ISIS has an ominous new breeding ground

The militants and their families who have surrendered to the SDF are still a threat

Women and children wait to be screened after fleeing from the last pocket of ISIS territory outside Baghouz, 28 February 2019. Campbell MacDiarmid
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Having once held land in Syria and Iraq roughly equivalent to the size of Britain, and ruled over millions, all that is left of ISIS can now be found in the tiny Syrian enclave of Baghouz. When the offensive to liberate the town began in February, led by the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, the world was confident of the imminent defeat of the group. However, the SDF and wider world have been shocked by the scale and intractability of the problem. With each passing day, the SDF expected to declare victory and yet thousands of men, women and children continue to stream out of Baghouz.

Last week, 12,000 arrived in an SDF camp in a 48-hour period, while the Al Hol camp in northern Syria now holds 55,000 people, according to the International Rescue Committee. "When we began the operation we knew there would be civilians, but not in such a big number," Adnan Afrin, an SDF spokesman, said on Thursday. With a sophisticated network of tunnels still harbouring ISIS families and rumours of high-profile hostages preventing an all-out aerial bombardment, it is unclear how long this last stand will continue.

The SDF, which is currently processing ISIS families, is mindful of the vast challenge it faces and is doing the best it can, in the hope that foreign nations will repatriate their citizens, such as Mark Taylor, the New Zealand ISIS fighter interviewed by The National this month.

In truth, the current situation is unsustainable. Thousands of men, women and children are squeezed into squalid camps where food is short and hope even more so. The most extreme elements have established dominance and residents remain deeply committed, including many wives, who could play a bigger role than originally anticipated in the group's future. Meanwhile, thousands of innocent children are hungry and sick.

Leaning on the SDF was politically expedient for western nations – and ultimately paid dividends. But the rise, fall and mutation of ISIS has always been a global problem. As US military commander Joseph Votel told the House Armed Services Committee this week, the passage of so many people from Baghouz to SDF camps does not constitute surrender, but "a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and the preservation of their capabilities". Many in the camps, Mr Votel said, are "unrepentant, unbroken and radicalised". The international community cannot abdicate its responsibility in fighting ISIS, protecting the communities in Iraq and Syria that have suffered most at its hands and must remain vigilant. Ignoring the challenge of tens of thousands of ISIS fighters, sympathisers and family members is tantamount to ignoring a ticking time bomb.