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Intel: US-led coalition reaffirms support for prisons holding IS fighters in northeast Syria

The coalition commander called the Syrian Kurdish fighters' achievements against the Islamic State "astounding" and reaffirmed international support.
A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) guards a gate as Syrian women wait inside the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp.

The American commander of the US-led military coalition to defeat the Islamic State (IS) reaffirmed international support for Syria’s Kurdish-led fighters on Sunday, announcing new aid to help secure prisons holding IS detainees.

Speaking at a conference in the Syrian city of Hasakah, Lt. Gen. Paul Calvert highlighted additional assistance to upgrade detention centers run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Shadadi and Suwwar.

Calvert also noted recent international support for the People's Protection Units (YPG) annex at the notorious al-Hol internment camp, which houses tens of thousands of family members of IS fighters in conditions UN-appointed rights experts have described as “squalid.”

Included in the assistance is some $20 million from the UK government to upgrade the main prison holding IS fighters near Hasakah, Calvert said, adding the coalition expects “that project will be completed in September.”

The Hasakah prison was the scene of at least two riots by IS fighters last year. In one of the incidents, detainees escaped the main holding cell but did not break out of the compound itself.

Earlier this year, the YPG, which forms the backbone of the SDF, and Asayish security forces led a series of raids into al-Hol camp to capture IS operatives suspected of ordering a series of murders and kidnappings inside the camp.

Calvert said Sunday those raids helped the coalition gather valuable intelligence on IS sleeper cells both inside and outside of al-Hol camp.

“[IS] has been militarily defeated. Its so-called caliphate no longer exists,” he said, acknowledging more still needs to be done.

“Our detention capability advisory team is working to strengthen both the capability and the capacity of the guard forces to ensure [IS] detainees are kept safely in these facilities until repatriated or justice is served,” Calvert said.

The conference was also attended by SDF commander Mazlum Kobane and other senior Kurdish officials.

Why it matters: The commander’s assurances come as the Biden administration is reviewing its Syria policy. Last month, US President Joe Biden said the United States will end its combat mission in Iraq by Dec. 31, 2021.

In the meantime, US officials say the roughly 900 American troops in Syria aren’t leaving anytime soon.

During a June meeting of coalition officials in Rome, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the US stance that foreign governments must repatriate their citizens from IS camps and prisons for criminal trials in their home countries.

The head of all US forces in the Middle East, Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, has taken every opportunity to warn of the danger of leaving IS fighters and their families to languish indefinitely in underserved Syrian prisons.

“It’s not a military problem,” McKenzie said in April. “But it will manifest itself in five to 10 years as a military problem unless we solve it now, because the children are going to grow up radicalized and we’re going to see them on the battlefields fighting us.”

What’s next: Calvert is preparing to hand off his command of the coalition to US Army Maj. Gen. John Brennan, a veteran of the defeat-IS mission who has a personal rapport with Kobane.

Brennan currently heads the Army’s First Special Forces Command. He previously oversaw the 2019 raid that led to the death of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as deputy chief of the elite Joint Special Operations Command.

Know more: Despite continued coalition support, the SDF will be releasing more detainees from al-Hol as authorities struggle to maintain the camp, Hussam Hammoud writes.