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In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
The Fragility of Northern Syria
The Fragility of Northern Syria
The local vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup
Our Journeys / Africa

In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon

Two years ago, the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram. Despite some progress, the group’s violent impact is still seen and felt deeply in the remote north of the country. 

In March 2016, Crisis Group Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup travelled for four weeks into an insecure area only few researchers are given access to: Cameroon’s Far North Region. He was escorted three days by the military between the front-line towns of Ldamang, Mabass, Kolofata, Amchidé and Gansé, before he went on to travel alone across the region: to Maroua, the Minawao refugee camp, Mokolo, Mora, Kousseri and Goulfey. During the four weeks he spoke to a wide range of people, including traditional chiefs, local inhabitants and administration staff, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), vigilante groups, local NGOs, humanitarian actors, academics, the military, former Boko Haram members, former traffickers, and others, some in presence of the military but the vast majority on his own. He completed his research in April and May 2016 with additional interviews in Kerawa, Bargaram, Fotokol, Makary, Hile Alifa and Blangoua. Read Crisis Group’s in-depth report on the crisis in the area.

This is the story of his journey.

Cameroon's Far North district. CRISIS GROUP

At 8 o’clock in the morning, I hear seven vehicles stopping in front of my hotel: two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and five four-wheel-drive vehicles. Sitting inside are over forty Cameroonian soldiers, who are here to take seven journalists and me into Cameroon’s Far North district – a region that has severely suffered under Boko Haram, and still does.

I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram.

I am joining this convoy because I want to find out how Boko Haram operates in this area, and how strong it is, two years after the government started to clamp down on the insurgency. I want to see how the people living here are affected, understand if Boko Haram still recruits fighters in the Far North, and hear how large its network of sympathisers remains. And I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram. I am especially curious to learn about the so-called “vigilantes”, local self-defence groups that have gained a certain fame in this Cameroonian war on terror. What can these groups really achieve?

The starting point of our trip is Maroua, a buzzing city of 400,000 inhabitants and capital of the Far North region. The region has never gained the sad notoriety of Nigeria’s Borno state, but it gradually became an important refuge for Boko Haram fighters in the 2000s. And it has suffered immensely under the insurgency over the past years, particularly since 2014 when Boko Haram entered into open confrontation with the Cameroonian government.

The Alpha escort of the BIR in Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The group’s tactics then changed quickly: smaller incursions and occasional kidnappings soon grew into larger raids on towns and villages as well as strategic attacks against the Cameroonian army. In just two years, the insurgency staged more than 500 attacks and incursions, and around fifty suicide bomb attacks in Cameroon, making it the second most targeted country after Nigeria. According to Cameroonian soldiers, they fought fourteen fierce battles in Kolofata, Amchidé, Fotokol and Bargaram in 2014 and 2015 against sometimes hundreds and even up to a thousand heavily equipped Boko Haram fighters from mainly Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad.

In total, in two and a half years the insurgents have killed at least 1,300 civilians, 120 soldiers and abducted an estimated thousand people in Cameroon. They have burned down hundreds of schools and businesses and forced thousands to flee. Today, there are over 190,000 internally displaced Cameroonians in the Far North and around 65,000 refugees from neighbouring Nigeria, according to OCHA figures.

Before we leave Maroua, one of the soldiers gives me a helmet and a bullet-proof vest. This will be my outfit for the entire journey, the standard equipment for everyone travelling in this once peaceful area whose broken tracks are now sown with mines and improvised explosive devices (IED). These were laid by Boko Haram to block the government’s way into the territory. More than 50 incidents have been recorded since October 2014, with 22 of the mines killing at least 30 soldiers and wounding many more.

SABC News: "Boko Haram Has Leveled a Threat at Cameroon and its President Paul Biya"

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatens to step up violence in Cameroon. In a video posted online, Shekau threatens the people of Cameroon and its president, Paul Biya. SABC News

I climb into a mine-resistant armoured personnel carrier (APC). But our safety has a price: despite air conditioning it’s over 45 degrees Celsius inside. With sweaty faces, the journalists and I look at each other, suddenly understanding, at least slightly, the physical challenge that the soldiers patrolling the region experience each day.   

