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Virus Fears Spread at Camps for ISIS Families in Syria’s North East
Virus Fears Spread at Camps for ISIS Families in Syria’s North East

Syria’s Metastasising Conflicts

While a diplomatic settlement of the Syrian war is unrealistic at present, it remains the only viable option. It will require difficult steps by local, regional and international actors to accommodate competing interests.

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Executive Summary

Two years, scores of thousands of dead, a mushrooming regional sectarian war and millions of refugees and internally displaced later, the Syrian war is tying the international community in knots largely of its own making. Once confident of swift victory, the opposition’s foreign allies shifted to a paradigm dangerously divorced from reality: that military pressure would force the regime to alter its calculus so that it would either negotiate its demise or experience internal cracks leading to its collapse. That discounted the apparent determination of Iran, Hizbollah and Russia to do what it takes to keep the regime afloat and bring the armed opposition to its knees. It counted without the fecklessness of an opposition in exile fighting for a share of power it has yet to achieve. And it assumed that the Assad regime has a “calculus” susceptible to be changed, not merely a fighting mode designed to last. It is past time to get over false hopes and confront a harsh truth. The options that dominate the policy debate would deepen the crisis, not produce a credible exit from it.

If the goal is to end this horrendous war, the choice is between massive Western military intervention – with attending risks and uncertainties – to decisively shift the ground balance; acceptance of regime victory with the moral and political price that would entail; and a diplomatic solution driven jointly by the U.S. and Russia. The latter is the preferred but today illusory option, in which regime and opposition would settle for a less-than-satisfactory power-sharing agreement, and the region’s main rival camps (led, respectively, by Iran and Saudi Arabia) would acquiesce in a Syria aligned with neither. A fourth option – in which allies give both sides enough to survive but not prevail – would perpetuate a proxy war with Syrians as primary victims. It is the present stage and the likeliest forecast for the foreseeable future.

For now, the focus should be on immediate steps to de-escalate the conflict and on mapping out in more detail an endgame that could serve as the basis for a diplomatic settlement. This entails answering core questions: What kind of power-sharing solution can protect regime and opposition interests alike? What kind of state could emerge from a political process and be the foundation of a lasting solution? How must existing institutions change for this vision to gain substance? Is there a way to accommodate the concerns of rival regional actors? This is where most agreement can be found among Syrians and their allies’ concerns can be addressed. This report suggests ideas for further discussion.

That choices are so unpalatable, unrealistic or both owes much to the dynamics of a war that is often misdiagnosed. It is not a zero-sum game in which one side’s gains definitely mean the other side’s loss. Both regime and opposition can be strong on some fronts, frail on others. Both have undergone consolidation processes and enjoy sufficient domestic and foreign support to endure. Its fighters more battle-hardened and its allies more hands-on, the regime has scored important tactical military victories. It retains loyal constituencies; some once on the fence, well aware of Assad’s atrocities yet alarmed by the opposition’s desultory record of governance as well as increasingly Islamist and sectarian disposition, hold their nose and lean toward a regime that claims to be fighting on behalf of a significant national cross-section. Most importantly, the regime has evolved in ways that largely make it impervious to its innumerable failings.

This is one good reason to rapidly discard the tipping-point theory, the fiction that once the opposition reached a critical mass (taking over Aleppo; moving into Damascus; bringing the business class to its side, among other hypotheticals) it would overwhelm the regime. One should do the same with the notion that, under growing pressure, the power structure would turn against itself, in a military coup or by desertion of significant personalities. The regime comes as a package deal – an inseparable whole, whose more acceptable elements cannot be dissociated from its least tolerable ones without bringing the entire edifice down. Assad supporters, often among his harshest private critics, remain persuaded that the remnants of the state would crumble were he to step down.

In its own way but with much the same result, the opposition is nearly impossible to eliminate. There are differences, of course. It is pluralistic and deeply divided, its structures improvised and shifting and its foreign backers less consistent and more uncoordinated. Still, and not unlike the regime, it has acquired a critical and resilient mass of support at least partially immune to the ups and downs of its performance. The large underclass that is its core constituency has suffered such extreme regime violence that it can be expected to fight till the end.

