In northeast Syria the U.S. backed SDF (Kurdish led Syrian Defense Forces rebels) have a growing problem with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) wives (and their children) that ISIL had ordered to surrender as SDF captured the last ISIL controlled territory in eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province). The mass surrenders began at the end of 2018 and by April the SDF had 63,000 of these refugees. Since then that has grown to 74,000 and the SDF is pressuring the U.S. and the UN to provide more than the $9 million a month just to supply the main al Hawl refugee camp with food and other supplies. The problem is that few countries are eager to take back their citizens stuck (under guard) in al Hawl. The problem is essentially how to deal with a lot of hostile prisoners that are largely foreigners but whose loyalties are often uncertain, or definitely pro-ISIL. No wonder the nations these “refugees” came from refuse to take responsibility for them.
The SDF has proved to be an excellent combat force, probably the most effective in Syria. Yet the SDF has little experience as peacekeepers and neither the UN nor anyone else seems eager to help the SDF achieve a peacekeeping capability. For the SDF, learning how to manage refugee camps and prisons as well as mediate disputes between the various factions that comprise the SDF, is a top priority. Another problem is SDF morale. When fighting ISIL for several years SDF members were fighting for their lives and those of their families. There is little enthusiasm to take risks to protect refugees who, in many cases hate the Arabs and Kurds who comprise the SDF. One proposal, discussed quietly, is to auction off the refugees to the highest bidder. Known war criminals will fetch a good price as will wives and children of well-connected Islamic terrorists or their families. The other major powers in Syria (Iran, the Assads, Turkey, Russia and the Americans) are openly against this, but quietly have to admit that currently the SDF does not have many other options. The SDF will not consider letting them all go, or just killing them all. Both those options would be the sort of thing their Islamic terrorist enemies would do. Something has to be done, because as time passes the refugees become more difficult to guard (from breakout attempts) and too expensive to maintain (housing, food, water and medical). If some nation does not step up the current mess will become an outright disaster.
The al Hawl refugee camp in northeastern Syria (Hasaka province) has existed since early 1991 when it was built to handle refugees from the fighting in Iraq during and after the 1991 war. The camp was soon closed but reopened in 2003 to handle another flood of Iraqi refugees from the British-American invasion of Iraq. The camp saw its largest influx of refugees after SDF began encountering large numbers of ISIL civilians in late 2018. The camp is close to the Iraqi border and Hasaka province has always been largely Kurdish. After the Syrian rebellion began in 2011 the Kurds quickly seized control of Hasaka and were technically rebels. But the SDF, the main Kurdish rebel coalition, was always willing to cooperate with the Assad government in order to maintain control of Hasaka. The Assads allowed this because the SDF were largely defensive in Hasaka. When the rebels evolved into a largely Islamic radical (and terrorist) force by 2013 the SDF and Assads had a common enemy in the Islamic terrorist rebel groups, especially those affiliated with al Qaeda and ISIL. The SDF soon acquired American military and financial support similar to that the Iraqi Kurds across the border in northern Iraq had been receiving since the early 1990s. The Americans did not support the SDF as much as they did the Iraqi Kurds because of Turkish claims that many of the SDF fighters were affiliated with the Turkish Kurd separatists of the PKK. This was true, but not as much as the Turks implied and as the American Special Forces got to know the SDF better they realized that the Turks, who were becoming a less reliable NATO ally, were primarily interested in destroying SDF than in eliminating the ISIL presence in eastern Syria. The SDF proved its worth by taking the ISIL capital of Raqqa in 2018 and capturing the last ISIL held territory in Syria by the end of 2018. But with the final defeat of ISIL in eastern Syria support for the SDF waned, especially when SDF found itself hosting over 70,000 women and children taken into custody as the last ISIL strongholds were captured.
The SDF is having a hard time getting the many nations these prisoners come from to take them back. Some 90 percent of these prisoners are Iraqi or Syrian while ten percent are from about 50 other countries. Iraq is willing to screen and prosecute about 31,000 returnees and Syria is preparing to do the same but has not done much beyond agreeing that they would eventually deal with the captives who were Syrian. The Assads are negotiating with the SDF over how much, if any, autonomy the Kurds would have in Hasaka province. Iran wants the Kurds to accept the return of Assad rule in Hasaka and the Kurds will not consider that. They want some autonomy and, until that dispute is settled, the SDF is stuck with the Syrian ISIL wives, widows and children.