Twenty kilometres outside of Maroua the roads become bumpy. And then there are no roads at all. But the driver finds his way toward the north east and after four hours we arrive at Mabass, a village right at the Nigerian frontier. Mabass and the neighbouring towns of Tourou and Ldamang were repeatedly attacked by Boko Haram in 2014 but the insurgents never managed to fully occupy them.

We stop at a rocky plateau overlooking the vast sandy frontier area with Nigeria where the local commander, Captain Ticko Kingue, points at a lake in the distance. “You see the lake over there?” he asks. “That’s the Nigerian town of Madagali. This entire frontier area is plagued by the insurgency. Even last night there were attacks. We cannot go into Nigeria, not here, we’re not allowed to. So what we do is we prevent the insurgents from coming in”.

A soldier belonging to the Emergence 4 Unit deployed at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

It is crucial that the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies cooperate in the fight against Boko Haram. But for a long time, the two country’s historically difficult relations painfully slowed down their military coordination. Today, two years since the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram, there’s still a great need for better exchange of intelligence. But at least cooperation between the two armies has improved significantly within the context of the region’s Multinational Joint Task Force – partly operational since November 2015 with the aim of crushing Boko Haram.

Here in Mabass, we are very close to the Nigerian army base near Madagali. “Sometimes they come to us, especially if we can help them with equipment”, says Captain Ticko Kingue. “And they inform us how things are going on their side”.

On the other side of the frontier, most border towns are still held by Boko Haram. “It’s been a long time since they managed to occupy new territory”, Captain Kingue says. “But they keep trying. They usually come in large groups of 200 fighters or more. We call this a ‘combat de masse’. Usually they come at night in a surprise attack. Sometimes they pretend to attack a larger village or town to divert the army’s attention while they try to seize smaller villages”. Although Boko Haram use indiscriminate violence, they also sometimes target these smaller villages to seize supplies or preach to the population, as happened on 15 December 2015 in Kerawa, where Boko Haram members rounded up the population to preach to them for hours in Kanuri, Haoussa and Arabic.

At Poste de Mabass.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with local army commander Kingue at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Boko Haram’s firepower reached its peak between summer 2014 and spring 2015. In the face of Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerian military pressure since then, Boko Haram had to change its tactics and appears to be in decline. The jihadist group lost much of the territory it occupied and has much less military equipment than it used to. The army claims it has dismantled most Boko Haram cells in Cameroon, killed about 2,000 members in fighting and arrested more than 1,000 suspects since 2014. Today, Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated. It still goes after smaller targets, and increasingly relies on suicide bombers.

Contrasting with the army’s success stories, a recent Amnesty International report documents severe failings and human rights violations in the Far North counterinsurgency campaign. According to Amnesty International, many of the army’s arrests were arbitrary, the rights of detained suspects were “routinely denied” and they did not receive fair judicial treatment. The Amnesty report has been widely criticised and rejected by the government, the military, civil society and the majority of local media. Crisis Group research raised similar concerns as Amnesty’s, but when speaking to a wide range of people it also found a high degree of local support for army actions in the face of Boko Haram’s bewildering violence.

Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated.

We continue our journey into the Mayo Tsanaga district toward the only refugee camp in the Far North. The camp near the village of Minawao is run by the UNHCR and hosts almost 57,000 people. Most of them are Nigerians from the border areas. More than 190,000 Cameroonians were also displaced, mostly fleeing to other villages and towns of the Far North.

When the camp was built in 2011, living conditions were extremely poor, but that changed, thanks to combined efforts by the UNHCR, other humanitarian agencies and the Cameroonian government. Housing is simple but resembles how people live elsewhere in the Far North. Refugees receive three meals per day, which is more than many ordinary Cameroonians get to eat. Children of all ages can go to school. Nonetheless there is still much room for improvement. The UNHCR claims that not even 10 per cent of the funds needed to care for all refugees have been provided. Because of that, sanitary conditions in the camp are still not up to adequate standards.

A child going to school at Minawao refugee camp. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Another problem is that refugees have nearly no opportunity to work. For security reasons – especially the fear of suicide bombers – refugees are not allowed to leave the camp. The UNHCR is currently trying to come up with social activities to help the fact that many refugees feel condemned to doing nothing.