International support has been inconstant in the best of times, ineffectual at others. Yet even the opposition’s most reluctant foreign supporters are unlikely to fundamentally reverse course; as the recent decisions by Washington to deliver some weapons and then by others to significantly ramp up their own assistance suggest, they are more likely to do the opposite. Too much has been invested in demonising the regime, and too much is riding on the contest with Iran and Hizbollah for it to be otherwise. For those who view the conflict as a proxy war with Tehran, Assad’s survival would be a strategic body blow.

In short, the evolution of regime and opposition alike has made both military and negotiated solutions even more elusive, while transformation of the broader strategic context has made prospects for escalation even more probable. In the words of a former U.S. official, what once was a Syrian conflict with regional spillover has become a regional war with a Syrian focus. That is frightening.

The war is metastasising in ways that draw in regional and other international actors, erase boundaries and give rise to a single, transnational arc of crisis. The opposition increasingly resembles a Sunni coalition in which a radicalised Sunni street, Islamist networks, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Gulf states and Turkey take leading roles. The pro-regime camp, encompassing Iran, Hizbollah, Iraq and Iraqi Shiite militants, likewise appears to be a quasi-confessional alliance.

By its own admission, Hizbollah is directly engaged in a far-reaching battle against those it denounces as Sunni fundamentalists (takfiris) allied with Israel, thereby laying the predicate for long-term involvement. Iraqi Shiite fighters are growing in numbers, and Iran’s participation is expanding. Sunni sheikhs around the region are themselves using uninhibited sectarian language to urge followers to join the fight. The conflict has reignited tensions in Syria’s most fragile neighbours – Iraq and Lebanon – which recently had their own civil wars.

Stakes have risen for the U.S. and Israel as well. For Washington, acquiescing in the regime’s success arguably has acquired graver significance than living with a weakened regime ruling a rogue state and broken society. It is likened by some to empowering an increasingly integrated, Iranian-led axis of resistance, while handing Moscow a victory in a Cold War replay. The fusion of Iranian, Hizbollah and Syrian military assets could alter Israel’s cautious posture, making determination of what weapons system has been transferred to whom highly uncertain and thus a decision to use force more probable.

What is to be done? Already overdue is to vastly increase humanitarian aid within Syria, whether in regime- or opposition-held territory. There is need, too, for a “periphery” strategy for avoiding instability in vulnerable neighbours: giving economic help to Jordan and Lebanon and the refugees they host; prevailing upon regional countries not to further incite sectarian tensions in Lebanon; pressing Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to adopt a far more inclusive policy toward his Sunni opposition.

Hardest of all is what to do about Syria. The priority should be to end the war; there are no easy choices, but there is at least need to face them squarely:

  • One option would be for the West to decisively tip the military balance. This, it almost certainly can do – albeit only by a far more massive intervention than is presently contemplated or, arguably, politically palatable. Even then, it is not clear whether the regime would be “defeated”, or merely reincarnated in a series of militias, and even less clear whether the war would be ended or only redefined. Iran, Hizbollah, perhaps even Russia would keep influence, fuel instability and ensure a chaotic transition (Tehran and the Shiite movement have elsewhere proved to be masters at this game), and the regional/sectarian Cold War would endure.
     
  • An arguably most expedient way to tamp down violence would be to starve the rebels of resources, acquiesce in de facto regime victory and seek an accommodation with Bashar. The moral, political and strategic costs would be huge, perhaps prohibitive, and it might well not end the tragedy: enraged Syrians likely would not surrender; an emboldened regime might seek revenge; and Damascus almost certainly would refrain from the domestic or foreign policy concessions necessary for its external enemies to save face.
     
