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SDF benefits from letting IS prisoners go, capturing more

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are said to be releasing Islamic State prisoners in Raqqa through mediation with Arab tribes, raising concerns among locals about a resurgence of the group.
Men, suspected of being affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group, gather in a prison cell in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh on October 26, 2019. - Kurdish sources say around 12,000 IS fighters including Syrians, Iraqis as well as foreigners from 54 countries are being held in Kurdish-run prisons in northern Syria. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP) (Photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images)

ALEPPO, Syria — The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been cracking down on civilians accused of being affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) even as the SDF has been releasing IS prisoners. The apparent contradiction seems motivated by money, engendering goodwill with local tribal leaders and justifying the SDF's continuing control of certain regions.

The SDF, a Kurdish-Arab alliance that helped the US-led coalition in the war on IS, denies the releases are improper.

SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel told the Firat News Agency in a Jan. 17 story, “The [Kurdish] Autonomous Administration acts in line with [laws concerning] Syrian criminals. Each criminal is put on trial and those having served their sentence are released from custody. Local courts serve as the decision-making mechanism in this regard."

On Jan. 29 and 30, the SDF arrested eight people, including four teenagers and a woman, on charges of being affiliated with IS. The arrests took place in eastern Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa provinces. Some of those arrested allegedly distributed leaflets threatening prominent SDF leaders.

Meanwhile, from Dec. 31 to Jan. 25, the SDF released 180 alleged IS affiliates in cooperation with the Civil Council of Raqqa and Arab tribal chiefs.

“They showed good behavior and proof that they had no Syrian blood on their hands,” the Civil Council tweeted about some of the released prisoners. Also, the Council of Arab Tribal Chiefs loyal to the SDF in Raqqa guaranteed certain individuals would not return to IS or carry out any activities against the SDF, which controls large areas of northeastern Syria.

A civil activist from Raqqa nicknamed Abu Maya — and who refused to reveal his real name — told Al-Monitor, “In 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the SDF released hundreds of IS affiliates. The SDF is building closer ties to Arab tribal chiefs because the percentage of Arabs has grown larger in its ranks, reaching almost 70%. It fears Arabs might turn against it, so it is trying to remain close to them by positively responding to their mediation. Raqqa and the Jazira region are tribal areas, with their own customs and traditions, among which is obedience to the tribal chiefs, which means a tribal chief can influence a large number of his followers and ruin the alliance with the SDF, should the latter refuse to meet demands.”

Abu Maya added, “It is impossible to know to what extent these released persons were involved in IS operations because the group had thousands in its ranks with military and administrative positions during its years of control over Raqqa and the areas of northeastern Syria. One cannot tell whether they were innocent or not because IS members do not simply let go of their ideology, which means they are still a danger and releasing them seems very risky.”

The SDF was established in 2015 with the support of the United States and the international coalition to fight IS. The SDF took control of Raqqa in October 2017, and it was the beginning of the end for IS. The SDF announced the complete elimination of IS' territorial control in Syria in March 2019.

Although statistics on the numbers of IS detainees in SDF prisons vary, some estimates put that figure at about 12,000, including 2,500 to 3,000 foreigners from 54 countries, 4,000 Syrians and 4,000 Iraqis. All are said to have been captured by the SDF and kept in at least seven prisons whose locations largely remain unknown. The SDF also keeps about 12,000 women and children from IS families in three camps, the largest of which is al-Hol.

Euphrates Post journalist Ahmed al-Ramadan told Al-Monitor, “The SDF seeks to win over Arab tribal chiefs in the areas it controls, so it can increase its control and influence. The prisoners’ families or tribes often get them out on bail and the SDF gives them cards allowing them to move between the areas it controls. Money is the main reason the SDF is releasing prisoners, especially since it gets a large ransom [for] those of Syrian nationality, sometimes amounting to $20,000, the equivalent of 20 million Syrian pounds. Meanwhile, prisoners of other nationalities stay detained.”

Abdellatif, a civilian activist from Raqqa who declined to reveal his full name, told Al-Monitor, “Ever since it took over the Jazira region in northeastern Syria, the SDF has sought to get Arab tribal chiefs on its side, especially since tribes make up the majority of the population there. It wants to stress that it represents Syrian forces from the area, without any Kurdish national dimension, which prompted the SDF to accept mediations, and tribal guarantees to release some IS affiliates who are members of the tribes that live in al-Hol refugee camp in eastern Hasakah.”

The majority of the population in SDF-controlled areas in northeastern Syria is Arab. There are no accurate statistics on the demographics of the area, but Arabs, especially Arab tribes, are more numerous than Syrian Kurds or other ethnic groups.

Abdellatif said, “The SDF has achieved several goals by releasing IS prisoners, the first of which is to fulfill the demands of the tribes ... as well as receive money and bribes. In addition, some were deliberately released just to wreak havoc and push the US forces to remain in the area. When the SDF releases prominent IS figures, despite the threat they pose to the area’s security, it can exploit them for its own purposes and make the public believe it is still chasing IS members and its presence is crucial as the area’s protector." 

“The SDF is committing a crime against people in its control areas in Raqqa and the rest of northeastern Syria by releasing these terrorist criminals, who will regroup and resume their bloody criminal activity and target people and their property for revenge. The SDF does not care much about the security situation in the areas it has always controlled; it benefits from the chaos and the fact that these criminals are at large," he added.

Syrian journalist Ahed al-Salibi from Deir ez-Zor told Al-Monitor, “The demographics in northeastern Syria are tribal, and the decisions of tribal chiefs are often applied there. Today, citizens listen to them, and the SDF resorts to them to control the area and muster support and fighters in its ranks, as well as to thwart any activity against it.”

He said, however, “The detainees the SDF has released included people who were suspected of having relatives in IS’ ranks, and others who were working in the municipalities and civilian centers affiliated with the group, and some are indeed innocent people. One cannot presume all those released are terrorists or affiliated with IS.”

It seems the SDF's strategy achieves many of its interests, by keeping it on good terms with the tribes and ensuring their loyalty and cutting the costs of keeping these detainees in prisons. At the same time, the SDF does not seem to worry about the danger releasing them could pose. Even if they carry out terrorist acts later on, that would only justify the SDF’s existence, along with the coalition, to carry on the fight against IS. Not to mention, SDF makes a lot of money from the bail and ransom in exchange for the prisoners' release. 

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