Three years after the territorial defeat of ISIS, areas of northern Syria formerly controlled by the group are still struggling to grapple with its legacy. Entire families remain detained without charge in detention camps including al-Hol, while thousands of men accused of fighting with the organization are held in formal prisons. Almost none of these indefinitely detained individuals have been officially charged with a crime. While human rights organizations and policy makers alike continue to call for the repatriation of detained foreigners, the majority within these camps and prisons are Syrian. To understand how these Syrians can be charged, potentially tried, and released, it is necessary to understand whether Syrian communities across the region are prepared to welcome former ISIS affiliates back into society.
Attitudes toward former ISIS members and their families differ across tribes and ethnic groups, and are based on each particular community’s experiences with ISIS. While some see reconciliation as impossible because of the severity of the violations that the group committed against kin and neighbors, others regard past collaboration with ISIS as so widespread that it must be forgiven. Many opinions fall between those two poles. Any process of reconciliation or accountability, whether formal or informal, will have to confront this varied array of attitudes.
In certain areas, the transition to ISIS control was sufficiently gradual that it involved little violence between the group and local populations. While some individuals certainly joined ISIS out of belief in the cause—especially those who traveled from areas outside of the group’s control like Lattakia or Tartous—many living in northeastern Syria found themselves pulled into ISIS gradually and subtly. Locals who had fought under the banner of the Free Syrian Army found themselves fighting under Ahrar al-Sham or Jabhat al-Nusra and then under ISIS, in some cases only finding out after the fact that their commanders had shifted their allegiance. One SJAC interviewee, intent on combatting the Syrian government after enduring torture while under arrest by pro-government forces, joined the organization because the Free Syrian Army had ceased operating in his area and because ISIS ostensibly opposed the government. These peaceful takeovers left few casualties, and therefore little basis for ongoing resentments or feuds. They also left large swathes of the population dependent on ISIS for employment and income, whether as fighters, security officers, or administrators. Other areas resisted the entry of ISIS, creating an entirely different relationship with the organization. Towns like Al-Shuhayl attempted to stave off the group’s advance, and were subjected to massacres once the organization took control.
Tribal, religious, and ethnic differences likewise produced profoundly different experiences with ISIS across Syria. Members of tribal formations like the Al-Shaytat fought against ISIS and suffered mass killings at the hands of its fighters. ISIS intentionally made an example of the Al-Shaytat, encouraging other tribes to join ISIS en masse. Whereas some populations broadly shared ISIS’s extremely conservative interpretation of Islam and therefore chafed little under its strict code of behavior, others faced brutal forms of punishment for minor infractions. Across northern Syria, ISIS killed and displaced large numbers of Kurdish civilians and Kurdish groups, such as the YPG, which fought ISIS repeatedly, limiting the appetite for reconciliation among Syrian Kurds.
These radically divergent experiences of ISIS’s conquest and control over northern Syria produced equally distinct attitudes toward reconciliation and accountability. Some regard former ISIS affiliation as inconsequential, amounting to a means of securing an income during wartime, little different from affiliation with any of the other armed factions or governing bodies that passed through the region during the Syrian conflict. Likewise, some see little reason to fault individual members of tribes that joined the organization for that affiliation, given that repudiating ISIS would have meant abandoning their kin. The ability of tribal justice and reconciliation mechanisms to account for ISIS crimes (e.g, by requiring individuals to formally disavow membership in tribes associated with ISIS) also varies based on how the conflict unfolded in particular locations.
Certain communities see sharp distinctions between those who served in ISIS in administrative or support roles, and those who were highly ranked within the group or committed violations or atrocities while fighting in ISIS’ ranks. This mindset has become clear to SJAC’s documenters, who often joke that ISIS must have been made up entirely of garbage men, as many former affiliates now claim that garbage collection was their only role within the organization. Of course, what type of role is considered innocuous versus criminal differs from one person to the next. While pleading her child’s innocence, one mother told SJAC, “My son served in ISIS, but only as a sniper.” However, others—especially those from towns and tribes that suffered the group’s worst depredations—see any form of affiliation with ISIS, even in administrative roles, as meriting vengeance.
Former ISIS affiliates have already begun reintegrating into society in northeastern Syria. Some—especially those who occupied non-combat roles—simply slipped away as the organization was defeated militarily and rejoined their communities without facing any kind of accountability. Others were captured by the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and subsequently released through a tribal bail system, in which the kin of detained ISIS affiliates chose to bail them out and welcome them back into the fold. Generally, those who have been released are not accused of committing crimes or violations against local communities, though no official process is in place to guarantee that. Among these strata of former ISIS affiliates, treatment can vary by rank and role. Some former ISIS leaders live relatively normal lives, socially isolated on their farms, while others have fled to Turkey or other parts of Syria. In some areas, everyone with a prior ISIS affiliation lives in fear of revenge attacks or arrest by security services. Indeed, some tribesmen in Deir Ezzor who joined ISIS now fear that their own kinsmen will supply information to western intelligence agencies for targeted drone attacks. The SDF has now entered a phase in which it is releasing individuals who have not yet been bailed out, raising the question of whether or not their kin in fact want to reintegrate them into the tribe. Those still held by the SDF are likelier to be suspected of serious transgressions, and are therefore likelier to face the threat of revenge killings upon release.
The international community is increasingly understanding the indefinite detention of ISIS fighters and their families as a looming security crisis. There is a renewed push to not only repatriate foreigners, but also to create a plan to close down Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps. In order to achieve this goal, SDF will need assistance in formally processing all detained Syrians, releasing those who are not accused of a crime and trying those who are. However, such support will need to go beyond releases. It will also have to deal with widely divergent experiences with, and attitudes toward, former ISIS members across a diverse region. Moreover, these attitudes directly affect ongoing and prospective non-state reconciliation processes including mechanisms of tribal law and custom. Those Syrians living in the wake of ISIS’ attempt to found a caliphate—and with a still-simmering ISIS insurgency—will likely have strong disagreements about what form any set of reconciliation and accountability processes ought to take.