One year ago today, ISIS was deprived of its last territorial stronghold in Baghouz, eastern Syria. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces declared victory over the extremists, who were vanquished with the help of their American allies and the global coalition to fight ISIS.
In addition to those who were killed, tens of thousands of ISIS supporters, mostly families of the fighters, as well as thousands of militants surrendered. The former were imprisoned and the latter kept in camps until they could be tried. It was supposed to be the beginning of a new era.
One year on, the threat of ISIS is yet to be fully eradicated in Syria and Iraq, and the children of militants are one year older, their plight remaining unchanged. Forced to live in squalid camps, they are missing out on their education and the opportunity to have a future. Those with non-Syrian parents have yet to be repatriated to their home countries.
These children have spent their young lives waiting in despair. Some, such as ISIS sympathiser Shamima Begum’s days-old child, have died of preventable disease. They cannot be punished for their parents’ crimes. In Al Hol camp alone, nearly 100,000 people, mostly women and children, are kept in unsanitary conditions. There are fears that parts of these camps lack any sort of administration.
SDF-run facilities are holding approximately 10,000 ISIS fighters, including 2,000 foreigners whose countries refuse to take them back, despite repeated calls from Kurdish authorities to do so. Kurdish Syrian officials have warned that they cannot look after such a large confined population. In October, Turkey launched an offensive on northern Syria that displaced more than 300,000 people and pushed the SDF out of their territorial holds on the border. The Kurdish-led group deployed its forces to the northern front, depleting staff that was guarding camps and prisons. More than one thousand militant fighters took advantage of the situation to escape captivity.
The SDF also does not have the means to put ISIS suspects on trial, despite warning that they will take action with or without Western help earlier this year. Western countries have failed to take responsibility for their citizens who have committed horrific crimes, and they have failed to aid the Kurdish authorities in giving them fair trials or detaining them efficiently. The SDF are left to bear this burden alone. Although they have sought an arrangement with Bashar Al Assad to escape the Turkish onslaught, there is still the possibility of reprisals from the Syrian regime as punishment for Kurds seeking autonomy.
Increased tensions between Syria’s warring sides create conditions that allow terrorists to thrive. A 2019 report from the US mission tasked to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq has warned that the extremists are already regrouping.
One year on from the victory at Baghouz, ISIS has been defeated and does not hold any territory, but it has yet to become a thing of the past. Much remains to be done in the way of trying and repatriating fighters, rehabilitating members capable of showing true remorse and saving children whose only crime is to be born to extremist parents. The Kurdish authorities cannot succeed on their own in a country still ravaged by war. Nor is it fair to expect them to do so when thousands of ISIS fighters and sympathisers are foreigners who have been radicalised at home to lay waste abroad.