On March 23, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the territorial defeat of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in northern Syria. Tens of thousands of ISIS militants and their families poured out of the group’s last holdout of Baghouz, Deir ez-Zor province. The SDF was handed the mammoth task of screening this cold, hungry, and traumatized wave of humanity to identify which were civilians, hostages, or die-hard Islamists.
Thousands have been moved to the vastly overcrowded camp of Al-Hol in Hasaka province. Suspected fighters meanwhile have been taken to the many prisons controlled by the SDF. Here they await a decision by the international community to seal their fate – a decision which is yet to materialize.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) makes up the backbone of the SDF, which led the ground offensive against ISIS with coalition air support. YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud tells Rudaw although the fighting has finished, the SDF still needs international help to process ISIS prisoners, eliminating its sleeper cells, rehabilitate indoctrinated women and children, and achieve justice for the group’s victims.
A member of US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard at a reception area for people evacuated from the last shred of territory held by Islamic State militants, outside Baghouz, Syria, March 6, 2019. Photo: Gabriel Chaim / AP
Rudaw: What is the fate of ISIS captives? What are you planning to do with them?
Most of them are trying to reach places like Idlib, al-Bab, Jarabulus and others
We can say that geographically [ISIS] is defeated but there are still some remaining important terrorists. A great number of terrorists in Baghouz were those who governed Daesh [ISIS]. Additionally, their families and children still believe that they can one day establish a terror state. These are now under the control of our forces such as the YPG, YPJ, and Syrian Democratic Forces. We can say that these [people] pose a potential danger as they are trying to reorganize in the camps and receive terror education once again. Security forces are doing their best to prevent this terror ideology. Most of them are trying to reach places like Idlib, al-Bab, Jarabulus and others. Therefore, there is a great potential threat that they can reorganize again. If we want to take serious measures to prevent the resurgence [of ISIS] we need international support and decisions from the international coalition in the same way they fought [ISIS] alongside our forces and prevailed. It requires an international court.”
What kind of international court?
These terrorists have not only conducted terrorist acts against Rojava or northern Syria, but the whole world. They have conducted terror activities in Europe, Asia, the United States, and many other countries. They also announced [their power] in some Middle East countries. There will be cases against these terrorist from [people] outside Syria. Therefore, it requires an international court.
Where is the best place to hold such trials? If in Rojava, which city is most appropriate?
In Western Kurdistan [Rojava].
Some say it shall be in Kobane. Why Kobane?
This is an ideology. It is not just related to geography.
As a matter of fact, this is because both the Kurdish agreement [referring to YPG-Peshmerga joint forces against ISIS] and the international agreement took place in Kobane. It would be good to be in Kobane as a symbolic thing. However, the important thing is the trial of these [ISIS captives] … considers the rights of the whole world against these terrorists and takes measures against them. These terrorists have psychological issues and believe that they will go to paradise with the terror they are doing against us.
What laws will these captives be tried under? Rojavan, Syrian, or international?
Actually, in Rojava and northern Syria these terrorists are tried as per decisions of legal councils of cantons and the northern Syria administration. These are deemed as emergency trials. However, these people have to be tried by an international court as per international laws and deals in order to respect the rights of each person in the world who has complained against them.
And if there is no international court and ISIS captives are not repatriated, what will happen to the captives?
Actually, the people of northern Syria, our YPG, YPJ and Syrian Democratic Forces, have made great sacrifices in this region, protecting it, Syria and the world with the support of the coalition forces. But today the captive terrorists could reorganize and again develop terrorism. This is an ideology. It is not just related to geography. The international community shall take the responsibility of resolving them in terms of security, psychology, medicine, material, food and health. It is going to be very difficult for the people of northern Syria – who face an embargo – to handle it.
Who pays for the needs of ISIS captives? You?
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the international community fought against Al-Qaeda in many ways, yet the ideology persists.
Yes, most of the cost is paid by the self-governed administration. There are some international organizations who do not talk with the self-governed administration but with Damascus. Therefore, most of the aid is received through Damascus which usually hampers the aid from the UN and Red Cross. Northern Syria makes up 32-35 percent of Syrian territory and more than 40 percent of Syrian people live in the region in addition to foreign refugees and terrorists. However, these international organizations still hold talks with Damascus, not northern Syria, which is a great part of Syria. Therefore, this is a burden on the self-governed administration. The international community has to take into consideration the current situation in northern Syria, see the potential threats by terrorists who live in our camp, and take international measure as per the threats.
Have you discussed the issue of ISIS captives with the Syrian government?
As the YPG or military forces, we do not have any relations with the Syrian government to discuss this. But, as we have said before, the Syrian Democratic Council diplomatically represents us. Therefore, any decision taken by them is significant for us. However, there are no relations with the regime so far.
