Captives in ISIS Detention Camps Fear Calm Before the Storm

Mohammed Hussein, Vera Mironova
Delil Souleiman/Getty

The Trump administration and Turkey say they’ve reached a ceasefire. The formerly U.S.-backed forces of the Syrian Democratic Forces say they’ll accept it but won’t accept further incursions into Kurdish-held areas. Caught in the middle of the war between Turkey and Syrian Kurds are tens of thousands of ISIS prisoners—mostly women and children—now detained in a sprawling network of camps guarded by Kurdish forces who are waiting and considering their options amidst uncertainty about who, if anyone, will man the gates of their temporary homes. 

The Daily Beast reached out to a number of those women and found a range of views about the Turkish offensive and what it could mean for ISIS detainees. Some professed optimism about the possibility of release in the event that Kurdish guards melted away or Turkish forces took a more permissive attitude toward security. Others, however, are worried about what could happen to them under a new regime just as they’ve grown accustomed to living under Kurdish forces.

President Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria has prompted intense criticism and warnings that the ensuing security vacuum could lead ISIS to rebuild in Syria. 

The Trump administration has since tried to curb the Turkish offensive through a mixture of sanctions and diplomacy. 

Pence Just Ratified All of Turkey’s War Aims in Syria

Trump initially announced sanctions against a handful of senior Turkish officials for “endangering civilians and threatening, peace, security, and stability” in Syria but the administration’s tone appeared to soften on Thursday when Vice President Mike Pence met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and announced a 120-hour ceasefire. General Mazlum Kobani, the commander of the SDF, said he’d accept the halt in operations along the border but warned that forces would remain in place in other parts of northern and eastern Syria and said SDF wouldn’t accept any Turkish attempt to change the ethnic composition in the region.

It’s unclear what that will mean for SDF-guarded ISIS prison camps, but there have already been signs that security at the facilities across Syria has started to crumble as Kurdish forces pushed the security of ISIS detainees into the background and focused on repelling the Turkish attack. 

One Russian-speaking woman held in an ISIS detention camp in Ayn Issa told The Daily Beast earlier this week that the guards there had left the camp but some prisoners had yet to flee. “The camp is open, Kurdish guards left but we are sitting with kids inside as usual,” she said. “We also made white flags to signal to Turkish forces that there are no military among them.” 

The New York Times reported that Kurdish guards at the Ayn Issa camp let hundreds of women flee after rioting in the wake of a Turkish airstrike nearby. On Sunday, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted a picture of people purportedly leaving the area and wrote that “almost all suspected ISIS militants fled the camp.”

Women at the al-Hol camp, farther away from the Turkish offensive, also reported that SDF troops had brought three large trucks with women from the camp in Ayn Issa for detention there. 

The Ayn Issa area became part of the contest among Turkish, Kurdish, and Assad regime forces for control of territory formerly held by the ISIS caliphate earlier in the week. SDF forces had controlled the area, which lies just south of the M4 highway that Turkey says marks the limit of the buffer zone it’s trying to establish. State news outlets in Damascus claimed on Monday that Assad regime troops had deployed to Ayn Issa, part of an apparent bargain struck between Kurdish and Assad regime forces to try and repel the Turkish invasion. 

The largest camp for ISIS detainees lies in al-Hol, further away from the Turkish border, in Hasaka governorate, close to the Syrian border with Iraq. The camp houses 70,000 people, mostly women and children from the families of ISIS fighters. 

Thus far, al-Hol remains guarded by SDF troops and far away from the limits of the buffer zone where Turkey initially claimed its forces would stop. Despite its relative distance from the front, the strain of responding to the Turkish invasion had hindered security at the camps, as documented in viral videos on Twitter. 

At the moment, many women held in al-Hol told The Daily Beast that the day-to-day routines of the camp remain mostly undisturbed, except for an uptick in the noise of helicopters flying overhead at night.

A number of women in al-Hol reached by The Daily Beast were apprehensive about the possibility of a new regime in charge of the camp. “We already learned how to work with Kurds,” one woman said. “For example, for money we could get anything from [SDF guards]. But it is not clear what to expect from Turkey.”

Even before Turkey’s recent offensive, women in al-Hol have managed to bribe their way out of the camp in some cases. Detainees told The Daily Beast that family members of women held in al-Hol have paid smugglers to take relatives out of the camp, through Kurdish-held territory, through Syria’s Idlib province, and into Turkey. Detainees say local and foreign ISIS fighters were often smuggled out of al-Hol using fake Iraqi passports and stolen Syrian identity documents.

A day before Turkey began its invasion of SDF-held territory in northern Syria, rumors spread among the foreign women detained in SDF’s ISIS camps that the detention centers had already been surrendered to Turkey and inmates should stay put and wait.

The rumor was false, but some ISIS women interviewed by The Daily Beast said they’re looking forward to the possibility that the SDF security could collapse because they believe that it will be easier for them to return to their home countries. Many of the women detained there still can’t bring themselves to believe that their home countries had refused to repatriate them and choose instead to blame Syrian Kurdish forces for their stateless predicament. 

At least one woman at al-Hol, however, rejected the idea of release at the hands of Turkish-backed forces. “We prefer brothers to rescue us and not [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan,” she wrote in a post on social media.

ISIS hasn’t officially instructed its imprisoned followers what to do in the wake of the Turkish invasion but rumors, advice, and threats have circulated among the pro-ISIS chatrooms on the Telegram app. A letter purporting to be from ISIS making the rounds on the encrypted messaging app instructs Syrians to protect and hide any women fleeing from SDF detention camps and warns that anyone reporting on the women or cooperating with Kurdish authorities will face punishment.  

Forced to sleep outside, exposed to the elements, and with little access to aid or medical care, infants and children held in the camp have suffered the most from the austere environment. A World Health Organization report published in February found that infants made up two-thirds of the 73 registered deaths at al-Hol at that point. “Many infants and young children have perished from hypothermia on the way to or shortly after arrival at the camp,” aid workers reported.

In addition to Western countries, ISIS’ rivals among Syria’s jihadist groups are worried about what mass releases of ISIS-affiliated prisoners could mean for them. 

The Daily Beast spoke to a Russian-speaking member of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al Qaeda-aligned militant group that has sparred with ISIS for control of the jihadi movement in Syria. HTS fighters say they’re worried that the breakdown of detention camp security will lead to an uptick in attacks against HTS targets in its stronghold of Idlib province, on the border with Turkey. “We already had so many problems catching those crazy suicide females on our territory, and this new development is not helping,” one HTS fighter said. 

—with additional reporting by Adam Rawnsley

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