Expected consequences of SDF’s security operation against IS cells in al-Hol camp
Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish
The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in northeastern Syria announced that its military and security wings have completed the first phase of its operation, called the Humanitarian and Security Campaign, against the Islamic State (IS) cells at al-Hol camp, south of al-Hasakeh. The administration also talked about the arrest of dozens of individuals with links to IS, including an IS commander.
However, the Internal Security Forces (Asayish) said that the IS group’s danger is far from over. Its threat will remain as long as the international community does not consider the al-Hol camp a serious problem and has not participated in finding appropriate solutions for the return of nationals of European countries held at the camp to their homelands.
The Autonomous Administration claimed that the operation came on the heel of an increase in violence inside the camp, even though the violence is not new in the camp.
Even though al-Hol camp is heavily guarded by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), 47 people have been killed since the onset of 2021. In addition to that, 82 people were killed during the second half of 2020.
The Autonomous Administration had repeatedly made statements accusing IS cells, especially the women’s section, which includes IS-linked families, of being behind the assassinations and killings.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, Anas Shawakh, indicated that the security operation came after the Doctors Without Borders suspended its work in the camp, which would prompt the rest of the NGOs to put their services on hold as well. Accordingly, this will create tremendous financial burdens on the Autonomous Administration.
The financial difficulties the Autonomous Administration predicts are “the direct cause of the campaign,” according to Shawakh.
How will IS respond?
The SDF announced in its statement that the security operation at al-Hol camp is designed to root out IS cells, which tirelessly carry out security operations against the military and security forces and officials of the civil institutions in areas controlled by the SDF, the military wing of the Autonomous Administration.
Researcher Anas Shawakh said, “As a result of the SDF’s military campaign on al-Hol camp, the IS group will certainly decrease or may stop its security operations within the camp. Yet, this will not last long.”
The IS operatives existing in the camp will re-form their cells after a while and gradually re-conduct security operations within the camp, according to Shawakh.
The IS group will reduce its military activity; its cells will disappear temporarily from its centers after arresting some of its elements. ِAnd once the procedures or information obtained by the SDF are known, the IS group will emerge again but with different methods and maybe in different areas.
When the SDF first announced its intention to start the campaign, researcher Anas Shawakh predicted that the IS group would increase its operational activities, especially in the area most connected to the camp, al-Shaddadi, located south al-Hasakeh. Al-Shaddadi forms a link between al-Hol camp and Iraqi territories and between the camp and the rest of the areas where its sleeper cells take a position.
The IS will likely increase its operations in the upcoming period, but not significantly, with the possibility of implementing specific operations, such as targeting convoys of the SDF.
In last Thursday’s issue of al-Naba newspaper, an official weekly newspaper issued by the Central Media Office of the IS, the group claimed responsibility for the killing and wounding of 10 SDF members in Deir Ezzor, including two members of the local councils, as Enab Baladi monitored.
The IS also claimed responsibility for an improvised explosive device attack on an Asayish member’s funeral procession in the town of al-Karamah. The attack resulted in killing and wounding 10 fighters.
Local networks reported that the bombing resulted in one fighter’s death and some participants’ injury at the funeral.
On 29 March, two Asayish fighters were killed, and three others were wounded in two separate attacks in the town of al-Karamah. The first attack was carried out by masked persons on motorcycles against a water tanker truck carrying four Asayish fighters. The attack led to the death of an Asayish fighter and the injury of three others. The second attack targeted an Asayish fighter in front of his house and killed him immediately.
Civilians of al-Hol camp as a political pressure card in the SDF’s hands
Al-Hol camp is notorious for housing only supporters and families of IS fighters. However, it is also a home for many civilians, including Iraqi refugees and Syrian internally displaced people (IDP), particularly from eastern Syria.
Researcher Anas Shawakh said that the SDF keeps civilians in the camp to use it as a “political pressure card” even though it can reduce 60 percent of the camp’s population.
Al-Hol camp was established in the 90s to accommodate five thousand Iraqi refugees. Then, the Autonomous Administration opened it in mid-April 2016 to receive Syrian IDP and Iraqi refugees fleeing from IS areas.
