By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
ANALYSIS AND COMMENT
After US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal from Syria some people have begun to speculate that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and other local authorities in eastern Syria might release ISIS detainees. Some have even put forward extraordinary claims that “3,000 ISIS fighters” might be released. Some of these stories seek to influence the discussion about Syria, either portraying the SDF, mostly Kurdish allies of the Coalition, as unreliable at containing the detainees, or portray the need for continued US support.
This is not a simple story. The international community has refused to work with the SDF or other authorities in eastern Syria, viewing them as substate entities. At the same time they don’t want the detainees released and they don’t want them handed over to the Syrian regime or Iraq. The US tried to facilitate some former suspected ISIS members being transferred in August, including Lebanese suspects. The FBI interviewed two detainees known as the Beatles, accused of numerous crimes. The US even worked to release one suspected former ISIS member with cash so he could travel because he had dual citizenship. There are numerous westerners and citizens of western countries held in eastern Syria. For instance 16 Canadians are allegedly held. These include “Former fighters with Islamic State and their families (including babies born there),” Thomas Juneau points out.
The problem for the SDF is that these detainees are expensive. The SDF doesn’t want to put them on trial and execute them, the way Iraq has done, and it doesn’t want to house them forever. It wants the governments who have citizens there to take responsibility, which these governments refuse to do. There were reportedly discussions between the SDF and the concept of handing them over to the Syrian regime. When some were handed over to Iraq there was an outcry in October.
There are said to be around 3,200 of them, but the numbers are a bit deceiving. In July the NYT reported there were around 1,000 men held in eastern Syria and that many home nations were not willing to take them back. The same report indicated 400 of those men were Syrian.
However, by December this number included “3,200 local and foreign ISIL prisoners.” SOHR has more nuanced figures, “the reliable sources confirmed to the Syrian Observatory that the number of children and women reached about 2,080 children and women, of 44 non-Syrian different nationalities, while the number of the fighters is about 1,100 fighters of 31 non-Syrian different nationalities, and the reliable sources confirmed to the SOHR that the meeting discussed for long hours, the seriousness of releasing such number of all of those persons mentioned above.” This is the ur-text for other reports. If these reports are reliable then the actual numbers look more like this:
- 400 Syrian male ISIS members
- 700 Foreign male ISIS members
- 2,080 women and children.
It’s not entirely clear why the numbers haven’t changed much since July, considering there were five months of hard fighting after that. It appears many of those captured were taken in the battles leading up to Raqqa. This is despite the fact that thousands of ISIS members were allowed to flee Raqqa. ISIS also holds some of its own people prisoner, apparently, leading to questions about what comes next in the battle for Hajin.
In the final analysis the question of what will happen to the ISIS detainees pertains primarily to the foreign fighters and their families. The local Syrians can and should end up in a Syrian court. So should the foreigners but the international members of the Coalition have indicated they don’t accept that a “substate entity” such as the SDF will put their citizens on trial. They also don’t want their citizens back, in some cases stripping them of citizenship. They also don’t want them sent to Iraq where they might face “human rights abuses.” This basically means they think the SDF must hold these detainees forever, even if the SDF is abandoned and eventually attacked by Turkey or ends up giving over its extensive areas to the Syrian regime. Quietly the international community would like the women and children released and allowed to cross to Turkey. Otherwise, when it comes to the men, the agenda is to ask the SDF to do all the work of housing them, while the international community walks away, which is similar to the overall way the anti-ISIS campaign has been fought: You do the work, then we leave.