  • The optimal solution – a negotiated, diplomatic one – at this stage belongs pretty much to the world of make-believe. Outside powers – beginning with Russia and the U.S. – would have to fundamentally shift their endgame approach. For Moscow, this means accepting, then pushing for a major transformation of the Syrian power structure; for Washington, it entails moving from implicit regime change to explicit power sharing. Any viable negotiated political outcome would have to empower and reassure Syria’s various constituencies. Regional actors, who will support a compromise only if they believe the new political framework gives them sufficient leverage to preserve their core interests, would need guarantees. The West’s apparent determination to exclude Iran from a peace conference (perhaps under review in the wake of that country’s presidential elections) is short-sighted: keeping Tehran from Geneva will not lessen its role in Damascus.

The West’s current trajectory – urging diplomacy while resorting to half-way measures such as arming the opposition or, conceivably in the future, targeted airstrikes and a limited no-fly zone – is an option as well, and one that might produce sizeable ancillary benefits: eroding the regime’s military; boosting Western influence over the rebels; and recalibrating the balance of power among rebel groups. But it would not produce what its promoters typically claim as justification: moving the regime to seriously negotiate a genuine transition. Nor is there any reason to believe it could arrest sectarian polarisation, contain violence, limit jihadi groups or persuade Syria’s allies to back down. Ultimately, it would mean getting further sucked into a dangerously intensifying and malignant Sunni/Shiite sectarian regional conflict in which the West would be running a risk by picking favourites.

If Russia and the U.S. wish to signal seriousness, they should start with efforts to de-escalate the conflict. Moscow should press the regime to end the most gratuitous forms of violence (notably massacres of civilians in the presence of army troops and use of ballistic missiles against civilians) and curtail the use of its foreign fighters (especially those of an overtly sectarian nature). Washington should push the opposition to act against its own most extreme armed groups and implement ceasefires along specified front lines. None of this would fundamentally alter the trajectory of the conflict or truly point to its resolution. But at least it would be a start, which is far more than one can say has been achieved at this sorry stage.

Damascus/Cairo/Brussels, 27 June 2013

A general view of al-Hol camp in al-Hasakeh governorate, Syria, 8 August 2019. AFP/Delil SOULEIMAN

Virus Fears Spread at Camps for ISIS Families in Syria’s North East

Disease has long been a daily concern at al-Hol, a detention camp in north-eastern Syria for families of ISIS militants, but now each death raises anxiety about COVID-19. With repatriations on hold, the UN and other international bodies must step up medical and humanitarian aid.

When someone dies at al-Hol, a detention camp in north-eastern Syria that holds mostly women and children related to ISIS militants, the blame turns rapidly to COVID-19. Fears are mounting about the illness, even though there are no confirmed cases, and even though untimely death is already common, due to harsh living conditions and other infectious diseases that kill dozens of people on average each month.

Scary rumours started spreading in al-Hol early in March, when a three-year-old child and a seventy-five-year old woman, both Russian citizens, died. It was definitely COVID-19, some women maintained. Others said the child had died of tuberculosis and the woman of a heart attack. As camp authorities instructed residents to stay in their tents and shops in the camp’s market began to shut, women started stockpiling food and water. When guards dug a perimeter trench, one frightened woman blurted out that they were readying mass graves. A deep disquiet arose as well in Roj, a smaller detention camp close to the Iraqi border. Women in both camps began calling and texting relatives abroad if they felt sick, frantically recounting their symptoms. “We’re having conversations about how we expect to die here”, one wrote.

Crisis Group has been unable to visit the camps under present conditions. But from telephone calls and WhatsApp/Telegram messages with camp residents and their relatives as well as with UN officials and humanitarian organisation staffers, a vivid sense of panic emerges.

As in all displacement camps in Iraq and Syria, people live without clean water, adequate food or reliable medical services – much less soap, hand sanitisers or protective gear. Al-Hol and Roj hold 66,000 and 4,000 women and children, respectively, most of them relatives of ISIS militants but some former affiliates of the group themselves. The majority are either Syrians or Iraqis, with the numbers roughly split, and around 13,500 are from other countries. Their hazy legal status as neither combatants nor civilians, and the stigma attached to them, discourages some UN aid bodies from providing any service at all. It also puts doctors and guards in the position of looking after women whom they view as unrepentant ISIS militants.

