Are Kurdish-led Forces Trying to Reconcile with Former ISIS Members in Syria?

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US backed multi ethic alliance led by Kurdish forces to fight the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), issued a statement on May 15th ensuring the protection of ISIS militants in Raqqa, the de-facto capital of ISIS in Syria, as well as their families if they surrender before the end of the month regardless of their position. The SDF issued this deal during the last stage of the assault to capture Raqqa, which so far has effectively removed the group from former ISIS territories. Although the success of this maneuver is unclear. It may indicate that the US and its local allies are finally considering the implications for a post-ISIS Syria and ways to deal with some of the significant challenges.

The US-led anti-ISIS campaign has largely succeeded in conquering the group militarily, but it did not consider how to sustain these achievements. By neglecting to set out post-ISIS mechanisms, it has failed to ensure the defeat of ISIS with the risk of it re-emerging in a new form. The current anti-ISIS coalitions—both local and international—drove local communities out of conflict areas, and only a small number of those displaced have returned after fighting has ended. Most are unable to return due to security reasons or are otherwise prevented. Evidence has been reported of systematic civilian abuses in areas under the SDF control, often in retaliation for perceived sympathies with or ties to members of ISIS or other armed groups. Reports have increased of various communities prevented from resettling locally, that have fled ISIS-controlled areas due to fears that displaced groups may introduce ISIS ‘sleeper cells.’ The absence of clear mechanisms to rehabilitate and reintegrate former members and supporters is hindering the chances of preventing members from re-joining ISIS elsewhere or migrating to like-minded groups.

But there seems to be a minor policy shift in the SDF approach to ISIS since the offensive to capture the city of Manbij in the second half of 2016. The intense urban fight in the city and the SDF heavy losses reportedly shaped the SDF decision to offer ISIS fighters a deal to withdraw from the city with their individual weapons within forty-eight hours. Although ISIS rejected the proposal, the SDF still allowed ISIS to pull out at a later stage. A similar deal was also offered last May during the SDF attack to capture strategic dam of Tabqa in Raqqa province. The negotiations led to the withdrawal of around seventy ISIS fighters in exchange for leaving the city, surrender of heavy weaponry and dismantling all improvised explosive devices (IED) and booby traps. Yet, this is still the first time that the SDF offers to protect ISIS fighters and their families and mend their situation in exchange for their surrender. The deal was first issued for ten days in the second half of May, but was extended until the end of the month based on requests from the people of Raqqa to “allow the greatest number possible of those who were deceived or forced to join to benefit from this opportunity.” Although it remains unclear how successful this offer has been in encouraging ISIS members to defect, the absence of media coverage on it likely indicates its limitations. 

This reconciliation attempt is a positive step, but it has to be part of a more holistic reintegration policy to succeed in rehabilitating them and encouraging others to defect. In a recent paper, I published in cooperating with the London-based think tank Chatham House, I examined the substantive role that local communities in northern Syria played in resisting ISIS in early 2014. Drawing notably on first-hand interviews with a set of local actors in the city of Atarib in rural Aleppo, the paper also examines the extent to which these communities were able to deal with ISIS’s local members, and scrutinizes the local reconciliation process whereby many of the latter were able to reintegrate with their community. People in Attarib offered ISIS members who were pressured to join the group—either through coercion, threats, or economic reasons—or even disillusioned ideological members, a way out. Locals in Atarib told ISIS supporters that if they chose not to fight for the group they would be safe, and this encouraged many people to refrain from fighting. There was also a degree of local reconciliation, with the aim of reintegrating ISIS supporters in the community: ISIS members were allowed to continue to live peacefully in the city if they denounced the group and stopped fighting for it.

Notwithstanding, in the post-ISIS phase in Atarib, there was no comprehensive follow up on the processes of reintegration and rehabilitation of former ISIS members, or in instituting clear protection measures for ISIS members who had chosen not to fight. As a consequence, some former-ISIS members were subject to discriminatory behavior and social stigma in Atarib after the uprising. Some ex-fighters then rejoined ISIS elsewhere. Although it is not clear whether they were motivated to do so as active supporters or because of local reprisals. There were no enforcement mechanisms to ensure that former ISIS members did not join other radical groups. Additionally, there was no clear plan to determine how to handle captured ISIS fighters after the group’s defeat.

Despite these flaws, the Atarib example remains by far the best attempt to address the issue of reintegrating ISIS members fully within a local community. It also offers valuable lessons that could inform the SDF reconciliation process to rehabilitee former ISIS members and supporters and encourage others to defect without fear of reprisal. Public communication channels—including traditional broadcasting, print media, social media, and local mosques—should be used to convey clear information to ISIS members about where to go and what to do should they choose to leave the group. Clear protection guarantees should also be made, with the backing of local leaders and notables, with enforceable penalties for violating them. The process should not, however, preclude the criminal prosecution of former ISIS fighters via local courts where there is sufficient evidence to do so. Additionally, there should be a mechanism for dealing with ISIS prisoners who are captured in combat, as well as enforcement mechanisms to prevent former ISIS members from joining other radical groups such as al-the Nusra Front. More importantly, it is critical to empower and engage local communities in creating their own alternatives and solutions to the deep-rooted political, economic, social, and cultural issues that have seen extremist groups rise and flourish.

Otherwise, the SDF sole focus on defeating ISIS in Syria militarily will likely fail to ensure group defeat without the risk of its resurgence in a new form. It will also likely continue to push ISIS fighters and supports to join like-minded groups such as the Nusra Front, which has been able to exploit the power vacuum where its rival ISIS has collapsed.

Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist, researcher, and Chatham House Associate Fellow who focuses on security policy, conflict studies, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. Follow him on Twitter at @HaidHaid22.

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Image: Photo: Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters stand amid smoke in Raqqa's western neighbourhood of Jazra, Syria June 11, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said