Hundreds of fighters flocked from all over the world to join Islamic State (ISIS), lured by the promise of a utopian society. But now they find themselves in squalid jails and refugee camps while the world worries about what to do with them.
With the ISIS caliphate gone, most of the jihadists captured in Syria are held by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been put under severe pressure by the withdrawal of U.S. forces and Turkey’s subsequent cross-border offensive that began in October.
The SDF has attempted to pressure foreign states into taking back their captured citizens by warning of the catastrophe that could occur if they were to escape. While maintaining the prisoners are being held securely, the SDF also made a show of decentralising the guarding of camps of displaced people and prisoners to local units and authorities.
‘It’s obvious [the SDF] will hoist whichever flag and fight alongside whichever faction serves these immediate interests – Assad, the Kremlin – and use a variety of tactics to do so, e.g. threatening to leave and release ISIS fighters’, said Rashad Ali, a senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London.
But the conflict makes it difficult to keep the prisoners secure. Reports emerged during Turkey’s nine-day offensive of ISIS fighters and their families being freed either by guards no longer up to the task, or as a direct result of air strikes on prisons.
The offensive was also accompanied by a spate of attacks claimed by ISIS and that led to further global condemnation of Turkey’s operation.
Craig Whiteside, associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, said high-value ISIS prisoners in Syria had likely already been moved to Iraq.
‘I would imagine that most of the important [prisoners] and the ones fully identified have been culled out in the last few years and are in Iraqi custody’, he said. But a big problem that U.S. forces had in Iraq was identifying their prisoners.
‘There are many cases where prisoners were able to hide their real identity as early ISIS guys and when released were able to return to the organisation. Adnani, the spokesman, passed himself off as an Iraqi and not a Syrian, and Abu Ali al-Anbari was another one eventually released unwittingly; two major figures in the movement’, Whiteside said.
‘So there is a chance that there are real ISIS figures and hardliners in the prisons that are hoping to end up in the chaos. Outside chance, but this is a possible risk’, he said.
Turkey has meanwhile insisted that countries whose citizens had joined ISIS must repatriate them.
For some it appeared as though Turkey was washing its hands of ISIS fighters in custody at the very moment it needed to keep them under a tight guard.
Many foreign governments and policymakers see Turkey’s operation as an intervention that can only favour ISIS. A good number – playing into longstanding conspiracy theories popular in the West – whisper that this is either the inevitable result of Turkish carelessness, or the consequence of a Turkish policy of covertly aiding ISIS against the SDF and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia that is its biggest component.
Turkish authorities see the YPG and SDF as a national security threat due to what it says is their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984. Both the YPG and SDF deny any organisational links to the PKK and say they have never threatened Turkey.
Burak Bilgehan Özpek, assistant professor in the department of international relations at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology said: ‘Turkey’s operation has apparently weakened YPG’s capacity, which is supposed to be used to control ISIS-held areas. ISIS is not an artificial phenomenon and it has roots in the society as well.
‘So, it has revealed security risks for the West and the region. That is why dissimilar actors from Israel to Iran, from the EU to Arab League, from China to Russia have criticised [Turkey’s] operation. Kurds may also use the ISIS card in order to preserve their autonomy in the east of Syria. So, the ISIS card is important for any actor in the region to use as a bargaining chip. Therefore, the perception of the risk is more important than the risk itself.’
Özpek said the argument that the Turkish military’s Syria offensive was damaging the fight against ISIS was being undermined by Turkey’s actions.
‘Turkey is a member of the anti-ISIS coalition and it helped the YPG to capture ISIS-held areas. In return for its contribution to the anti-ISIS coalition, Turkey believes that it has the right to fight against PKK terrorism after the defeat of ISIS’, Özpek said. ‘This policy implies that Turkey wants to take over the mission of controlling ISIS if it is allowed to invade Syria and clean its borders’.
Turkey took no responsibility for imprisoning ISIS members, he said, but would aim to repatriate them to their home countries.
Although Western governments have condemned Turkey’s incursion into Syria, it appears there has been some movement on the issue of repatriation. Nations like Britain had stripped those who went to fight for ISIS of citizenship in a legally suspect bid to defer their return, but now repatriation is being discussed.
Britain has made steps to bring home those who never wished to go to Syria and have nowhere else to go. For the moment, this means the return of orphans of British ISIS members, but there are hints that the repatriation of fighters to face prosecution, as well as children, may soon follow.
‘I do think that there is an intent, at least again reported, that they will bring back the women at least, and all the Brits, including the men … Cases where individuals are left stateless will create a legal quagmire’, Ali said.
‘Our relationship with Turkey has become more strained. Turkey’s internal attitudes towards Syrians and refugees, and of course any persons [Turkey is] holding, has become a lot more contentious, and the threats being made by a more and more unstable authoritarian leader in Erdoğan are obviously part of the calculation’, Ali said.
‘The consequences of the forced repatriation are probably good in many ways’, Whiteside said. ‘After dodging responsibility for so long, there is a chance to get better intelligence about the networks that facilitated the original migration, and a sense of justice and accountability at home that can help prevent any future wave from Europe and elsewhere.
‘These waves have been cyclical and growing in strength’, Whiteside said. ‘This is a good antidote, but for European countries in particular, forced medicine by the Turks.’
This piece was originally published at Ahval.