Assad forces poised for takeover of ISIS camps in north-east Syria: Expert

Damascus could use the captured families of ISIS fighters to leverage normalised diplomatic relations

Women displaced from Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province, walk in a market inside the al-Hol camp for displaced people, in al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria on April 18, 2019.  Dislodged in a final offensive by a Kurdish-led ground force and coalition air strikes, thousands of wives and children of IS fighters have flooded in from a string of Syrian villages south of the al-Hol camp in recent months.
Among the hordes of Syrians and Iraqis, some 9,000 foreigners are held in a fenced section of the encampment, under the watch of Kurdish forces. / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN
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An author who chronicled the internal operations of the camps for ISIS fighters in northern Syria has warned that the Damascus regime is poised take over major facilities.

Azadeh Moaveni, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, said following the Turkish incursion into the country it had become an “open question” whether ISIS prisoners would remain under the control of Kurdish forces.

Amid reports of Syrian army troops and security agents from Damascus visiting the camps in recent days, which Ms Moaveni said were “non-verifiable,” she explained humanitarian groups were preparing for the camps to change hands.

“I know that humanitarian groups are preparing or anticipating the possibility of regime takeover of the camps. So for how long these detainees will remain nominally under the political and security control of the SDF or the YPG is a really open question,” Ms Moaveni said referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces and the People’s Protection Units.

“I think there are a lot of worries, especially in Europe which has the largest number of detainees, that if Damascus takes over the camps these women and children will be used as leverage in the quest for normalisation,” she added speaking at a Chatham House event on the fate of ISIS in north-east Syria.

In the face of an intensifying military offensive by Turkish forces following the US draw down of troops in northern Syria, Kurdish forces struck a deal for protection from the Syrian government. The deal signified a major shift and further cemented Bashar Al-Assad’s grip over Syria.

Ms Moaveni, the author of Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS, said it had been an implicit part of the deal between the two sides that the SDF would continue to guard the detention camps crammed full with prisoners from ISIS families.

“The agreement that they would continue to guard the camps seems to be an implicit part of the SDF agreement with Damascus not an explicit part. So I think this is the worrying thing is that it is subject to change,” she explained.

The window for Western nations in particular to extract the children and families of for ISIS fighters is closing.

In October the European nations of Britain, Belgium, France and Germany said they were looking to use the opportunity offered by a cessation of fighting in northern Syria to repatriate the families of former ISIS fighters from places Al Roj and Al Hol camps, which remain beyond the frontline between Turkish and Kurdish forces.

US officials have estimated some 10,000 ISIS prisoners remain detained in camps in north-eastern Syria. Some 2,000 of those are believed to be foreign fighters.