QAMISHLI, Syria — At a closely guarded prison in this northeastern Syrian town, former Islamic State fighters make papier-mâché models of birds, flowers and trees while serving sentences that typically run two or three years.
Across the border in Iraq, Islamic State detainees are being held in degrading conditions, subjected to torture and often, when brought to trial, given long sentences or the death penalty, according to human rights groups.
The Syrian Kurdish allies of the United States are attempting a different approach. Their goal, Kurdish officials say, is to rehabilitate and reintegrate many of the Islamic State fighters in their custody, in hopes of deterring a revival of the militant movement.
The Syrian Kurds’ leftist ideology precludes the death penalty, and their few functioning courts issue light sentences for fighters not found to have committed major crimes. Hundreds more militants have simply been freed in deals with local Arab tribes whose cooperation the Kurds need to maintain.
By acting with leniency, the Kurds hope to break the cycle of revenge that has trapped so much of the region in conflict for decades, said Khaled Barjas Ali, a senior judge in the terrorism courts run by the self-proclaimed Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria.
“If I sentence a man to death, I am spreading hate. We want to give people reasons to trust us,” he said. “If you take revenge, people will be radicalized. But with reconciliation we are sure we can finish the problem.”
It is an imperfect effort that is patchily enforced, inexpertly applied and acutely under-resourced. But it raises a question unanswered by the wider international community despite nearly two decades of war against terrorism: Do harsh punishments work to deter extremism?
“It’s the million-dollar question,” said Colin Clarke, an expert in counterterrorism and deradicalization with the nonprofit Soufan Center. “We still don’t have a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t work. We don’t have a large body of evidence to look back upon.”
The United States and its allies vigorously prosecuted the military campaign that resulted in the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in March. They have put less effort into managing the aftermath of the war, including what to do with the approximately 90,000 Islamic State fighters and family members who survived the battles, he said.
“As soon as the kinetic fight was over, it’s, ‘Oh, ISIS is done,’ and we walk away,” Clarke said, using another name for the Islamic State.
The Syrian Kurds have been left almost alone to accommodate, feed and guard the captives now being held in either prisons or internment camps. Among the detainees are 1,000 foreign fighters and 9,000 of their wives and children from 46 countries, only 14 of which have agreed to repatriate citizens and mostly only children, according to the Kurdish administration.
The Kurds are appealing for international help and are promoting a proposal for a U.N. tribunal to bring to justice the foreign fighters they hold. But the international community has shown little interest in backing the plan, said Letta Tayler of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Unlike Iraq, the Kurdish administration in Syria’s northeast is not an internationally recognized sovereign state and is moreover closely affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and Europe. That precludes many forms of direct assistance that might imply recognition, diplomats say.
The Kurds are keen to demonstrate that their judicial system is fair and meets international standards, in the hope of receiving assistance, Tayler said. But trained legal staff are scarce, and the system appears haphazard, at best.
In the past five years, the three terrorism courts established by the Kurds have tried some 1,500 cases, according to Hassan Hassan, an administrator at one of the courts in the city of Qamishli. An additional 4,000 Syrian fighters are awaiting trial — a backlog that will take 13 years to clear at the current pace. The Kurds are also holding 1,500 Iraqi fighters and 1,000 foreigners whom they have no intention of bringing to court unless their proposal for an international tribunal is adopted, Hassan said.
One recent trial held in a small side office at the Qamishli court seemed a makeshift affair. A 19-year-old defendant called Omar sat handcuffed on a chair in the middle of the room. Four people squeezed behind a desk, three of them judges, one the prosecutor. He read out the charge: that the accused had fought with the Islamic State.
Omar had no defense lawyer. He said he was 15 when he joined the militants and did so only for the money. After a process that lasted seven minutes, he put his thumbprint on a copy of his statement and was led away. A sentence will be issued later, but convictions in such cases typically draw about two years, Hassan said.
Some, including members of the Arab tribes who allied with the Kurds against the militants, believe the Kurds are being too lenient, according to Hassan Hassan of the Washington-based Center for Global Policy, who is from eastern Syria but is not related to the court official.
“Some people complain it’s a process that will backfire,” he said, “that you have too many former ISIS fighters who are sitting with their families back home and you don’t know if they are just waiting to be reactivated.”
There is also the question of fairness, he said. While some fighters are being freed and others are given light sentences, others wait years for a trial. And there is no process for dealing with the cases of the tens of thousands of women and children detained in the dismal internment camps.
Access to the prisons housing the fighters still awaiting trial is prohibited. There have been scattered but persistent reports of abuses against captives by Kurdish and Arab fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led militia that fought the Islamic State.
A visit to the prison in Qamishli where about 400 convicted fighters are serving their sentences suggests conditions for at least some are better than those in Iraqi prisons. The torture and mistreatment of Iraqis suspected of involvement in insurgent activities helped fuel the resurgence of the Islamic State after U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, and there are indications that conditions have not improved, human rights researchers say.
Photographs obtained by Human Rights Watch and published in a recent report showed prisoners piled on top of one another on the floor of a cell. During a month of trials that the group’s researchers secured permission to attend, in February last year, 655 of the 758 accused were given sentences in excess of 15 years, and 203 were sentenced to death, according to Belkis Wille, Human Rights Watch’s Iraq representative.
The Qamishli facility, originally a Syrian government prison, features a visiting hall with glass booths and intercoms, a barber and a dentist clinic. The air-conditioned cells have three-tier bunk beds and televisions tuned to Arabic soap operas.
Two dozen prisoners were attending an art class, where they were painting papier-mâché palm trees in a room crammed with models, some of them elaborate reconstructions of towns and villages that were apparently made by prisoners.
“Here we have learned that the ISIS ideology was wrong,” said a 36-year-old former fighter, who said he had 10 weeks left to serve, in the presence of prison guards. Many prisoners said they were weeks or months away from release, but a handful had been given 20 years, the maximum, because they had been found guilty of planting bombs or killing people, prison officials said.
In a classroom, most of the few books were by Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK and the intellectual father of the Syrian Kurdish group that controls northeastern Syria. Prisoners are not forced to embrace his leftist ideology, staff said, but apparently it helps. Some who do are given jobs in the Kurdish-led militia or the administration when they are released, said a prison administration official who asked to be identified by her nom de guerre, Haval (Comrade) Abir.
Most only joined the Islamic State because they needed the salary and are not committed to the militants’ ideology, she said.
“It is our philosophy to give them a chance to start a new life. Maybe a man made a mistake and he joined Daesh, but maybe he’s a victim of his circumstances and he’s repentant,” she said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Haval Mohammed, the prison’s director, seemed less sure. “Of course there are some who still love Daesh,” he said.
Kamiran Sadoun contributed to this report.
Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design by Brandon Ferrill