The ongoing Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria presents the worrying prospect of many captured ISIS fighters taking advantage of the chaos to escape and return to the battlefield. Caught between the Turkish army and the Syrian regime they have fought against for eight years, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces admit that securing ISIS prisoners is now a “second priority” for them.
There are more than 10,000 ISIS detainees in around 30 prisons and collective detention facilities across northeastern Syria. Ensuring their security has mainly been the responsibility of the SDF and its affiliated internal security forces, with additional support from the US-led international anti-ISIS coalition.
A separate camp for internally displaced persons, a facility known as Al-Hol and also in northeastern Syria, holds nearly 70,000 people, including thousands of ISIS family members, according to a recent report by the US Defense Department.
The terms of a deal brokered between the SDF and the regime allow the latter to deploy in SDF areas. Sources I have spoken to on both sides strongly indicate that regime forces will be deploying mainly to areas that are likely to be targeted by Turkey, namely Manbij and other towns on the border, including predominantly-Kurdish Kobani. Although there are no ISIS prisons in any of those locations, the presence of regime forces in the vicinity, along with the Turkish threat, is bound to affect the SDF’s ability to guard ISIS prisoners.
In an interview with NBC News last month, General Mazloum Kobani Abdi, the commander-in-chief of the SDF, said it was increasingly difficult to find personnel for the job as his men were all rushing to the northern border to combat the Turkish offensive, regardless of whether or not they have been ordered to go. But there is more to the matter of securing ISIS prisoners than his claim of manpower shortages.
According to recent internal estimates, the SDF currently has about 70,000 fighters deployed across northeast Syria. It would be reasonable to assume that thousands from the Kurdish component of the SDF would prioritize fighting Turkey over any other task. But it’s equally fair to assume that among the Arab component – which comprises about half of the SDF – there are many who either have no personal stake in countering the Turkish offensive, or who would rather not kill fellow Syrians who are fighting alongside the Turks. They would therefore be available for prison duties.
There are also around 30,000 members of the Self-Protection Forces and the Internal Security Forces who could be called up for the task.
It is understandable that soldiers might want a transfer to the frontline because they have family in the area, or if they simply want to be part of the defense against the imminent threat from Turkish forces. But if, instead, the redeployment of SDF forces indicates that the central command is downgrading the securing of ISIS prisoners, or if it is designed to put pressure on the West, then that is a policy shift – and a provocative one.
The fact that the Turkish incursion has thus far been limited to the border towns of Ras Al Ain and Tel Abyad indicates that most of the SDF leadership is fully functioning and has risen to the challenge of countering the attack.
The problem of securing ISIS prisoners may not arise from the availability of resources but rather the ability to manage them. The SDF recently announced it was decentralizing its command structure to give local military councils more flexibility in running their affairs, which would include responsibility for securing all ISIS facilities. Even so, the SDF might have to request help from the US-led coalition. Despite President Donald Trump’s announcement that he was pulling American troops out of Syria, US officials in Syria have assured me they are still there and still willing and able to offer technical and financial support for matters involving ISIS.
There is another group of people whom nobody talks about much. Local sources in northeast Syria say the SDF is also guarding many camps holding internally displaced persons. These camps are filled with local civilians with no ties to ISIS but who cannot leave because their home regions are unsafe or because they lack a sponsor on the outside, which is now a requirement for leaving the camp.
Allowing them to move to locations of their choosing, with assistance from local and international humanitarian organizations, would not only decrease the suffering of many essentially blameless people, but also free up SDF resources for the more important job of guarding ISIS prisoners.
Ultimately, any step taken now – whether by the SDF or by international forces – can only be short-term solutions. Putting an end to ISIS means tackling the root causes that enabled it to emerge and that requires comprehensive and community-led strategies. But in a chaotic situation, there is little space for those.
Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.