Should this virus hit places like al-Hol, we risk being in a position where we are just going to watch people die.

As of now, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in either camp, though there are no testing kits, either. But with a key border crossing from Iraq, Faysh Khabour, closed because of the virus, cutting off aid supplies, and medical capacity in the region direly limited, the outlook is bleak. “They already have a hard time isolating tuberculosis cases, so forget social distancing”, Fabrizio Carboni, regional director for the Near and Middle East at the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Crisis Group. “Should this virus hit places like al-Hol, or much of north east Syria, we risk being in a position where we are just going to watch people, the most vulnerable, die”.

Winter scene from al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria in March 2020. This photograph was shared with support group members by a camp resident who wished to remain anonymous.

Since the last ISIS strongholds in Syria fell in early 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia that partnered with the U.S.-led coalition, has largely been left to deal with tens of thousands of ISIS detainees and affiliated family members. Many of the detainees’ home countries refuse to take them back. In addition to al-Hol and Roj, which mostly house women and children, the SDF struggles to guard, care for and feed thousands of men and boys crammed into makeshift prisons. It receives some U.S. funding, but its resources are woefully lacking. The anti-ISIS coalition has been slow to deliver extra support – more training for guards and new equipment – that it promised for overseeing detainees. Humanitarian workers describe these sites as ridden with tuberculosis and perilously overcrowded, with one speaking of “dramatic mortality rates”.

Following ISIS’s defeat the authorities inherited a fragile health system and destroyed infrastructure.

On 30 March, ISIS detainees rioted and overran a prison in Hassakeh city, ripping off doors and taking control of one floor of the facility. It took nearly a day for the SDF to quell the uprising and determine that no one had escaped. The militants had been compelled to break out, SDF authorities later said, partly by fear of contracting the virus in such cramped quarters. The prospect that something similar could happen at al-Hol, where tensions flared regularly between militant women and camp guards even in pre-pandemic times, worries Western officials, as well as the Autonomous Administration of north-eastern Syria, the political entity that governs the SDF-protected region.

The strain of guarding so many detainees is overwhelming the Autonomous Administration. Badran Çiya Kurd, one of its senior officials, told Crisis Group that it must look after not just camps like al-Hol but also a native population of over five million (a recent UN estimate cites three million), as well as a million internally displaced Syrians. Following ISIS’s defeat, he said, the authorities inherited a fragile health system and destroyed infrastructure, the overhaul of which required massive international support just to meet the population’s basic needs, let alone ward off a pandemic. The camps, he continued, would be hardest hit, because of overcrowding and lack of facilities and preparedness: “Any spreading of the virus will lead to unprecedented catastrophe”. Much of the north east’s population relies on daily jobs to get by, forcing workers to choose between self-isolation measures and survival. The area has also suffered from Turkey cutting the water supply it controls from Allouk station, a step emanating from disputes between Ankara and the SDF over the exchange of water and electricity between regions the two respectively control. The water is now flowing again, but it has yet to reach civilians in a number of areas. The loss of the Yaroubia border crossing with Iraq earlier in the year (a January UN resolution failed to re-authorise its use), Çiya Kurd said, was now causing intense hardship, reducing the movement of humanitarian aid into the area, in a manner now compounded by the recent COVID-related closure of Faysh Khabour.

As camp managers struggled in late March to get a doctor into Roj, citing increasing demand for medics in the area, women took to selling each other goods at inflated prices as anxiety grew in both camps. Huddled on the dirt floor in her six square meters tent in with her four children, a 31-year-old French woman texted from al-Hol to her mother back home that she feared they’d had their last full meal for a while. A Syrian woman wrote that she felt ill, had no tent for shelter and worried about who would care for her two boys if she died. Another Syrian woman said a local NGO came to instruct women on how to wash their hands properly. But usually, she added, there isn’t enough water in al-Hol for regular hand washing. “We don’t understand what is going on, so people are scared”, she said. “It’s hard to breathe”, another woman in Roj said by text to Alexandra Bain, director of the Canada-based Families Against Violent Extremism, “and we have heavy coughs”. In exchanges Bain showed to Crisis Group, women in the camps, using shared phones, described “never-ending coughing”, fever and successive days without access to a doctor or basic pain medications.