The psychological burden is hardest on those who came to the camp traumatised by the atrocities they saw or experienced during the insurgency, particularly women and girls who suffered abuses. There are only a couple of psychologists in the camp providing care for the newcomers – not enough to give permanent psychological assistance to the thousands who need it.

Most refugees tell me that they want to return to their homes as soon as the security situation allows it. But nobody can estimate when that will be. Many find it hard to believe that they will be safe again in the near future. One refugee from the Nigerian town of Pulka in Borno state says, “I may have many complaints, but nonetheless we are fine here in Minawao. I won’t go back”.

Our convoy returns to Maroua before night falls. Situated 100 kilometres away from the border, Maroua is out of Boko Haram’s reach and therefore one of the safest places in the Far North. But it too has suffered violent attacks. In July 2015, Boko Haram sent four young girls as suicide bombers to four public places in Maroua. When they blew themselves up, they killed over 37 people with them and wounded 114 others.

Youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes.

My tour with the military over, I meet with one of the survivors, 13 year old Kevin, who tells me what happened on the night of 25 July: “It was night and I was with my friends. We wanted to buy candy from a shop close to the Boucan bar. There was a queue with six or seven people ahead of us. And then suddenly, a girl who was sitting right next to the vendor blew herself up. I remember hearing the detonation of the bomb before I passed out. I only woke up later at Maroua hospital. It was there that I realised that one of my legs was completely burnt. There were lots of small splinters in my belly, chest and neck from the explosion. The government paid for the surgery and I could leave the hospital about a week later, but I wasn’t the same. They had amputated the lower part of my burnt leg and I learnt that one of my friends had died during the attack. My other friend is alive, but they amputated both his legs and his face is burnt. I had never seen the girl who had blown herself up in the neighbourhood before. After we left the hospital, neither the government nor any of the humanitarian NGOs followed up with us on what had happened. A Catholic priest passes by from time to time at our house to speak with my mother and help my parents buy medicine”.

Luckily, the horrors of the attack have not taken away Kevin’s hope for the future. When I ask him if he still goes to school he says: “Yes, I have passed the first trimester. My teachers are very happy with me. When I finish school I want to become an engineer”.

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a victim of a suicide bomb explosion. Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans de Marie Heungoup

65 per cent of Cameroon’s population of 23 million is under 30 years old. Children and youths are the most vulnerable in this war. Many are traumatised by the violence they see or experience at a young age.

At the same time, youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes, like the four girls in Maroua.

Recruitment is helped by the fact that many young people are unemployed, poorly educated, belong to a part of the society that is not well integrated or don’t see a future for themselves for other reasons. Local authorities and traditional chiefs in Maroua as well as in Mokolo and Mora told me that Boko Haram has lost its appeal and capacity to recruit almost entirely. Very few youths are still joining the movement voluntarily. Nonetheless, forced recruitments still continue in the border areas. As Boko Haram indiscriminately killed Muslims and Christians, fundamentalist Muslims distanced themselves from the movement, stating that Boko Haram represents neither Wahhabi nor Salafi Islam. Many Imams and Muslim clerics told me that the war against Boko Haram has actually limited the spread of fundamentalist trends of Islam as hard-line preachers are now afraid to speak up in public. 

The Far North is the poorest of Cameroon’s regions, with 70 per cent of its people living on less than one dollar per day. During the past three decades, the influence of conservative Salafi Islam has increased in the region and many children grow up exposed to radical religious viewpoints. There is an urgent need for the state and public institutions to care for these youths and make sure they do not radicalise in the first place – and if they do radicalise, offer them help to leave the group and be fully re-integrated into society.

Maroua has a big prison, and the vast majority of suspected Boko Haram members arrested in Cameroon, almost 900 of them, are detained here. What is sorely missing is a de-radicalisation program, one that teaches a more tolerant Islam and re-integrates into society those who were recruited by force and are willing to abandon the movement. 

