Al-Hol camp returns to the fore: Does SDF deliberately keep ISIS alive?

Elements of the Internal Security Forces (Asayish) during a security campaign in the al-Hol camp in eastern al-Hasakah - August 2022 (Syrian Democratic Forces Media Office/Facebook)

Elements of the Internal Security Forces (Asayish) during a security campaign in the al-Hol camp in eastern al-Hasakah - August 2022 (Syrian Democratic Forces Media Office/Facebook)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

The control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) supported by the US-led International Coalition in northeast Syria came at the expense of the Islamic State (IS) organization, which took control of the region coming from Iraq and expanded and reached central Syria.

Under the strikes of the International Coalition (consisting of 86 countries) and the SDF east of the Euphrates River, the Russian, Iranian, and Syrian regime alliance west of the river, and Turkey and the Syrian National Army (SNA) north and east of Aleppo, the influence of the IS organization receded, and only prisoners of its former members remained distributed in prisons managed by the SDF and camps inhabited by the families of the organization’s fighters, most notably al-Hol and al-Roj.

Talk resumed about the security situation in the al-Hol camp, which houses the families of fighters from the Islamic State organization in eastern al-Hasakah, in a statement by the camp’s director, Jihan Hanan, as reported by the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, where she stated that securing the camp is a “complicated and difficult” security issue due to reasons related to its large area of about 3000 dunums.

Hanan added that the role of the security forces “is limited to protecting and monitoring the main camp gates and that they conduct patrols on foot inside the camp, without the presence of fixed security centers or headquarters within its sections.”

According to the camp’s director, the Autonomous Administration is working on “protecting the camp residents with simple security capabilities and equipment,” and pointed out that the security forces do not possess modern and advanced devices, nor do they have the resources to increase the number of security personnel.

Despite the security campaigns launched by the military forces, the camp still witnesses security incidents and recurring violations, according to Hanan.

The SDF announced on December 27, 2023, that its forces, with the support of the International Coalition, carried out a precise joint security operation against what it described as “one of the most dangerous elements of the (ISIS) terrorist organization,” within the al-Hol camp in eastern al-Hasakah, inside one of the tents, and managed to capture Abu Obeida al-Iraqi, who is responsible for the camp within the Islamic State organization.

The al-Hol camp, east of al-Hasakah, took its current form after a large number of displaced people flowed in from the areas that were under the control of the IS organization during the SDF’s attack against its last strongholds and succeeded in controlling them, announcing the end of the organization on March 23, 2019.

The camp was established in the nineties to accommodate five thousand Iraqi refugees, and today it includes 35,000 Syrians, and roughly the same number of Iraqis, and around ten thousand people from 30 to 40 other countries.

Repeated security campaigns

Over the past years, the security campaigns launched by the SDF in the al-Hol camp in eastern al-Hasakah in search of members of the Islamic State organization have been repeated, as the camp always witnesses security disturbances on the background of operations carried out by the organization’s cells inside it.

One of the most prominent and longest operations in terms of duration was launched by the SDF inside the camp in August 2022, during which it searched all the camp sectors, which houses more than 50,000 individuals from Syrians and foreigners, and at that time, the Kurdish Hawar news agency stated that the SDF found a trench and rooms built of stone and removed a number of tents used by the members of IS organization and its cells for training.

During 2022, the al-Hol camp witnessed the killing of 44 people, including 14 women and two children, and these operations targeted the camp residents, humanitarian organization volunteers, members of the Asayish, as well as repeated escape attempts and plans to attack the camp from the outside.

The Resident Coordinator of the United Nations and the Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, Imran Riza, expressed concern about the increasing levels of violence among the inhabitants of the al-Hol camp after a visit he made to the area in mid-2022.

The camp administration announced, before the start of the same security campaign, the occurrence of 28 murder cases, including 12 of Syrian nationality, 14 of Iraqi refugees, and two unidentified individuals, in addition to 15 attempted murders that failed, while the United Nations stated that more than 100 murder cases occurred during a year and a half in the al-Hol camp.

