Syrian coalition forces hunt fleeing jihadists
As larger areas of Syria’s war-wracked terrain fall into the hands of its belligerents, so too do many of the displaced populace and jihadist fighters, either captured or hiding in plain sight among refugees.
From this morass, individuals must be assessed and either placed in refugee camps or jailed.
From a peak in January 2015 to June of this year, the Islamic State (ISIS) has lost an estimated 54,600 sq.km — approximately 60% — of its territory. How many fighters have been killed, captured or deserted is unknown.
Even identifying the number of ISIS fighters in the Syrian theatre is difficult. Given the nature of the country’s war, fighters can be conscripted by one militia and transferred to another. Potential jihadists can join one group before retreating to their homes and re-emerging elsewhere.
“ISIS has waged total war. [It has] harnessed entire communities for the express purposes of waging jihad,” Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, said in a telephone interview. “What we’re seeing in Syria is an insurgency grounded within societies and, if you are going to get rid of all of that, you have to start with genocide.”
“In terms of Raqqa and Deir ez- Zor, we’re talking about families,” Heras said. “What is the culpability of a wife who knew her husband to be keeping captured slaves or a 10-year-old child who’s been entirely indoctrinated?”
Even among known fighters, their role in any conflict is often vigorously denied.
Syria analyst Hassan Hassan on October 2 posted on Twitter that: “If we go by the description of those the US kills, all ISIS members are emirs. If we go by what ISIS defectors say, all ISIS members are cooks.”
The task of sifting ISIS fighters from among Raqqa’s human exodus has fallen to the US-sponsored and Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as well as the provisional Raqqa City Council.
There are two camps north of Raqqa, each focused on providing care for the city’s internally displaced and screening many of the approximately 324,000 people who have fled Raqqa.
Idris Mohammed, a spokesman for the SDF-affiliated Raqqa Internal Security Forces, told the Syria Deeply website: “When refugees come to us from Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor or any other areas, they first register their name on paper through the office of entry into the camp. The paper is then sent to the internal security forces to investigate.
“We can say that those who worked with ISIS for money will be released,” he said. Likewise, many of those thought not to be involved in the heaviest of the fighting are handed into the custody of local tribes, who act as guarantors of the detainee’s behaviour.
However, “those who took up arms and stained their hands with the blood of the Syrian people will not be released,” Mohammed told the website.
Of particular interest to the SDF, the Americans, the regime and its allies are the foreign fighters who fought jihad in Syria. A Soufan Group report stated there were an estimated 15,000 foreign fighters in Syria in 2015, about 6,000 of whom were said to be Tunisian. That figure has been disputed, with estimates putting the number in the 6,000-20,000 range.
Unlike most of their relatively inexperienced Syrian comrades, ISIS’s foreign fighters are better trained, more committed and generally less likely to surrender. Many of Syria’s travelling jihadists are thought to be involved in the fight with regime forces and its allies for Deir ez-Zor governorate or have pulled back to positions at Abu Kamal. Others may have left Syria.
“They’re really tied into the criminal networks in Turkey,” Heras said, “These are the channels that first brought them to Syria and could just as easily take them out. Essentially, we’re looking at an entire generation of jihadists that we won’t always be able to identify or know how to fix. We’re going to be dealing with that for decades to come.”
Simon Speakman Cordall is a section editor with The Arab Weekly.