When speaking to the regional administration, I learn that there are also no public counter-radicalisation programs outside of the prison aimed at keeping young people and others away from extremist groups. The only efforts made in this direction come from civil society groups and the churches. Cameroon’s Association for Inter-Faith Dialogue (ACADIR) has set a positive example by organising conferences and meetings that have brought together religious leaders of different strands of Christianity and Islam. But these initiatives only scratch the surface of the problem. They don’t reach those who are the biggest threat to religious dialogue in the Far North: radical Islamist leaders.

If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

If the government is to turn a security-focused approach into a long-term political strategy against radicalisation, there is still much to do. If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

Last year, when the government launched an emergency development plan with a budget of roughly $10 million per year, hardly anyone believed that this could make a big difference. Most experts estimate that the current plan covers only about one per cent of what is needed to significantly improve the situation in the country’s least developed region. With $10 million, you cannot construct a road network in the Far North, develop public services in all areas, like health and education, help business owners get back on their feet, create employment opportunities and pay for preventive programs to keep especially the youth away from radical groups.

It might be possible for Cameroon to find other funding to do the job, but a correct assessment of the needs is necessary. Only then can the government show that it has understood the scope of the problem and can hope for help from its international partners.

Members of the BIR in the Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. PHOTO/Erwan Decherysel

I leave Maroua a second time to go up to the Mayo Sava district. This time, I am picked up by soldiers of the BIR, “Bataillon d’intervention rapide” (rapid intervention force). Of the approximately 8,000 soldiers deployed in the Far North, 2,400 belong to this well-trained and equipped elite unit. They take me to a place that has become a symbol of the war: Amchidé.

We are confronted with the sight of a ghost town. Formerly inhabited by 30,000 people, Amchidé is among the hardest hit places in Cameroon and the stage of three long battles between the army and the insurgents in late 2014 and early 2015.

Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The BIR camp of Amchidé has been baptised “Le Palais” (the Palace), not just because of its palace-like shape but also because it was one of the insurgent’s key strategic targets in Cameroon. Despite a dozen of conventional attacks, including three where Boko Haram mustered 800 insurgents, the city only fell for one day, on 15 October 2014. But the military base never succumbed. 

In Amchide.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with Captain Kiki, commander of the BIR military base of Amchide, Cameroon, in March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The entire population of Amchidé fled during the fighting and only 10 per cent have come back – to an almost dead city. There are no businesses in Amchidé anymore, since the fighting has cut all Amchidé’s supply lines.

Most of those who came back are men, and about 40 of them joined forces to form a vigilante group. These vigilante or community defence groups are nothing new. In many Cameroonian towns and villages, unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency. They are groups of normal citizens – always men – patrolling their villages to make sure everyone is safe, especially at night. 

Members of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

As the Boko Haram threat increased, the government realised how these vigilantes can help in the fight on terror. It provided equipment, such as rifles, torches and night vision gear, and worked with traditional village chiefs who handpicked the most “suitable” men of their village to be part of the vigilante group. Vigilante groups have since played an important role against Boko Haram. They identify strangers they believe could be potential suicide attackers. And sometimes they even fend off smaller Boko Haram attacks. In the past year as well as this year, the Amchidé vigilante group and similar ones in Limani, Kerawa and Tolkomari have been involved in low intensity fights with small groups of about half a dozen Boko Haram fighters. In some cases they were able to surround smaller Boko Haram cells or win a fight against attackers. In other cases, they were not successful – and suffered casualties.

A member of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Although they are praised by the government and local authorities, the vigilante groups are not exempt from criticism. Sometimes, vigilantes have denounced local inhabitants as members of Boko Haram just to settle private accounts. In other cases, vigilantes have been suspected of providing information to Boko Haram and were therefore arrested by the army. 

In the case of Amchidé, the first vigilante group formed by the BIR had only Christian members, who harassed and extorted money from the local Muslim majority. Following complaints, the BIR dissolved Amchidé’s first vigilante group and formed a new one with Christian and Muslim members. 

Unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency.

The last stop of my four weeks’ research trip is Kousseri, an old market town in between the Chari and the Logone rivers. You only have to cross a bridge to reach the metropolis of N’Djamena, capital of neighbouring Chad.

