BEIRUT — America’s Syrian Kurdish allies are at risk of losing control of the vast camp where the families of the Islamic State’s defeated fighters are being detained as militant women increasingly assert their dominance over the camp, according to the top Kurdish military commander.
“There is a serious risk in al-Hol. Right now, our people are able to guard it. But because we lack resources, Daesh are regrouping and reorganizing in the camp,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “We can’t control them 100 percent, and the situation is grave.”
The al-Hol camp houses around 70,000 people, most of them women and children who were displaced by the war against the Islamic State. A majority of those are ordinary civilians caught up in the fighting who have no relationship to the militants, and more than half are children.
But as many as 30,000 are Islamic State loyalists, including the most die-hard radicals who chose to remain in the group’s self-declared caliphate until the final battle for the village of Baghouz this year, Mazloum said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in the Syrian province of Hasakah.
Around 10,000 of those are foreigners from more than 40 countries who made the journey to join the Islamic State in Syria, and they are among the most fiercely committed extremists, according to camp officials.
Tensions in the camp have risen sharply since Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivered an audio address last month urging his followers to “tear down the walls” of the camps and prisons housing detainees to free them, SDF officials say. The women have set up their own Islamic State-style sharia courts and are inflicting physical punishments on ordinary camp residents who reject their ideology.
One of the SDF’s foremost wishes is for governments to alleviate some of the burden on the SDF by repatriating their citizens, Mazloum said. But most governments are refusing to take them back.
The Kurdish administration also needs help with funding to secure, feed and house the detainees, he said. The town-size camp, sprawled across a remote stretch of desert near the Iraqi border, is surrounded only by a rusty, sagging chain-link fence. Floodlights — paid for by the Kurds — to detect breakouts at night were smashed almost immediately by women throwing rocks, Mazloum said. The guards have no night-vision equipment, and the few closed-circuit TV cameras are useless after sunset.
Smugglers sympathetic to the Islamic State lurk in the desert nearby and close in under cover of darkness and help women and children clamber across the fence.
Mazloum said he believed all of those who have escaped in that way were foreigners, and all were subsequently recaptured. SDF officials concede, however, that it is possible some have managed to get away, and could make their way back to their home countries undetected.
An incident this week heightened fears that the camp is slipping out of control. Guards attempting to intervene to prevent Russian Islamic State women from administering beatings against two women who had failed to obey their rules were confronted by stone-throwing women, two of whom pulled guns, according to the officials. The guards opened fire in the air, according to Mazloum, but aid workers reported that four women were injured by gunshots and the SDF said one woman died.
Compounding the problem are dismal living conditions. Food is scarce, water supplies are contaminated and disease is rife. With winter approaching, the misery will only increase, heightening discontent in the camp and perhaps turning more residents against the SDF, said Mazloum, citing the urgent need for more humanitarian assistance as well.
The U.S. military shares the SDF’s concerns, said Col. Myles B. Caggins lll, a U.S. military spokesman speaking from Baghdad. Although large numbers of the camp’s residents are not Islamic State supporters, “without an international solution, the next generation of ISIS combatants may emerge from al-Hol,” he said.
The SDF forces are meanwhile stretched thin across their vast territory, amounting to a third of Syria, by the effort to suppress revived Islamic State activity elsewhere, by continuing threats from Turkey and fears that it plans to invade the northern part of the area, and by the need to defend against possible incursions from the Syrian government to the south.
“All this is preventing us from focusing on the camp,” Mazloum said. “If we can remove these challenges, we can manage.”
But, he added, that would require a political settlement to the overall Syrian war, “which will take a very long time.”