The messages paint a picture of an area already acutely lacking in medical personnel and supplies, where need is greatest in hospitals and camps recede in priority, and where nervous doctors reprimand women for asking about the virus. Sometimes the messages are punctuated by asides (“Ahhh, my daughter just vomited”); sometimes by desperation (“some people here want to take their own lives”); and sometimes by resignation (“if corona hits here, we are done for”).

An Iraqi refugee carries her child as she walks around in a camp in al-Hol, Syria, 13 March 2017. AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN

Though the majority of these camps’ inhabitants are children and women under 50, a great many may already suffer from pneumonia, chest infections and tuberculosis. These “co-morbidities”, says Will Turner, emergency operations manager at Médecins Sans Frontières, put the camp population in elevated peril from the coronavirus. The danger is highest in areas like the “foreigners’ annex”, where non-Syrians and non-Iraqis are housed. Due to difficult access negotiations between aid groups and camp authorities, the annex has received no direct medical services in months. Even trying to pass COVID-19 health advice into the annex is a challenge; the camp does not officially permit women detainees to have mobile phones and will not allow the distribution of flyers inside.

The “foreigners’ annex” has received no direct medical services in months.

As of mid-March, at least two countries had active repatriation plans under way for the foreigners in the camps, one for a small number of detainees and the other for a significant number that – in a rare occurrence – included men. Getting to this stage typically requires ceaseless and multi-layered political wrangling – within home governments, and between those governments and north-eastern Syria’s governing authorities. But for now, COVID-19 has disrupted these plans. “This definitely means a halt to repatriations”, one Western official told Crisis Group. “[No one] can commit resources to repatriation now or for the foreseeable future”.

It is likely that COVID-19 will afflict the whole of the north east, indeed all of Syria, including regions under state control and the rebel-held pocket of Idlib. The authorities in the north east cannot be expected to bear the entire burden of this escalating and enormously trying humanitarian crisis. The majority of the population in al-Hol and Roj are children, and whether they are Iraqi, Syrian or of some other nationality, their well-being and that of their caregivers needs safeguarding.

The U.S. should push both the Iraqi authorities and the Autonomous Administration in the north east to agree to a regular, two-way humanitarian exemption to the temporary border closure at Faysh Khabour, so that aid groups working across the Iraqi border can maintain their activities and supply lines in both directions. To be persuasive to the Iraqi and SDF authorities alike, this request should be accompanied by delivery of humanitarian aid and COVID-19-relevant kits and equipment for the populations in Syria’s north east and Iraq proper, including other displaced persons camps. International bodies, in particular the UN, should make a major push to provide health education and test kits. The SDF, for its part, should continue to release as many Syrians from al-Hol as possible, reducing the camp’s congestion. But one border crossing is not enough: the UN Security Council should also consider immediately re-authorising the use of Yaroubia as a humanitarian access point into the north east. Waiting for the next resolution on the logistics of aid delivery into Syria, likely this summer, would result in a damaging delay. Moscow should reverse its earlier position and refrain from opposing the reopening of Yaroubia, as Damascus has not permitted the delivery of health supplies through its territory in a way that would compensate for its closing.

The UN Security Council should consider immediately re-authorising the use of Yaroubia as a humanitarian access point into the north east.

At no time in recent months have prospects for the men, women and children detained in these camps looked more uncertain. While the Autonomous Administration is seeking to step up the release of Syrian detainees at al-Hol, for Iraqis and other non-Syrians the chances of leaving do not look good. The painfully slow process of repatriation by home governments, already so fraught within states’ domestic politics, is now frozen, and it will take a monumental effort to make it a priority again anytime in the near future. Which is why women’s anxiety about the virus, together with the symptoms they are presently experiencing, merges with a more generalised panic about the future.