Civilians evacuated from Baghouz wait at a screening area held by the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on March 5, 2019. Photo: Bulent Kilic / AFP
How many Kurds are among the ISIS captives?
Concerning numbers, we cannot now reveal any realistic or one hundred percent accurate figure as investigations are underway. There are many Daesh militants at the camps still under the group’s influence refusing to disclose their identity and giving false names. They do not reveal their original identity. So, our forces continue to conduct their investigations to weed out those not tied to the group especially members of our Yezidi community.
Are you planning to set up particular prisons?
First, these people will have to be dealt with by law. Second, the extremist ideology be removed from their minds. In other words, they will have to be rehabilitated.
Yes, efforts are underway. Our self-administration’s relevant authorities and humanitarian organizations at the camps are working to influence those refusing to reveal their identity so we can separate them from the terrorists.
Does holding such a large number of ISIS militants pose a security threat?
Of course. The matter of the presence of Daesh militants held by us is not related to one day, two days, three days, or a year or more. It is a long term subject. Many of them are subject to life imprisonment. Others may face up to 10 years imprisonment. And the militants’ families … they were pledging to educate their children in the terror ideology and once again fight against humanity while fleeing from Baghouz. That is why it will remain a long-standing threat. That is why they are an overwhelming burden on us. And there is a potential threat they will once again reorganize and resurge. As you know, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the international community fought against Al-Qaeda in many ways, yet the ideology persists. Therefore, we are of the view that, first, these people will have to be dealt with by law. Second, the extremist ideology be removed from their minds. In other words, they will have to be rehabilitated.
Do you need a concrete plan to address the threat in terms of rehabilitation and protection from them through force?
Definitely, a concrete plan is needed in this regard. The psychology of these people will have to be taken care of. Secondly, measures against them will need to be professionally taken. Thirdly, their women and children, in terms of education, will have to undergo rehabilitation programs. They should be taught about Islam, about community, about humanity and democracy. All these subjects must be taught with international recognition according to internationals laws so we can remove all the potential threats from them. To meet that end, we will need help from the international community and it is a long-term subject.
Can you say ISIS is finished?
We suspect their efforts to reach these areas may come from an order from Abu Bakir al-Baghdadi
We can say Daesh is geographically in northern Syria finished. There is not a single spot under ISIS in northern Syria. But there are potential threats that ISIS will once again reorganize itself especially around Idlib, Jarablous, Azaz and Afrin. In Idlib, Al-Qaeda under the name of Tahrir al-Sham and Abu Mohammed Joulani, who was before a commander of the Jabhat al-Nusra and was an Al-Qaeda member, is reorganizing in that region. And many of the ISIS members held by us who had fled Baghouz are trying to reach there. And we suspect their efforts to reach these areas may come from an order from [ISIS chief] Abu Bakir al-Baghdadi. Their attempts are to reach there. Additionally, there are many sleeper cells present in the region and they should be confronted through a widespread military campaign. ISIS terrorists had a foothold here for six years paving the way for them to spread and establish an education program for the communities fallen under their rule and to some extent it has had an influence.
Do you have any knowledge about the Yezidi women and children?
As I have earlier mentioned, according to information we have obtained, many Yezidi children who are among the Daesh families at the camps are denying their identity. We are doing our best to approach them and to convince them to reveal their identity.
Why do they deny their identity?
The question of Syria is not resolved with the elimination of Daesh ... a constitution and a democratic system will have to be established
This is because ISIS has had a great influence on educating them, threatening them, and putting them under their influence. So long as they are treated badly, that style of education still lives with them making them to deny their identity.
How could you tackle the ISIS ideology outside courts and prisons?
In northern Syria, when the revolution broke out, particularly in the Kurdish cities, the national council was established, the institutional council was established. Many institutional councils in terms of health, defense, coordination and many others were reorganized. … An agreement between Kurds, Arabs, Armenian, Assyrians and Syriacs, all of them, was reached. And today, Daesh terrorists could be confronted the way the northern Syrian nations got together during the time of the revolution … And I believe once again they will all be protected from terror.
After the conclusion of the ISIS conflict, will the US continue to supply the YPG militarily?
Until now, the US and the coalition in general continue their joint work with us against Daesh sleeper cells. As a matter of fact, Syria needs a political solution. The question of Syria is not resolved with the elimination of Daesh. For Syria, a constitution and a democratic system will have to be established and represent all the components of Syria and a system like this will have to be implemented. Meeting that end needs an international force especially the US as it is a great country and others within the international coalition. And undoubtedly it will become [their responsibility] to settle the Syrian crisis in a democratic way and they should be able to guarantee it.