Sami Moubayed, a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar, author of “Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad”
Last July, a forgotten camp in the Syrian northeast made headlines, when residents raised the black flag of the Islamic State (ISIS). In a video that went viral, people could be heard chanting: “baqiya” or “remaining,” in reference to the terror group’s infamous slogan: “Baqiya wa Tatamaddad” (remaining and expanding”. In another video, one camp resident called on the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to “liberate” them from the Kurds.
That camp, known al-Hol, is situated near the Syrian-Iraqi border, and is now back on the world’s radar, as Kurdish guards abandon its gates to take up arms against the Turkish Army, which invaded the Syrian northeast on October 9. The invasion is intended to dismantle the Kurdish statelet east of the Euphrates River, which Ankara claims is an extension of its domestic separatist insurgency. The Turkish operation was directly related to US President Donald Trump’s October 6 announcement that he would be pulling 1,000 American troops from Syria to put an end to what he described as “endless wars.” US troops were stationed in Kurdish-held areas and their sudden withdrawal left the Kurds exposed, weak and alone, forcing them to reach out to the Russians and Syrians for help.
Neither the Americans nor the Turks seemed to care about what would happen to the 12,000 ISIS fighters in Kurdish jails. Around 9,000 of them are a mix of mostly Iraqis and some Syrians, while around 3,000 are foreign fighters who came to Syria from Europe and the Arab World. During the early hours of the Turkish operation, the Kurds announced that protecting those prisons was no longer a priority—hoping that this would force Trump to reconsider his decision. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokesman Mustafa Bali warned: “The Turkish invasion of our region is going to leave a huge vacuum because we are forced to pull some of our troops from the prisons and from camps to fight on the border and protect our people.” In response to his warning, Trump tweeted: “The Kurds may be releasing some (ISIS prisoners) to get us involved”.
When that failed to change his mind, the Kurds went as far as to threaten to open the gates of al-Hol, which houses foreign fighters and their families, either previously affiliated to the terrorist group, or sympathetic to its ideology. At least nine Frenchwomen affiliated with ISIS fled the camp after Kurdish guards abandoned their positions to take up arms against the Turkish Army. The Kurds claim that another 800 have also escaped, but that number has not been verified from any reliable non-Kurdish source. Meanwhile, 10,000 ISIS sympathizers are being held at a special section of al-Hol, banned from mixing with the other camp dwellers. They fled to al-Hol after ISIS’s defeat at their last stronghold of Baghouz in March 2019.
“The long-term risk is just too high,” said prominent journalist Chase Winter of Deutsche Welle, who has studied the Kurds for years. “It would damage their carefully crafted image in the West,” he said to EER. “Some appear to have escaped,” he added, “but that is a reflection of the general security situation and a perceived opportunity by the prisoners to take advantage of a chaotic environment.”
According to a deal brokered between the Syrian government and the Kurds on October 13, all ISIS prisons in the northeast will remain in the hands of the SDF—at least for now. “The SDF does not have the capacity to keep such large amounts of prisoners,” said Danny Makki, a London-based Syrian analyst. Speaking to EER, he added: “The Syrian state will ultimately argue that it is better equipped to take over the burden, and could be eyeing the idea of using some of the western ISIS fighters and their families as leverage over the West.” But for now, the fate of the ISIS prisoners has yet to be discussed by the two parties.
In order for the Kurds to keep guarding ISIS prisons, however, they would need to keep large amounts of the US-supplied arms, something that has been flatly rejected by Damascus. In addition to calling on the Kurds to surrender all territory under their control to the Syrian Army, the Syrian-Kurdish deal demands the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the SDF that the YPG controls, be immediately dissolved. This would be a huge setback for the Kurds. Kurdish fighters lost an estimated 11,000 fighters in the US-led campaign against ISIS over the past five years. The YPG/SDF played a decisive role in liberating Ayn Issa in the Raqqa governorate from ISIS back in 2015, and the SDF overran the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS in October 2017. However, according to Syrian law, the Kurdish militias are all illegal since no party or organization can be established on ethnic lines.