In economic terms, Kousseri is the most important city in the Far North. It has strong links with Chad to the east and Nigeria to the west, especially the Nigerian town of Maiduguri. In the past two years, it has been flooded with Cameroonian IDPs and Chadian refugees. Its population has grown from 200,000 to 280,000. Many of them come from the city of Fotokol, 100 kilometre to the west on the Nigerian border, where Boko Haram caused most casualties suffered in the country during the main phase of the war between May 2014 and March 2015.

For a period of several months in 2014 and 2015, Boko Haram staged almost daily attacks on Fotokol. One especially heavy battle took place in Fotokol in early February 2015. For two days, about 1,000 Boko Haram insurgents were fighting against Cameroonian BIR forces and Chadian soldiers, killing 81 to 400 civilians, seventeen Chadian soldiers, seven Cameroonian soldiers and 300 attackers, according to various reports. 

One woman from Fotokol tells me that Boko Haram killed her husband. Another woman describes how Boko Haram raided the village asking: “Where are the Christians?”. Some IDPs in Kousseri tell me that they feel relatively safe now, but the violence they have seen is hard to forget, and life remains hard for them. They receive only limited support from aid organisations like the World Food Program and no support from the state. They have to find their own housing or stay with friends and relatives. Opportunities for work are scarce and the local economy has suffered from the fighting. Tens of thousands of merchants relied on cross-border trade. When the Nigerian border was closed due to insecurity, many of them were left without work. Aya, who used to own a large shop in Fotokol, lost everything. She tells me: “There is no possible turning back for me and my children. We have been chased from our village, our house was burnt; we have to make our life here in Kousseri”. 

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a displaced family from Fotokol in Kousseri, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

After four weeks in the Far North, when I return to the capital Yaoundé, the main concern resonating in my head is that people cannot imagine that security will be restored soon. The military battle against Boko Haram is ongoing and despite some successes it is far from won. At the same time, the military’s performance is tainted by accusations of human rights violations against the population, including arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances - allegations which the military mostly denies. During our discussion, the spokesman of the Defence Ministry replied to similar claims: “Cameroon’s army is republican and professional. We systematically investigate all human rights abuses cases and sanction. As you should know four soldiers in the Far North have been discharged a few months ago for committing grave acts against the honor of the army”.  

While his claim that all abuses are investigated is clearly an exaggeration, and it is not clear that all sanctions concern Human rights abuses, there has been some progress. Disciplinary measures have been taken against some officers and soldiers  in the Far North, who have been removed from operational assignments to administrative posts or dismissed. Some judicial investigations into rights abuses are underway. 

Still, efforts made are far from sufficient and the defence ministry’s focus on sanctions is too narrow. There are no financial or material compensations for victims of the families of victims that suffered human rights violations. Neither has the military officially apologised. The government should pursue a stricter and proactive sanctions policy against soldiers who committed abuses, publicise its sanctions and put in place measures that can rebuild communities’ confidence. If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency, as parts of the population may radicalise and take the side of the insurgents. At the same time, Western countries might withdraw their support for the army, as happened in Nigeria when there was a rash of human rights abuses by Nigerian army.

If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency. Parts of the population may take the side of the insurgents.

As much as security efforts are crucial to curb the insurgency, Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad also need to shape new policies that can prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups. More and more, the central authorities seem to understand that. At the ministry of defence and at the ministry of external relations, I meet several senior officials who recognise that a sustainable victory is impossible without development in the Far North. But then, they all add “the priority is to defeat Boko Haram militarily first”. Otherwise, the sad example of Chinese development workers who were kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram while building roads in the Far North could be repeated, they say. 

Boko Haram is much weaker today than in 2014. Nonetheless, the government must not delay proving to its population that it cares for its needs, and that it is trying to give those who feel neglected by the state new hope for their future. 

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research. 

The Fragility of Northern Syria

A full-blown COVID-19 outbreak may trigger a greater human catastrophe in northern Syria, where ISIS activity persists and Idlib’s peace remains ever-fragile. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support a stronger ceasefire in Idlib and increase assistance to health and governance structures to keep COVID-19 and ISIS in check.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 – Spring Edition.