The al-Hol camp saw the influx of large numbers of IDP from areas under the IS control when the SDF, backed by the US-led coalition, launched an offensive in al-Baghuz town, the IS’s last strongholds, and controlled it, declaring victory over IS on 23 March 2019.
The camp received thousands of the IS’ families, fighters, and many of its prisoners and kidnapped people, along with the residents of the villages and towns that witnessed the battles.
The local Hawar News Agency (ANHA) of the Autonomous Administration reported statistics obtained through a population survey conducted by the camp administration on 13 January, which indicated that the number of al-Hol camp residents is about 62 thousand people. Half of them are Iraqis (more than 30 thousand and 700 people), while the remaining portion consists of approximately 22 thousand and 616 Syrian people and less than 9 thousand foreigners.
On 23 May 2019, the Autonomous Administration agreed with camp officials to return the displaced women and children to their towns. They reached this agreement after a forum was held in Ain Issa town in Raqqa countryside, under the name “Clans Forum.”
As a result, the number of Syrians in the camp decreased because many batches of civilians, who were displaced from the countryside of Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, and al-Hasakeh in northeastern Syria during the battles against the IS group, returned to their homes.
Several batches of Syrian civilians left the camp after the President of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), Ilham Ahmed, stated on 4 October 2020 that the SDF concluded an agreement with the Autonomous Administration that includes removing all Syrians from al-Hol camp. Some foreign countries also brought back their citizens who were held in the camp.
What is the solution to stop targeting civilians?
The radical solution is either to empty the camp of its residents altogether or divide them into groups inside the camp and evacuate civilians, should the SDF keep the camp as it is, it will put civilians and international organizations who have to deal with it in danger of being targeted by the IS fighters.
Meanwhile, IS operatives or suspected members must be referred either to investigation or to trial, according to researcher Anas Shawakh.
Member of the Board of the Administration of Asayish in al-Hol, Dersem Hasan said on 13 January that deaths are taking place in al-Hol camp because “the Iraqi and Syrian families that left the town of al-Baghouz (IS’s former stronghold) formed something similar to a state in the part of the camp they live in.” Light weapons were smuggled to IS members “through the workers of the humanitarian organizations active in the camp.”
Information officer in the SDF Siamand Ali said that the recent security sweep in al-Hol camp came after the IS families’ increased pace of activities and crime rates rose inside the camp.
Furthermore, the IS women started to organize themselves inside the camp. Siamand Ali said that the operation was based on the pleas by the tribal sheikhs in the region to reduce the danger of this notorious camp to the region in the first place and to the world in general.
What is the goal of security sweep?
The operation, which involved more than five thousand fighters of the SDF, the Asayish, the Women’s Protection Units, and the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units, lasted for six days, from 28 March to 2 April 2021.
The Asayish stated that the operation resulted in the arrests of 125 suspected IS operatives. 20 of those were sleeper cell leaders responsible for the assassinations that took place in the camp. Military supplies were also found during the inspection campaign, in addition to electronic circuits used in preparing explosive devices.
Researcher Anas Shawakh explained that the IS sleeper cells are still present in the camp, ruling out the validity of the numbers that the Asayish talked about.
It is possible that many detainees are not from the IS’s cells. It would be difficult for the SDF to access such precise information, despite the launch of its security campaign based on intelligence information from the International Coalition.
Anas Shawakh also ruled out that civilians had reported information to the SDF about the IS cells for fear of reprisals by IS cells “which control the camp at night.”
The SDF has published inaccurate information before about the detainees. It arrested children with disabilities in Deir Ezzor countryside at an earlier time and implicated the International Coalition with false information, according to Shawakh.
Shawakh pointed out that most of those arrested during the al-Hol security campaign are of Iraqi origins or other nationalities, which makes it difficult to track whether they are IS group affiliates or not. He added that verifying the affiliation of Syrian detainees is easier because the majority belong to tribes and are known to the SDF informants.
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