Most foreign, especially Western, nations are refusing to take their citizens back. That’s because the legal systems in the West demand a higher degree of proof which is not available to the degree Western trails demand. Yet Western authorities realize the ISIL family returnees, especially the mothers, are often still true believers and are teaching their children to think the same way. Most of these returnees would be turned loose by the courts for lack of sufficient evidence of past terrorist crimes or current attitudes. The Western nations do not want to raise another generation of Islamic terrorists within their borders. Meanwhile, the SDF is stuck with over 50,000 of these possibly pro-terrorist women and children.
The SDF is pressuring the Americans to act, even if just out of self-interest. American military advisors confirm SDF claims that thousands of these camp residents are still believers in ISIL. The Americans helped SDF screen the refugees so the obvious ISIL loyalists could be isolated in a more heavily guarded part of the al Hawl camp. The Americans were eager to screen the male captives to determine who was ISIL and who was just a local trapped in ISIL territory when the SDF closed in. The Americans supplied the gear that allowed all camp residents to be biometrically identified (via electronic fingerprints and digital photos that can be used with facial recognition systems.) The SDF is pushing for the Americans get more involved with the ongoing interrogation of camp residents to find all the ISIL loyalists, not just the ones who openly continue to persecute non-believers (in ISIL) often with violence and intimidation. The SDF points out that the poor conditions in overcrowded al Hawl play into ISIL accusations that the Americans and their “Kurdish lackeys” are persecuting Arab Sunni Moslems, so that that is why all Sunni Moslems should support ISIL.
The American military advisors recognize the value of putting more resources in al Hawl and the separating of the ISIL members from the camp population. At the same time, any American presence in Syria is not politically popular back in the United States. American officials fear that more participation in al Hawl will result in the U.S. becoming “responsible” for al Hawl. It’s another example of “no good deed goes unpunished” and American commanders with experience in Hasaka with the SDF are having a hard time convincing their military and political superiors that the investment is worth the potential downside. SDF, with some American help, has identified many ISIL members and supporters among the refugees, and the worst cases have been transferred to a prison. These are more expensive to run and the SDF has pointed out that without help in this area some of these ISIL hard cases are going to get free again.
ISIL leader al Baghdadi appears to have deliberately ordered the ISIL wives and widows to surrender to the SDF and continue the work of ISIL in gaining more followers and punishing non-believers. Some of these women have been identified as ISIL activists and guilty of war crimes in their roles as religious police and interrogators of women suspected of actively opposing ISIL or knowing those who did. Some of these female religious police actually participated in torture and murder. This use of women as active terrorists is not new. Before the Iraqi al Qaeda faction transformed itself into ISIL during 2013, it had used women activists to recruit and manage female suicide bombers. These were usually all-female teams and while there were not many of them in action (before 2008) they accounted for many deaths, often using female suicide bombers. When these all-female terrorist cells were shut down the number of females (and sometimes children) suicide bombers declined sharply. ISIL built on that experience and actively recruited the more dedicated ISIL women for these tasks. Many of them are still at large and, as the SDF discovered, hundreds of them had surrendered and ended up in al Hawl where they actively taunted and attacked camp guards and terrorized camp inmates who were not as dedicated in their support for ISIL. The SDF and American advisors on the scene recognize this, as do UN and NGO (Non-government organization) foreign aid groups helping to run the camps. But few UN member states want to get involved. Meanwhile, ISIL continues to operate as Islamic terrorists in Syria and Iraq and there have already been a few attempts by these armed ISIL groups to raid al Hawl or SDF prisons and free their members or most outspoken and active supporters.
While foreign nations will not help with al Hawl, the Sunni Arab tribal leaders in eastern Syria will. Some of these Sunni Arab groups contributed men to SDF and while many of these at one time supported, or at least tolerated ISIL rule, they all eventually turned on ISIL because of the brutal way ISIL administered its “caliphate” in eastern Syria. SDF trusted many of these tribes to vouch for tribal members who ended up in al Hawl and hundreds of these men and women were released to their tribal leaders.
Some Moslem countries (Kazakhstan, Morocco, Macedonia, Sudan, Indonesia, Russia, Iraq, and Kosovo) agreed to take back their citizens and a few Western nations took back a few, But none of the Western nations are interested in taking back all of their citizens and in many cases the Western states simply canceled the citizenship of those who went off to live in the caliphate and now want to “go home.” Worse, these Western nations are unwilling to contribute the cash to improve conditions in al Hawl and assist the SDF in sorting out the innocent from the ISIL. SDF is telling anyone who will listen (a small and dwindling group) that if help is not forthcoming the result will be bad for everyone. Future historians and pundits will go on about, “if other nations had acted” when they could and should have. The SDF can see the future in this respect because they are living through it.