Syria’s Mass Prisoner Release

James Denseiow

In a move that surprised some Kurdish-led authorities released last Thursday hundreds of militants from the Islamic State group imprisoned in northern Syria, as part of a general amnesty in the region controlled by the U.S.-backed fighters.

Amina Omar, the head of the Syrian National Council, told reporters that IS members who were released have “no blood on their hands” and have all repented joining IS at some point. “They are people who can be reformed,” Omar said shortly before the men were freed. The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) said the 631 prisoners were released Thursday while 253 others will have their terms cut in half.

The SDF clarified that the amnesty does not apply to ISIS members found guilty of killing Syrians, an effort to mitigate public backlash. However, critics have warned that ISIS will benefit from the injection of new fighters into its insurgency and will likely intimidate and recruit vulnerable civilian returnees. The US-based Institute for the Study of War put out a statement criticising the SDF for not having “a process to deradicalize or reintegrate released ISIS sympathizers”.

Kurdish authorities currently operate more than two dozen detention facilities scattered across north-eastern Syria, holding about 10,000 IS fighters. Among the detainees are some 2,000 foreigners whose home countries have refused to repatriate them, including about 800 Europeans.

This last point is a critically important one to remember when considering what could be seen as double standards from States who are critical of Kurdish policy when they have continually failed to take responsibility for their own citizens.

The US can’t be accused of this having been proactive in taking back both those Americans accused of being IS fighters as well as their families. Washington is reportedly even sending officials to deal with the Government in Damascus to secure the release of American hostages as part of its effort to return its civilians from the country.

Russia evacuated 27 children from al-Hol camp in northeast Syria late on Thursday night using a Russian defence ministry plane, the office of a presidency-affiliated children’s rights commissioner has announced. European States have made efforts to return orphan or unaccompanied children but have been generally glacial in their speed of response.

Meanwhile humanitarian agencies have continually warned as to the terrible conditions in the camps. 94 per cent of the camp for the displaced, is made up of women and children. Winter is approaching and reports of families living in tents frequently submerged in several feet of filthy water. The camps are expensive to maintain and are obvious security risks as well as humanitarian disaster zones. Indeed, Covid cases have been reported and official numbers are likely an underestimate.

The whole situation is a dilemma that reflects the protracted complexity of Syria’s war. What to do with fighters and their families from transnational non-state group that are now under the jurisdiction of another non-state group within a country that has almost reached a decade of civil war?

Whilst the focus from the outside maybe on those who are released the Kurdish-led administration in north-east Syria has also referred approximately 900 suspected Daesh fighters to its legal system for trial in the city of Qamishli. The administration announced on Saturday, for example, that it is to release all of those detained for petty crimes or suffering terminal diseases, and those over the age of 75.

The releases came after repeated calls from the Arab tribes that dominate much of the region administered by the Kurds. This is a clear and present political challenge that the SDC is surely sensitive to and they are right to call on more international engagement and responsibility to deal with the remaining non-Syrian nationals in their jurisdiction.

One long mooted suggestion that may get more traction now is the idea of some form of international court or ad hoc legal mechanism to put the foreign suspects on trial. This could guarantee that suspects from 55 countries get a fair trial under international law.

What the amnesty has provoked again is a discussion that reminds us how unsustainable the status quo of the last few years has been. Although the north-eastern corner of Syria can feel like an isolated and remote part of the world, we must always remember that ISIS at its peak flourished in such distanced and neglected locations. The situation must be urgently owned by those who are committed to a more peaceful future for the region.

by : jamse danselow