Policy Brief: Managing ISIS Prisons in Syria
As a week-long standoff between ISIS fighters and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) draws to a close in Hassakeh province, civilians in the region have been left to cope with the ramifications of failed policies for dealing with ISIS prisoners, including internal displacement and property destruction.
The guerilla-style attack was carried out by armed men who stormed Ghweiran Prison after a car bomb was detonated near the prison gate, enabling ISIS fighters to escape. Planning the attack involved well-orchestrated efforts by members of ISIS, both inside and outside of Ghweiran, who coordinated with mobile phones smuggled into the prison. While the total number of escapees remains unknown, more than 100 were recaptured by SDF as it secured the facility and the surrounding neighborhoods. Additionally, reports suggest that at least 800 minors were inmates in Ghweiran, many of whom were used as human shields by ISIS prisoners. They represent a fraction of the thousands of minors detained in SDF-controlled prisons and camps.
What happened in Hassakeh is not the first indication of ISIS’s resurgence. Rather, the number of ISIS attacks across Iraq and Syria has rapidly increased over the past several months, pointing to the group’s resilience and its enduring ability to activate sleeper cells. Indeed, at the same time as Ghweiran was overrun, ten Iraqi soldiers were killed by ISIS gunmen who attacked an army outpost in Diyala Province. Shortly thereafter, ISIS captured the village of Rasafa near Raqqa. These events follow the release of a gruesome video in which a kidnapped Iraqi police officer was beheaded in December 2021 and multiple suicide bombs in Baghdad earlier last year.
The attack on the prison highlights serious justice and security failures in Northeast Syria on multiple levels. Most immediately, it demonstrates that the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS has failed to achieve the limited tactical goals it set for itself upon its creation in 2014 and the territorial defeat of ISIS in 2019. In Syria in particular, the Coalition has prioritized logistical support to local Syrian partners (i.e., the Syrian Democratic Forces) to suppress a low-level ISIS insurgency through military training, targeted raids, and prison management. However, as is clear from the attack, as well as from other security installations and civilian populations in Syria and Iraq over the past several years, the Coalition’s tactical support has been inadequate.
Ultimately, the SDF and its civilian arm in the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) cannot alone shoulder the manifold security, humanitarian, and justice-related challenges that have gripped Northeast Syria since the territorial defeat of ISIS. Moreover, the attacks reveal the inherent limits of the Coalition’s narrowly tactical approach: there is no larger strategy to obtain justice for the victims of ISIS crimes or accountability for the perpetrators. Yet without justice and accountability, a sustainable resolution will not be implemented to address the long-term social and political issues that enable ISIS to survive.
Accordingly, upon restoration of security at Ghweiran prison and the capture of any escapees who remain in its environs, the following recommendations consist of actionable steps that can be taken by the concerned parties to: (1) help shoulder responsibility for ISIS fighters, (2) generate a concrete plan for preventing future attacks and curtailing ISIS’s resurgence, and (3) ensure redress for victims/survivors.
Global Coalition Forces
- Provide immediate logistical and humanitarian support to the more than 25,000 residents of Hassakeh who were displaced by the fighting around Ghweiran. The Coalition and SDF response led to damage of homes and properties around the prison, with reports of victims of crimes by ISIS escapees, and those affected should be compensated for material losses. This aid is especially important given that the economic situation in Northeast Syria remains dire and US stabilizing funds have declined since 2018.
- Develop a comprehensive security plan for Northeast Syria that reassesses the threat capability of ISIS and the role of Coalition forces in dealing with that threat (e.g., by targeting sleeper cells rather than focusing on senior organizational leadership). This plan should prioritize cross-border intelligence-sharing between the Coalition, SDF, and Iraqi authorities, who are also grappling with renewed ISIS attacks.
- Provide more security personnel and technical equipment to assist SDF in securing and monitoring the area around Ghweiran Prison and other ISIS detention facilities.
- Provide support for the opening of additional detention facilities in Northeast Syria to reduce overcrowding in Ghweiran Prison and threats to nearby civilian populations, with a clear timeline for their closure to support ISIS-related justice processes. These prisons address a short-term need but should not be a substitute for a just resolution of ISIS crimes, or serve to detain minors and individuals without evidence of their involvement in ISIS.
- Determine the status of the more than 800 children held at Ghweiran Prison and other SDF detention facilities, as part of a wider resolution of the fate of all children currently in SDF custody. The Coalition should assess who has been arbitrarily detained and those alleged to be ISIS affiliates. Those arbitrarily detained should be released immediately, with Syrian nationals reunited with extended family where possible or placed in the care of local authorities (e.g., Tribal Councils) and/or international humanitarian organizations that can ensure basic needs are met; children of foreign nationals should be repatriated. For children allegedly affiliated with ISIS, juvenile justice mechanisms should be established to ensure the legal rights of the child are upheld. These releases should coincide with the release and repatriation (where appropriate) of the more than 27,000 children of ISIS fighters held at Al Hol Camp.
- Conduct an inquiry into the security breakdown at Ghweiran to prevent future prison breaks and as part of a wider effort to improve internal accountability in the administration of SDF facilities. Corruption and mismanagement have allowed ISIS to gain access to prisons such as Ghweiran and detainees to walk free in exchange of bribes. Authorities in Northeast Syria should investigate whether a pattern of corruption has led to lucrative enrolment of “ghost armies” prison security personnel and obfuscated the reality of the security situation on the ground. Security and internal accountability will be easier to achieve if there is transparency regarding the credentials of prison administrators.
- Make public the numbers, nationalities, and ages of ISIS prisoners in its detention facilities, without exposing the location of facilities and increasing risks of further ISIS attacks/prison breaks. The SDF has previously withheld this information under pressure from states in the international community that do not wish to make public how many of their nationals are left behind in Syria. Transparency about the nationalities of ISIS prisoners, and public awareness of that information, are critical to compelling states to take responsibility for their nationals.
- Improve the management of ISIS detention facilities, including by housing minors and adult men in separate facilities and allowing entry for international monitors.
- Develop a transparent system for determining when ISIS prisoners are to be released, in conjunction with international efforts to justly adjudicate the cases of alleged ISIS perpetrators. ISIS suspects should not be released without a trial or as part of local political arrangements and in exchange for bribes.
- Children of foreign nations should be immediately repatriated, whether they are in prisons or camps like Al Hol. Upon return, minors should participate in reintegration initiatives rooted in psycho-social support and, when necessary, de-radicalization programs.
- States with nationals in SDF custody should create a treaty-based terrorism court that establishes shared jurisdiction to prosecute fighters for terrorism-related crimes. Defendants must be afforded their right to a fair trial and due process. Further, the proceedings should be victim-centered so that victims/survivors may engage with judicial processes for the purpose of individual and collective healing. Upon sentencing, the court should coordinate with states to transfer convicted fighters to their countries of origin. Individuals deemed not guilty of crimes under the jurisdiction of the court should be immediately repatriated. No state should authorize trials in absentia or the death penalty.
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