It is unclear what will happen to their troops and weapons from here-on-out. One suggestion is to integrate them into the Syrian Army or the local police force. As for the weapons, the Kurds have previously insisted on keeping their light arms and surrendering their heavy arms only to the Russians. It has now been decided that they will surrender all—both heavy and light—to the Syrian Army. In exchange, the Syrian government promises to protect them from any future Turkish offensive.
Many Ways Forward
Syrian authorities have been away from the northeast area since 2012. It will take time for them to deploy fully across the area, and even more time for them to re-find their way around. They lack any information on who exactly is locked up in Kurdish prisons, and how many of those are ISIS members or sympathizers. If the Kurds don’t cooperate, or if they release ISIS prisoners to force the US to reconsider its withdrawal, the entire situation can become very dangerous. The prisoners in Kurdish jails are extreme terrorists loyal to the ISIS ideology. They are the ones who stuck with the terror group until their very last battle in Baghuz. They clung onto the “caliphate” long after its “capital” collapsed, its territory eroded, and money from the oil-wells stopped coming in. This means that they are ferociously committed to ISIS’s ideology, with enough battle spirit left in them to make a comeback.
All those who fought ISIS—the Americans beginning in 2014, the Russians beginning in 2015, and the Turks from 2016 onwards—did nothing to combat its ideology. All they did was bomb its strongholds from the skies, killing as many fighters as possible. More than anything else, however, ISIS is an ideology that travels quickly, appealing to millions in all four corners of the globe. To date, none of the main stakeholders have come up with a concrete plan on how to combat ISIS’s ideology, mistakenly believing—much like Trump—that the group has been defeated. As an organization, ISIS might well be defeated, but its ideological roots, which predate the group itself, are still alive. Adherents across the globe still dream of establishing a state ruled by Islamic shari’a and governed by a “caliph” as in the days of early Islam.
A New Caliph?
Two months before the Turkish invasion of Syria started, ISIS’s news agency, Amaq, said that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was grooming another Iraqi jihadist named Abdullah Qardash (aka Abu Omar) to succeed him as commander of ISIS. Many glossed over the story, exactly because they believed ISIS had been eliminated. Yet, what’s happening in the Syrian northeast might be a blessing for the new ISIS commander, given that the majority of ISIS prisoners are Iraqis—many being from his native Tal Afar, west of Mosul. Many of them are actually craving new leadership, having become disenchanted with al-Baghdadi, who led them from one failure to another, despite his early successes in creating the ISIS “state.”
Like al-Baghdadi, Qardash is well versed in Islamic shari’a and very well connected to Saddam Hussein’s former officer class, who formed the backbone of ISIS’s predecessor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was in Iraq before the US invasion and expanded afterwards. A return of government troops to the Syrian northeast, or a Turkish occupation, could provide conditions for a renewed expansion. More importantly, like al-Baghdadi, Qardash traces his lineage to the family of Prophet Mohammad, which makes him eligible to assume the title of “caliph” should al-Baghdadi be killed, incapacitated or toppled.
In Sunni Islam, the job of “caliph” is reserved exclusively for the Quraysh tribe, to which the Prophet belongs, while for Shi’a Muslims it goes only to the direct family descendants of Muhammad. That explains why in ISIS communiques, al-Baghdadi always signs off as “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurayshi al-Husayni”, claiming lineage to Quraysh tribe and to the Prophet’s line. Both traits, however, fit Abdullah Qardash’s family tree and will come in handy as he appeals to the nearly 12,000 remaining ISIS members, whether inside jails or roaming the deserts of Iraq and Syria. Qardash and al-Baghdadi first met at Camp Bucca, an American-controlled prison near the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border. There is no telling what might emerge from Camp al-Hol in Syria, if their gates open.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
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