-radicalization programming through communal institutions. “Our Islam, is a simple and popular Islam. To counter ISIS’s ideology, you need a clear alternative grounded in Islam, you need preachers able to debate these radicalized youth,” said a local activist from Shhayl.28 Activists from Deir Ezzor and Raqqa report that imams at the local mosque are unable to offer well-crafted arguments to youth who have undergone radicalization. Such children would be ideally integrated in schools, but there is a severe shortage of classrooms in Raqqa and parts of Deir Ezzor.29 Since the liberation of Deir Ezzor from ISIS, preachers have not attempted to tackle ISIS’ ideology head on.30 Security partly explains this: in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, locals say that imams do not dare denounce ISIS’ ideology.31
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 labor market integration.32 The SDF does not believe the tribes can keep track of released detainees, treating the families as a security concern it can address by maintaining surveillance over them through collaborators recruited in the community. A humanitarian overseeing the operations of several NGOs in northeast Syria explained that the SDF insists on being the sole party overseeing the repatriation of families despite repeated requests from humanitarian organizations seeking to assist in these efforts. “There isn’t any room to engage. The SDF wants to maintain control, and they feel that if they outsource the repatriation of these families, it might undermine their security grip on areas where these families hail,” she stated.33
The SDF’s waning capabilities and resources, the limitations they place on the NGO-provided humanitarian support, and their insistence on handling the families through their intelligence apparatus place the burden on local communities to integrate deeply traumatized and radicalized women and children. Syrians across the country increasingly focus on mere survival after years of war and a collapsing economy. It should not be left to the home communities of these families—many of whom suffered under ISIS rule—to lead reintegration efforts of Syrian families released from al-Houl. These communities often lack the capacity to address the radicalization of youth under ISIS. The SDF should facilitate the reintegration and targeted provision of psychological, educational, and vocational services to these families, some of whom were active members of ISIS. The humanitarian worker commented: “If we won’t do anything now, we will have an entire generation of children who are angry. And then, what will come next?”34
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter @Elizrael. Dareen Khalifa is the senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group. Follow her on Twitter @Dkhalifa.
1 Authors’ interviews with al-Houl residents and YPG intelligence in al-Houl, July and October 2019.
2 Authors’ interviews with YPG official, al-Houl camp, October 2019.
3 The group included women of German, Turkish and Uzbek nationality. Interview, YPG official, al-Houl camp, October 2019.
4 The Kurdish Red Crescent pulled out some of its personnel at the beginning of the offensive to care for the wounded in Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain, further eroding its ability to provide for camp residents’ needs. Interview, camp administration official, al-Houl camp, October 2019. Some international NGOs continue to maintain services in al-Houl, including Save the Children. They report that their operations have not been significantly disrupted by the Turkish invasion, since they rely on local staff. Interview with Save the Children employee via WhatsApp, December 2019.
5 Authors’ email interview with representative of an NGO providing protection services in al-Houl, December 2019.
6 Authors’ interviews with security officials, al-Houl camp, October 2019; and email interview with a representative of an NGO operating in al-Houl, December 2019.
7 Authors’ interviews with camp internal security official, al-Houl camp, October 2019.
8 Authors’ WhatsApp conversations with a Syrian camp resident, October-November 2019.
9 Authors’ interviews with Turkish local authorities, Şanlıurfa, October 2019; WhatsApp interview, a member of a Turkish-backed faction, October 2019.
10 Letter by 16 Syrian women who escaped from Ain Issa and Kobani prisons and were subsequently held in Ain al-Bayda, published in a closed communication channel used by al-Houl camp residents, November 29, 2019.
11 Authors’ interview with a photojournalist and Turkish-backed commander based in Tel Abyad, Akçakale, southern Turkey, January 2020.
12 Authors’ interviews with camp administrators, al-Houl, October 2019.
13 Updates provided by the Rojava Information Center, November 23, 2019, January 14, 2020
14 Authors’ phone interview with senior SDF official, December 2019.
15 Authors’ WhatsApp and email correspondence with humanitarians in Iraq, December 2019. On popular perceptions of families with suspected links to ISIS in Iraq, see Elizabeth Tsurkov and Basma Alloush, “Among Displaced Iraqis, One Group Is Worse Off Than the Rest,” Foreign Policy, April 29, 2019. See also, International Crisis Group, “Averting an ISIS Resurgence in Iraq and Syria,” October 11, 2019.
16 The SDF says it hopes that following the release of all detained residents originating in SDF-held areas, it can then move to release families into areas outside of SDF control. Interview with senior SDF official, Beleisan (Hassakeh), July 2019; UN OCHA, North East Syria: Al Hol Camp, January 13, 2020 mentions the release of 2,622 Syrians. An additional group of 108 families were released on January 22.
17 Authors’ interviews Syrian camp residents, al-Houl, July 2019; interview with a journalist from Deir Ezzor, December 2019.
18 Authors’ phone interview with director of a small Deir Ezzor-based NGO, January 2020.
19 Authors’ phone interview with Ibrahim, a resident of the Sheitat area, December 2019.
20 Authors’ interviews in Raqqa, al-Houl and Deir Ezzor, July 2019; phone interview with Deir Ezzor resident, December 2019.
21 Authors’ WhatsApp interview with activist in Hajjin (Deir Ezzor), December 2019.
22 Authors’ interviews with al-Houl residents, July-December 2019; observations of discussions in pro-ISIS Telegram groups; interview with journalist from Deir Ezzor, December 2019. SDF officials argue that these arrangements with the tribes have been an efficient containment strategy for thousands of families of ISIS fighters, and have not had any major negative consequences. Phone interview, senior SDF official, December 2019. See also, International Crisis Group, “Squaring the Circles in Syria’s North East”, August 2019.
23 Authors’ interview with prominent member of the Sheitat tribe, Istanbul, August 2019.
24 Authors’ interview with head of a human rights organization focusing on Deir Ezzor, Gaziantep, December 2019.
25 Authors’ WhatsApp interview with al-Houl resident, January 2020.
26 Authors’ phone interview with an activist in Hajjin, Deir Ezzor, December 2019.
27 Authors’ phone interview with activist in Mansoura (Raqqa), December 2019.
28 Authors’ interview, Şanlıurfa, January 2020.
29 One large project targeting children of ISIS members in Raqqa through schools was shut down in late 2019 due to lack of funding. 30. Authors’ phone interview with Raqqa-based NGO employee, January 2020. Authors’ interviews with an activist, a tribal leader and a researcher, from various areas in Deir Ezzor, Şanlıurfa, January 2020; Authors’ WhatsApp interview with an activist living in Mansoura, Raqqa.
31 Authors’ interview with activist from Shhayl, Şanlıurfa, January 2020; WhatsApp interviews with activists in Hajjin (Deir Ezzor), Mansoura (Raqqa) and Raqqa city, January 2020.
32 Authors’ phone interviews, NGO workers, November and December 2019.
33 Authors’ phone interview with humanitarian actor working in northeast Syria, December 2019.
34 Authors’ phone interview with humanitarian actor working in northeast Syria, December 2019.