June 16, 2020

The Insider Threat: Rojava and the Islamic State

By Jonathan Burden

Rojava, the Kurdish majority-Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, has gained de-facto recognition by both the Syrian regime and the international community. However, the stability of the polity is challenged on numerous fronts. The first and most obvious challenge is from Turkish military action against Rojava’s military force, the Syrian Defence Force (SDF). Ankara views the existence of a Kurdish entity on its southern flank as an existential threat, given its decades-long struggle with the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is closely linked to the SDF. Consequently, Turkey has launched multiple invasions of northern Syria, in part, to counter this threat.

Second, the Syrian regime’s desire to suppress the final group of rebels in Idlib could significantly increase the number of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in Rojava. As the capacity to provide a reasonable standard of living is already stretched in many of these camps, a new influx of IDPs could be catastrophic. COVID-19 and a failing economy will compound these issues.

Finally, the inability to implement a long-term solution to managing the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) places a heavy burden on Rojava’s limited resources. Moreover, there are still active IS cells in both Syria and Iraq who continue to carry out attacks at a rate of over 100 per month. There are two identifiable mechanisms through which IS could grow in strength and challenge the SDF’s hold in North Syria.


The first of these is through the large numbers of refugees, internally displaced peoples (IDPs) and families with ties to IS that are held in refugee camps across Rojava. Although they tend to be administered by international NGOs, the status of refugee camps is a problem that Rojava cannot afford to neglect. It is estimated that there are 57 refugee camps and informal settlements in northeast Syria. Many small sites are scattered around Raqqa whilst the larger ones are in other parts of the region.

The ‘safe zone’, established by Turkey and Russia extends 10km into Syria provides a beachhead from where further incursions could be made. Critically, many major camps are in danger of disruption from further Turkish military action. The case of Mabrouka camp is illustrative. October’s ‘Operation Peace Spring’ forced 1030 families to flee from the camp near the Syrian-Turkish border. However, 14 were trapped when Turkish shelling made evacuation impossible. A Turkish IED also destroyed a vehicle carrying refugees towards a camp in Areesha, injuring the driver. This process of ‘re-refugeeing’ is a regular occurrence for Syrian IDPs and can lead to trauma and overcrowding in camps that are currently considered to be safe. Refugee Camps in relation to the border with the Turkish ‘Safe Zone’ border.

The graph below reveals how significant the now-infamous al-Hawl is to the refugee situation.

Analysts have drawn attention to the part of the camp known as ‘Jabal al-Baghuz’ were the most ideologically committed IS families are held. Murders are common and video footage from the camp shows how young children are being indoctrinated into IS ideology. The failure to prevent these families from running a de-facto micro Wilayat (state) will increase the long-term risk of a new generation of ideologically committed jihadists growing up whilst in SDF custody.

Sadly, the problem is not just limited to al-Hawl. In a study of 12 refugee camps in northeast Syria, only one had a desirable number of people per shelter. None had met their targets for polio vaccinations, nor had any reached their own targets for providing education to 6-11-year-olds. Critically for the stability of Rojava, many of the occupants of refugee camps have little meaningful activity to undertake. This inactivity can leave whole families vulnerable to indoctrination from IS.

Turkey also plans to resettle around 2 million Arab refugees within the established ‘safe zone’. It is unclear how Ankara intends to feed, shelter and supply these people. If such a move is carried out, the result will likely be greater pressure on NGOs and aid workers who are already struggling to provide for the 133,000 IDPs currently in northeast Syria. A recent report has argued that Turkey’s plans would lead to the ‘Gazafication’ of north Syria leading to economic deprivation and insecurity. In addition, the Kurdish dominated political councils that constitute Rojava’s governing structure have previously experienced tensions with Syrian Arabs.

ISIS Fighters in Detention

The inability to decide the fates of captured IS fighters is a further problem for the Kurdish polity to solve. There are allegedly 12,000 IS personnel in SDF custody, split into 8,000 Iraqi and Syrian and 4,000 foreign fighters. The SDF reports that they are held across 7 detention centres although other sources suggest there may be as many as two dozen, many of which are in Raqqa and the surrounding area. The exact location of these centres is rarely publicised. However, it is possible to roughly identify where the most important sites are, or were, from open sources.

Again, it is significant that many of these facilities are close to the Turkish front line. Control could quickly be lost if a surprise Turkish offensive is launched. Although the agreement made between Ankara and Moscow on March 6 introduced a measure of stability to this theatre, almost no party in the conflict has achieved its strategic aims. There is consequently an underlying instability to the situation in northern Syria that could benefit IS.

Judicial action against imprisoned IS fighters offers a more permanent solution than detention centres. However, the international community has been reluctant to devote the resources to achieve this. Countries such as France have refused to take back fighters on security grounds and the UK has gone as far as to strip citizenship from individuals who joined the group. Nor is the status of foreign fighters likely to be a top priority for the US or European states in the short or even medium-term as they tackle their own economic, civil unrest and public health concerns.