In 2021, the SDF launched a similar security operation that covered sectors of the camp and was carried out by around 6000 SDF fighters, according to its official statistics and led to the arrest of dozens of IS organization members.

SDF between capability and willingness

In mid-December 2023, the US Congress approved the budget of the US Department of Defense for 2024, amounting to $842 billion, of which $156 million was allocated for combating the Islamic State organization in Syria.

The budget specified an amount of $398 million for the Syria and Iraq Train and Equip Fund to enhance the capabilities of the US Department of Defense partner forces in combating the Islamic State organization, and providing “secure and humane” detention for the organization’s fighters, according to the US Department of Defense.

The funding allocated for this purpose, which includes support for the SDF in northeast Syria, decreased by about $9 million compared to the previous year.

The same American decision is the main cause of SDF’s complaint about the security issues in the al-Hol camp, according to jihadist groups affairs researcher Abdul Rahman al-Hajj.

Al-Hajj told Enab Baladi that the SDF’s ability or willingness to end the presence of the IS organization in the camp seems to be non-existent, and it is difficult to avoid thinking that the SDF benefits from this situation, as the organization’s survival but without significant impact gives the SDF leverage to pressure the Coalition countries to continue support for it.

The SDF wants the Coalition and the United States to divert their support to the political level, especially as the threat to release the organization’s detainees has been made more than once and on more than one occasion, especially during the escalations against it by Turkey.

The researcher believes it is difficult to believe that the situation in the al-Hol camp is not a deliberate part of SDF’s policies.

An incomplete plan to alleviate pressure

The issue of releasing families from the eastern provinces residing in the al-Hol and al-Roj camps or in prisons designated for the Islamic State organization has been a major demand by the sons and dignitaries of these provinces over the past years.

On November 23, 2023, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) made a series of promises to ease the hostility between it and the tribes of Deir Ezzor, including the organized and periodic extraction of families from the al-Hol camp who are originally from Deir Ezzor.

The SDF detained thousands of families in the al-Hol camp on charges of affiliation with the Islamic State organization that controlled the region before 2019.

Previously, the former President of the Executive Authority of the Syria Democratic Council (MSD), Ilham Ahmed, stated in 2020 that the MSD had reached an agreement with AANES to remove all Syrians from the al-Hol camp, which has not been implemented until today and is proceeding at a slow pace.

Anas Shawakh, a researcher at the Jusoor for Studies Center, told Enab Baladi that the complaint of AANES about the al-Hol camp is not the first to show SDF using the camp and the detention facilities for the IS organization’s elements as leverage and blackmail, even on the international community.

He added that there are many measures available to AANES to alleviate pressure inside the camps, such as the case of detainees in the camps of Syrian nationality who are released in scattered irregular batches on tribal guarantees.

The specialist researcher on the affairs of northeast Syria wondered if the fate of Syrians in al-Hol camp is to leave, why is it done in batches and with very limited numbers, sometimes not exceeding 100 people out of approximately 20,000 inside the camp.

He added that it is expected that AANES will suffer a financial crisis during the current year in securing financial resources with the strikes that targeted its main sources of funding from oil and gas fields, especially since this type of target has become part of the new Turkish strategy in confronting the risks and threats of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which benefits from these resources.

Thousands of prisoners of the Islamic State organization fighters have been held in SDF prisons and camps since it controlled areas east of the Euphrates River, where the organization was prevalent before 2019.

Since then, AANES has established camps for the families of prisoners of various nationalities and prisons for former IS organization members.

With the repeated talk about the file of the IS organization’s prisoners in Syria, there has been no incentive for the countries from which some of these fighters come to repatriate their citizens from Syria and to try them on their territories or, according to their local laws, except for timid measures taken by some countries over the past years.


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