With global attention focused on fighting a deadly pandemic, the security situation in northern Syria remains fragile and could break down at any time. In the north east, erratic U.S. decision-making in 2019 enabled a Turkish incursion that in turn put local anti-ISIS efforts in jeopardy. The arrival of COVID-19 is further threatening the precarious status quo. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of Kurdish, Arab and Syriac militias under the leadership of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), exercises tenuous control over the area. Between leading operations to smash ISIS cells, holding off pro-Turkish forces and guarding prisons housing ISIS fighters, it is already stretched thin. The SDF’s capacities may crumble if the pandemic hits the north east in full force. On 30 March, and again on 2 May, ISIS detainees overpowered guards and took over an entire floor of a prison compound in the provincial capital Hassakeh before SDF personnel were able to quell the uprising.

Idlib is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy.

In the north west, Idlib presents another conundrum. The last stronghold of Syrian rebels and jihadists, the province is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy. A Russian-backed regime offensive has squeezed the rebels and displaced hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians, many crowding at the Turkish border. Turkish-Russian ceasefires in Idlib have broken down time and again. The latest one, concluded in March, is holding thus far, but it bears all its predecessors’ flaws and is therefore also prone to erode. The spectre of COVID-19 makes a more permanent ceasefire in Idlib all the more urgent, since only concerted international action at a time of relative calm can contain the contagion. The offensive has all but destroyed Idlib’s health care sector, and an outbreak could prove disastrous.

European capitals have a strong interest in helping mitigate Syria’s humanitarian disaster, while keeping ISIS at bay. As such, the EU and its member states should consider the following steps:

  • Contribute additional funding and protection for SDF detention centres holding foreign fighters. The EU and member states should also offer the SDF technical and financial assistance to enhance its capacity to prosecute Syrian ISIS members in its custody or under its control. In addition, they should aid SDF efforts to reintegrate released and former ISIS members into their communities in Syria.
     
  • Revitalise its approach to stabilising the north east by supporting civilian-military governance structures in which local Arab authorities play a central role in predominantly Arab areas. Establishing such structures would require giving the SDF incentives to devolve authority to local governing bodies, including their security services, to avoid an anti-SDF and anti-Kurdish backlash from which ISIS would benefit.
     
  • Maintain diplomatic pressure on the SDF and Turkey to commit to a humanitarian truce in north-eastern Syria. While the SDF has publicly endorsed the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire in the face of the pandemic, there has been intermittent fighting between the SDF and Turkey (and Turkish proxies) along the front lines, diverting resources from the campaign against ISIS and causing civilian casualties.
     
  • Continue humanitarian preparations in the event of a regime attack on Idlib and/or the full outbreak of COVID-19. Plan and build aid infrastructure; pre-position assistance; and materially support Turkey in these efforts.
     
  • Support the COVID-19 response in both the north east and north west, including by increasing humanitarian aid and delivering personal protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators.

The North East

In March, ISIS called on its members to take advantage of COVID-19’s spread to intensify their global war. While there have been no major security breakdowns in north-eastern Syria to date, sporadic incidents of violence raise concerns about the jihadist group’s remaining presence. ISIS has maintained a drumbeat of low-level attacks across the region, despite being geographically and organisationally fractured. It has shown a certain resilience, notwithstanding its territorial defeat and the loss of its top leadership. Its fighters have carried out roadside bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations targeting local Arab SDF elements, in particular. Its cells have also coalesced to set up checkpoints and extort money from traders crossing Syria’s eastern desert.

Such attacks aim to weaken the SDF and to terrorise the local population into non-cooperation with the authorities. Fear of ISIS retribution has harmed the SDF’s ability to gather intelligence necessary for effective counter-insurgency measures. Residents attribute the persistence of ISIS activities partly to lack of popular confidence in a sustained U.S. troop presence in eastern Syria. ISIS cells have also benefited from mistrust between locals and the SDF – exacerbated by the exclusion of local Arab leaders from decision-making – which gives the militants room to operate among the population. It remains unclear whether ISIS will be able to further reconstitute its local support at a time when the SDF’s focus is elsewhere.