In response to the lack of international action to solve the issue, Rojava’s Social Justice Council has set up a special court to prosecute IS fighters. However, a lack of resources is likely to limit the effectiveness of this approach and international response is required to head off some of the risks from an IS that remains a potent force in Syria.

The cost of failing to solve this issue has been made very apparent. The US Inspector General’s report on Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR, the coalition to defeat IS) from earlier this year warned that ‘the longer the foreign fighters were held, the more they become radicalized, and the greater potential for them to organize breakouts’, echoing some of the problems associated with refugee camps. Prisons are well understood to have been instrumental and perhaps fundamental in the emergence of the Islamic State. As one senior commander reported to the Guardian in 2014: ‘If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no IS now. Bucca was a factory. It made us all. It built our ideology’. Preventing the detention centres acting as incubators for the group is a necessary, but probably not sufficient, condition of preventing a resurgence of IS.

There is a more immediate short-term risk to holding IS fighters in hastily converted detention centres. Officials from OIR stated that ‘the SDF could not sustain security long term at the makeshift facilities it was using to detain its new prison population’. Grouping thousands of fighters in detention centres is also risky, as demonstrated by ISIS’s ‘Breaking the Wall’ campaign in 2013 which was an important step on the road to the establishment of the caliphate in 2014. Although it would be unwise to imagine a resurgence of IS would follow the same course as it did previously, there are clear risks.

First, one of the last instructions publicly given to IS by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s emir before his assassination in October 2019, was to free women and children held by the Kurdish administration. Although no significant operations to this end have been launched, it is clearly an option that is taken seriously by senior IS commanders. Second, the personnel responsible for securing detention centres have regularly been drawn to the frontlines to resist Turkish activity. Consequently, one prison in Hasakah has come close to losing control on multiple occasions, having taken over 24 hours to regain control of the facility after a riot and losing 4 IS fighters (although they were later apprehended) in a separate incident.

Paradoxically, if ISIS fighters were to fall under the authority of Turkish forces then they may be more secure. However, Kurdish commanders have repeatedly emphasised that the SDF would be unlikely to be able to secure these detention centres in the event of a significant Turkish offensive due to manpower issues. Nevertheless, it would not be in the SDF’s interest to simply let thousands of IS fighters loose behind their own lines, particularly as IS is currently active in nearby Deir ez-Zor. Alternatively, the continued detainment of ISIS fighters could be used as a bargaining chip in any future negotiation with Turkey, the Syrian regime, or Russia, despite the risks of such a move.

On balance, it seems likely that a renewed Turkish offensive against the SDF would lead to some ISIS fighters breaking free from SDF custody, but this risk could be mitigated somewhat by either Russia or OIR taking temporary control of these detention centres. Western airpower could also be used, as it was in response to the breakout at Hasakah. However, there are limitations to the extent to which the Syrian Kurds can expect to receive outside support.

International Isolation

The US under President Trump has broadly abandoned its stake in the country. Russia’s President Putin’s has stepped into the breach. Although Operation Inherent Resolve remains active, its remit is to ‘formalize ongoing military actions against IS’ and does not directly encompass economic, political or social support that is needed to address the ongoing IS problem. Furthermore, the Inspector General’s report highlighted how COVID-19 was reducing direct contact between OIR and the SDF. The virus has also led to a spike in IS propaganda who have interpreted the pandemic as assistance sent by God. Given the US’s decline in interest in Syria, an upcoming Presidential election and domestic events, it seems that the political stability of the Kurdish polity will be low on America’s list of priorities until at least 2021.

The partial alignment of Turkey and Russia would also seem to reduce the chance of the SDF receiving substantial outside support in any further struggle against Turkey. As noted, Ankara cannot accommodate a Kurdish polity on its southern border. Moscow has no special ties to the Syrian Kurds and it, therefore, seems unlikely that Russia would jeopardise its pragmatic relationship with Turkey, despite its challenges, for a relatively minor geopolitical player. Although Russia and Turkey have made vague promises to ‘tackle terrorism’ in Syria, there is no clear evidence that preventing an IS resurgence is at the top of their agendas, despite the risks to both countries of such an event occurring.

The proverb that states that the Kurds ‘have no friends but the mountains’ appears apt. Despite the SDF’s prominent role in rolling back the caliphate, the international political will to sustain the Kurdish polity is lacking. Although it is reductive to say that a weak SDF would directly lead to a ‘resurgence’ of IS in north Syria, it is clear that an inability to maintain a decent standard of living within refugee camps or to keep detained fighters from re-joining the group raises the risks of support or capabilities returning to the Islamic State.

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