In recent months, discussions on Northeastern Syria have centered on one question: who will control the region after a United States military draw down? The answer will undoubtedly shape the future of the region. Yet as these discussions carry on, local communities are facing a number of immediate challenges that, if ignored, will irreversibly hinder the prospects for justice, reconciliation and long-term stability.
Three of the top challenges in Northeastern Syria that demand the attention of coalition forces and the international community are outlined below:
Missing Persons and Mass Graves
As the Islamic State retreated from cities and towns across Syria, residents began the somber task of exhuming the mass graves left in its wake. In public parks, stadiums and abandoned farmlands, a ‘Rapid Response Division’ of the Raqqa Civil Council has uncovered more than a dozen mass graves across the city. The largest was found in al-Fukheikha, a suburb just outside Raqqa, where some 3,500 remains were uncovered in a mass grave just two feet deep. Some of the graves hold clear evidence of mass executions by ISIS, with victims blindfolded and handcuffed. In others, ISIS fighters, their victims, and civilians who died under coalition airstrikes were buried hastily together.
These graves possess invaluable evidence that could lead to prosecuting ISIS crimes and discovering the fates of missing people. For the tens of thousands of Syrians with loved ones still missing however, the discovery of such graves has offered little closure. While some families have been able to identity their loved ones from basic identifiers such as clothing, the majority of the bodies have remained unidentified, and been reburied in nearby cemeteries, with limited documentation collected.
The Raqqa Civil Council is carrying out its work with severely limited resources. Workers receive minimal training and no psycho-social support. They have no cameras, let alone DNA equipment. Information on potential graves or victims’ identification is gathered via crowd-sourcing through Facebook and WhatsApp. There is no central database to document the information, no international organization facilitating or coordinating the process, no investigation for the crimes committed, and no extended effort to communicate with the families of victims.
The families of victims deserve to know the fate of their loved ones and seek justice for their deaths. As they are exhumed now, forensic information from these mass graves are being destroyed and lost. The international community is critically needed to provide the training and material support to preserve these graves and ultimately exhume them as part of a comprehensive missing persons investigation
In Northeast Syria, tension between Kurdish and Arab communities has reached an unprecedented level. Kurds, who have long suffered systemic repression under the Syrian government, remain mistrustful of Arab communities they view as sympathetic to ISIS or other Arab rebel groups. Arab communities, in turn, are angry over what they see as the monopolization of power by the YPG. Left unaddressed, tensions between the two groups will threaten the stability of any political settlement in the region.
To preserve peace, the United States and its coalition partners must use their leverage over the SDF to support more meaningful participation and leadership roles for Arab communities. Although presented as a mixed Arab-Kurdish force, the SDF’s overall command continues to be controlled by the YPG. The group also relies heavily on forced conscription to fill its ranks—a major source of resentment in Arab communities. The SDF civilian administration has likewise been met with discontent by Arab populations. As a starting point, coalition forces can facilitate dialogue by organizing local and high-level meetings between Arab and Kurdish leaders.
Meanwhile, the international community must also ensure that Kurdish rights will be protected in any political resolution to come. In Kurdish-majority Afrin, allegations of forced displacement, property confiscation and cultural repression have been rampant since the Turkish military, with the support of predominately Arab opposition groups, seized control in 2018. Since then, Turkey continues to train and unify opposition groups to maintain its occupation and support a possible Turkish-led operation east of the Euphrates. Against this uncertain backdrop, a framework to oversee the protection and return of displaced Kurdish and Arab populations to their homes in both Turkish and SDF controlled territories can help mitigate tensions. The international community must also adamantly oppose forced population displacement by all parties in future engagements.
Reintegrating and Prosecuting ISIS Fighters and Families
According to the latest OCHA report, there are currently more than 73,000 people in Al Hol camp, the largest holding facility for ISIS families in Northeastern Syria–more than 70% are children under the age of 18. In the long term, maintaining civilian detention camps is not a viable–nor humane– solution, and will likely lead to the further radicalization of its inhabitants. These civilians are being held in addition to the thousands of fighters detained in SDF facilities. Reintegrating ISIS civilians and prosecuting fighters will be one of the most difficult challenges for the SDF administration and the international community.
The first challenge is to distinguish between perpetrators, hard-core ISIS supporters and those simply caught up in the conflict. While some women in the camps claim that they were driven to support ISIS by force or necessity, others remain defiant supporters of the group and its extremism ideologies. In Iraq, the currently tendency of Iraqi courts to prosecute individuals based on ISIS membership has meant that wives of ISIS fighters, administrators and even health workers have been given harsh sentences—including the death penalty
Such harsh retributive justice will only facilitate re-radicalization and fuel communal tensions. While the SDF has thus far taken a more conciliatory approach towards ISIS members, their already overburdened legal systems have no means to process the massive surge in ISIS civilians and fighters in their detention. The international community must help local authorities create a clear framework to process these tens of thousands of individuals. This would include not only prosecution in applicable cases, but also programs to deradicalize ISIS supporters, and encourage local communities to reintegrate former perpetrators.
Syrian actors and the international community cannot wait for an elusive peace agreement before they begin addressing the challenges facing Northeastern Syria. The grievances, divisions and anger that have grown through eight years of war will not simply dissipate. The issues this article outlines are some of the most critical areas in which the international community can assist Syrians in pursuing justice and reconciliation.
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