The Turkish Invasion in Northeast Syria Has Led to Large-Scale Displacement and the Fate of ISIS Fighters Remains Uncertain

Omar al-Muqdad

The Turkish Invasion in Northeast Syria Has Led to Large-Scale Displacement and the Fate of ISIS Fighters Remains Uncertain

Omar al-Muqdad – a prominent journalist, documentary filmmaker, and former Syrian refugee – writes a regular blog for CMS titled, “Dispatches from the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection.” This series covers the Syrian Civil War, the experiences of Syria’s immense and far-flung refugee population, the global crisis in refugee protection, religious persecution, and US refugee and immigration policies. Mr. al-Muqdad’s work has been featured by the BBC, CNN, and in many other media outlets. Resettled in the United States in 2012, Mr. al-Muqdad became a US citizen in Spring 2018. CMS features this series in its weekly Migration Update and on its website.

Many believe that the Turkish invasion in northeast Syria and the US withdrawal will lead to a resurgence of ISIS. Some insist that an ISIS insurgency was already underway prior to military operation. After Turkey launched a large-scale military operation against Kurdish militias in northern Syria last month, fears of escaped ISIS terrorists increased, as the Kurds who guarded the terrorists mobilized their forces to resist the Turkish offensive.

The Turkish operation in northern Syria has established a so-called “safe” zone, which Turkey hopes will “ensure [its] self-survival.” It plans to resettle some 2 million Syrian refugees from Turkey in this zone.  It also wants to end the Kurdish administration in northern Syria. Finally, it wants to discourage the return of ISIS and similar terrorist groups in the future.

Yet Turkey is facing four significant risks. First, it faces a well-trained, heavily armed opponent with weapons from the United States. Second, the resettlement of two million refugees and the monitoring and supply of the occupied territories pose immense financial, logistical and security burdens. Third, Turkey will be responsible for Kurdish concentration camps that harbor thousands of ISIS fighters, a time bomb that can explode at any time. Fourth, there is a significant risk that ISIS detainees will move from northern Syria to Iraq  – or back to their countries of origin. There are three camps near the area targeted by the Turkish invasion where ISIS operatives are known to be living.

A US official announced that the US military took responsibility for the detention of two ISIS terrorists who were previously held by Kurdish forces in Syria.  The American and German media reported that about 40 dangerous jihadists detained by Kurdish militias in Syria have been transferred to Iraq, members of a group called the Beatles – who have tortured and executed western hostages.  Yet the main responsibility for ISIS terrorists in this area now falls on Turkey.

What will happen if surveillance facilities in the concentration camps are weakened?  One possibility is that prisoners will exploit the situation to flee the camps and fight against the Kurds or they will disperse. Due to the hostilities, contact with these camps may be interrupted. Also, cells of ISIS women who want to revive the “Islamic Caliphate” are living with their families in “Alhul” camp, which is guarded by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Alongside the camps in the planned refugee “safe zone” are prisons, which hold many veteran ISIS operatives. The Turkish government’s ability and commitment to deal with ISIS fighters is questionable. It appears that Turkey is now prioritizing other issues such as the security risks from Kurdish militias and the task of resettling Syrian refugees. The question of ISIS families is not even raised in Turkish political discourse.  Given the large-scale military offensive, it would be challenging to return detainees to prisons and camps in Europe, were this even politically possible. It may be better simply to monitor ISIS terrorists in camps. However, there is a significant risk of these prisoners being lost amid the confusion of war and of the possible return of some to Europe.

Although ISIS has been militarily defeated, it continues to spread its ideology. “ISIS is adapting, strengthening and creating conditions that could lead to a possible uprising inside Iraq and Syria,” according to a June 2019 UN study. It has been reported that more than 100 ISIS prisoners fled to Syria following the chaos after the Turkish offensive in the north of the country. “We can say that the number is now over 100. We don’t know where they are,” James Jeffrey, the US State Department envoy to Syria, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee during a hearing on the US withdrawal and its “betrayal of Kurdish allies.” The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is holding 12,000 ISIS members including 2,500 to 3,000 from 54 disparate nations, spread over seven overcrowded prisons in several cities and towns, some of which are unguarded or not heavily guarded buildings. On October 11, the SDF announced that five ISIS detainees had escaped from “Nefkur” prison after Turkish shells hit near the vicinity in the northeastern city of Qamishli.  Kurdish authorities report that 800 family members of ISIS fighters held in the “Ain Issa” camp fled because of the Turkish bombing, further escalating an extremely volatile crisis.

Watching the events unfold week after week, it has become crystal clear that there are no military solutions to what began as a political movement. Each military offensive only leads to more revenge tactics from the other side.  Tragically, desperate refugees have nowhere to turn. Even the “fair” nations seem overburdened and at a loss to provide refugee with aid, much less a home. Where does the hope lie for the war weary?  Where does it end?  How can we speak about possible winners when so much has been lost?

The stakes for refugees could not be higher. UNHCR has reported that more than 160,000 people were “displaced following the start of military operations in northeast Syria … including nearly 70,000 children” and that this number was “likely to increase.” Most of the displacement has taken place “from Ras al-Ain (Al-Hassakeh governorate) and Tell Abiad (Ar-Raqqa governorate) on the border with Turkey, with some families being displaced multiple times.” Children have been particularly hard hit.  Marc-Andre Hensel, World Vision’s Syria response director, reports that: “Children in northeast Syria have already lived through years of war and the terrifying rule of ISIS. Now they’re living in fear once again — forced to take what they can carry and flee, sheltering from the bombardment, and cut off in some cases from life-saving humanitarian assistance.” The present is untenable and the future uncertain.

November 14, 2019

More in the Dispatches from the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection blog series.

Author Names

Omar al-Muqdad

Date of Publication November 14, 2019
DOI 10.14240/cmsesy111419