The Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led coalition of troops in northeastern Syria that has been backed by United States forces, has been guarding about 20 small prisons that hold 10,000 people accused of being members of the Islamic State. The Kurds also control and operate several camps that house 70,000 women and children believed to be family members of Islamic State fighters.
Now the Kurds say they have to pull guards from these facilities to fight off Turkish troops crossing the border -- and the U.S. has said it won’t intervene.
All of this has left Kurdish forces caught between protecting the prisons and camps and staving off Turkish soldiers at the border. Controlling prisoners has also become one of their last bargaining chips for trying to influence what they see as an increasingly fickle United States.
On Friday, the SDF said several Syrian Islamic State prisoners escaped from a detention facility in Qamishli, in northeastern Syria, after Turkish forces bombed it. That was a harbinger of more to come: Over the weekend, hundreds of ISIS family members broke out of camp in Ain Isaa, which has been the administrative capital of the Kurdish-led government.
Because of the fighting U.S. officials have been unable to move dozens of high-value ISIS prisoners to more secure detention facilities, while one official told The Washington Post that “that multiple Kurdish-run detention facilities were now unguarded and that the U.S. military believed hundreds of detainees had escaped.”
There’s much we don’t know about these prisons. The SDF remains secretive about many detention facilities, with foreign journalists, researchers and humanitarian aid workers allowed to access only a few. A few hold the most hardcore members. Many of the detention facilities are overcrowded “pop-up” prisons, converted schools or government offices where men are crammed in rooms without beds or mattresses and have little room to lie down.
“ISIS would be very interested” in learning more about these facilities, said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. An SDF spokesperson declined to comment.
So far, the State Department has said there are no or just a few prisons in the area that Turkey has moved into. But Turkish authorities have also said they want to build a buffer zone about 20 miles deep into Syria, and about 15 percent of the 10,000 prisoners are in that zone, according to the State Department. Turkey has also signaled, and Kurdish forces fear, that the Turks will seize the opportunity and overrun the entire border area, in which there are more detention facilities.
The makeshift nature of many of these prisons is a concern. According to a recent report by Washington-based International Crisis Group, “The SDF’s Western Coalition partners have been legally unable to contribute more than limited funds to reinforce existing detention facilities and turn buildings such as schools into ‘pop-up prisons.’ ” That’s because the U.S. money that the SDF is receiving is congressionally mandated not to be used to build new structures, including better prisons.
“SDF partners have been concerned that ISIS could target these makeshift prisons for jailbreaks or that prisoners could stage riots that turn into mass escapes, a threat that will become all the more serious now that Turkey and its allies are entering northeastern Syria and the SDF will have to redirect its resources to confronting them,” the report continued.
Of the estimated 10,000 Islamic State members held, around 2,000 are foreign fighters representing more than 40 countries. The foreign fighters are generally hardcore supporters of the extremist group, compared with many of the Iraqis and Syrians who joined for socioeconomic rather than ideological reasons.
The United States has taken into custody and transferred to Iraq two high-profile detainees from Britain — Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh — who are accused of being part of the notorious “Beatles” who executed American hostages.
The United States has so far remained mum about what to do if a prison break occurs.
As The Washington Post’s Liz Sly and Missy Ryan reported, “U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the evolving U.S. strategy in Syria, said the Pentagon did not have enough forces to oversee the prisons if those facilities were left unguarded, nor a mandate to do so.”
In addition to the detention facilities, there are camps holding the wives and children of suspected fighters, some of whom are themselves members and supporters of the Islamic State.
Observers have said that the dismal Hol detention camp — holding an estimated 70,000 women and children — could be a particular risk, as it is badly secured and houses some very radicalized and violent female detainees.
“The camp is surrounded by a flimsy fence and lacks even basic security precautions such as searchlights,” Sly and Ryan reported Tuesday. “In an interview last week, the SDF’s top commander, Gen. Mazloum Abdi, said Kurdish guards don’t have ’100 percent’ control of the camp.”
Some of the Kurdish prisons have tried to take a different approach, aiming “to rehabilitate and reintegrate many of the Islamic State fighters in their custody, in hopes of deterring a revival of the militant movement,” as Sly reported.
But these efforts at breaking the cycle of revenge take time and resources, something increasingly elusive as military operations escalate.