The SDF’s reduced military capacity as a result of the Turkish offensive raises questions about whether it can keep guarding ISIS detainees. In an audio recording released in September 2019, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exhorted his followers to free ISIS detainees and their families from prisons and camps. The group lately renewed this call, arguing that the coronavirus is diverting the attention of governments or groups holding them. On 30 March, ISIS detainees rioted in a prison in Hassakeh city, wresting control of a whole floor from the facility’s guards. It took nearly a day for the SDF to regain the upper hand and determine that no prisoners had escaped. SDF authorities later explained that inmates had revolted partly because they feared contracting the illness in such cramped quarters. On 2 May, ISIS prisoners took control of another SDF-run detention facility in Hassakeh; the SDF and detainees negotiated an end to the standoff a day later.

Following these events, the SDF is rightly concerned that ISIS could raid its makeshift jails in conjunction with prisoner riots to enable mass escapes. This threat will become all the more serious if COVID-19 starts to spread rapidly and uncontrollably. The prospect that something similar could happen in al-Hol detention camp, which holds over 60,000 ISIS-related women and children and where tensions flared regularly between militant women and guards even before the pandemic outbreak, is extremely worrying. Renewed fighting between Turkey and the SDF on Syria’s northern border would only worsen these problems.

The North West

Backed by Russian airpower, the Syrian regime has pursued an incremental military strategy for reclaiming the rebel-held north west. Its campaign escalated in April 2019; by March 2020, it had left over a million Syrians displaced. Russian warplanes have compensated for the regime’s weaknesses in ground warfare, driving the human toll way up. The combined air and artillery attacks ravaged towns and villages, sending tens of thousands of civilians fleeing to the province’s northern reaches. At least 1,700 civilians were reportedly killed in these strikes. With over a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) on its border with Syria, Turkey followed through on a threat to open its European frontiers, allowing migrants and refugees to pass into Greece, and thus sending the message that it would not shoulder a new refugee burden on its own.

Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire remains at great risk of falling apart.

On 5 March, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia agreed on a new cessation of hostilities in Idlib, establishing a “security corridor” extending 6km on each side of the M4 Aleppo-Latakia highway, an area under rebel control, to be patrolled jointly by Russian and Turkish soldiers. The agreement froze the conflict along the new front line, letting the regime hold onto many areas it had retaken in the latest offensive, and leaving civilians who fled the conflict with no prospect of returning to their towns and villages. Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire, like those that came before it, remains at great risk of falling apart.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The entirety of northern Syria remains vulnerable to renewed conflict. In the north east, the EU and its member states should continue to offer much needed support to the SDF to allow it to weather the crisis and remain an effective anti-ISIS force. Building on EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s call for an immediate and nationwide ceasefire across Syria, the EU and its member states should put diplomatic pressure on their Turkish allies and Kurdish partners to commit to a truce that could allow all parties to focus on fighting the pandemic. They should accompany this request with humanitarian aid to help the SDF respond to a coronavirus outbreak if and when it accelerates.

The EU will also need to do more to share the burden with Turkey in north-western Syria.

The EU is one of the largest humanitarian donors in the Middle East. Support for Syrian refugees in the region is one of the short-term priorities in the EU’s Team Europe program responding to COVID-19. On 30 March, it committed support to countries hosting Syrian refugees – Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan – to help them fight the pandemic. While this step is welcome, they should equally make sure to provide assistance inside Syria, particularly in Idlib, including support directed toward health and education. The Brussels Conference scheduled for the end of June, “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”, will be an opportunity to mobilise European and other donors to pledge further aid to civilians in Idlib, especially in light of the coronavirus threat. The EU and its member states could also offer direct support to grassroots organisations working in Idlib and encourage EU-funded organisations to focus their efforts on that area. While EU-Turkey relations are strained, Ankara and Brussels should use their renewed diplomatic engagement – triggered by the regime offensive – to preserve and strengthen the ceasefire in Idlib as an immediate priority. European states should continue to back Turkish efforts to maintain a ceasefire in Idlib, both publicly and in direct contacts with Russia. They should emphasise that an all-out assault on Idlib and a humanitarian disaster there would substantially impair their future cooperation with Russia on Syria-related matters.