Is Turkey able to handle influx of Islamic State prisoners?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey can take custody of Islamic State prisoners at a time when every other country avoids the repatriation of their own citizens. But there are serious questions as to whether Turkey can handle the situation.

al-monitor Men suspected of being Islamic State fighters walk together toward a screening point for new arrivals run by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, March 5, 2019. Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images.

Oct 16, 2019

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might have agreed to take the responsibility of Islamic State (IS) prisoners held in camps in northeastern Syria to get a blessing for Operation Peace Spring, but Ankara soon realized the trouble it got itself into as experts warned that the incursion could lead IS fighters to escape prison camps and reorganize.

There are already unconfirmed reports that the operation allowed some IS supporters to escape camps under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during Turkish bombardments against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the region.

The American decision to leave the responsibility for IS prisoners to Turkey on Oct. 6 initially caused a shock in Turkish public opinion. Some Turkish social media users even came up with analogies for the Korean War in the 1950s, where Turkish troops fought alongside Americans in exchange for little pay, reminding readers that American officials then regarded Turkish troops as “cheap soldiers.”

“The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer. Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters,” the White House statement said soon after President Donald Trump announced the US troop withdrawal from Syria, paving the way for Turkey’s Oct. 9 operation against the predominantly Kurdish YPG. ISIS is another abbreviation for the Islamic State.

The YPG — the backbone of the SDF — is an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and many other Western powers, including the United States. 

Financial costs aside, the other risks Turkey is willing to undertake somehow seem ignorable for Erdogan, who is fully committed to the operation. Yet there are many questions regarding Erdogan’s commitment. 

First, why did Turkey agree to take the custody of IS fighters at a time when European countries are refusing to repatriate their own citizens? What agenda is Turkey is pursuing by volunteering for the job?

Second, how much territory is Turkey seeking to secure through Operation Peace Spring? Most of the IS detainee camps or prisons are located outside of the scope of Turkey’s self-proclaimed objective to set up a safe zone reaching only 32 kilometers (20 miles) deep inside Syria. Most of the IS fighters and supporters are being held outside of this scope. 

The estimated number of male IS detainees in Syria is 12,000. Some 10,000 of them are either from Syria or Iraq; the rest are from other countries around the world. Most of these fighters are being held in prisons in the northeastern province of Hasakah, 55 miles (88 kilometers) south of Ras al-Ain and 50 miles away from Kobani. The largest camp where families of IS fighters are being held is al-Hol. This camp is even farther away, more than 90 miles (145 kilometers) south of Ras al-Ain and 60 miles south of Qamishli. 

Although Erdogan said the safe zone Turkey plans to set up inside Syria could be expanded to Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa later on, this scenario seems highly unlikely, at least for the moment.

Indeed, Ankara apparently has come to its senses after realizing the magnitude of the Erdogan’s initial commitment to transfer all IS prisoners in Syria.

“I will go only 30 kilometers down from the border. I cannot take responsibility for [IS fighters] who are being held 65 kilometers [40 miles] away from the border. They are under the responsibility of those who are controlling that area,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, referring to the SDF, which controls Raqqa and large parts of Hasakah.

If Ankara is planning to bring the detainees to Turkey, another burden is the large number of people staying at the camps. The SDF is holding some 73,000 detainees from 55 different countries at al-Hol camp; 62,000 of those are from Syria or Iraq. The rest of the detainees are staying at a separate camp adjacent to the main compound. Nearly 94% of the total population are women and children. Another camp that families of IS fighters are being held is located in Ain Issa, 31 miles from Tell Abyad. The camp is located south of the strategic M4 highway that Turkey has said will be the southern border of the operation. 

The detention centers that remain within the scope of the safe zone along 300 miles of the Turkish-Syrian border and 19 miles inside Syria are Roj camp and Rimelan prison. Roj is located along the Turkish-Syrian border and hosts some 1,700 people; most are families of IS fighters. All of the inmates at the Rimelan prison are IS fighters. 

If Turkey only seeks to reach 30 kilometers deep inside Syrian territory, then why did Erdogan agree to assume the responsibility for IS prisoners who are being held in camps outside of the scope of its operation? Nobody knows the answer.

The only thing that is clear is that Turkey believes that the IS prisoners have turned into a point of leverage in the hands of the Kurdish groups and Ankara is trying to put an end to that. 

“YPG terrorists are holding [IS fighters] as a weapon in their hands,” Cavusoglu said. 

Erdogan didn’t hesitate to say that IS fighters can be brought to Turkey to be put in prisons or rehabilitation programs. But there are no preliminary preparations for that.

Erdogan has said that Turkey has detained 17,000 people on suspicion of connections with the IS, with 5,500 of them still behind bars, and that 7,600 IS suspects were deported from Turkey. 

In an attempt to reassure the international community about Turkey's ability to handle IS prisoners in Syria, Erdogan summarized his plan by saying that the ones who should be kept in prisons will be kept behind bars, the ones who are accepted by their countries will be extradited, and that the rest — women and children — will be reintegrated into society through rehabilitation and reintegration programs.

This plan means Erdogan, who has repeatedly complained about the Syrian refugee population in Turkey and has even threatened to flood Europe with refugees, is willingly take the responsibility for a problematic and criminal group of some 88,000 IS prisoners. 

There are many reasons why this commitment has been greeted by suspicion. First, despite the figures mentioned above, Turkey has developed a bad reputation for showing tolerance to IS members. 

Indeed, Al-Monitor’s firsthand observations in camps around Syria found that many IS fighters and their family members hoped to go to Turkey, thinking they would be more comfortable there or be able to flee from there. There is a widespread fear that Turkish authorities would free these people in a short time, allowing them to slip away among society.

During the crisis in Syria and Iraq, IS fighters developed skills to reside, hide and receive help in Turkey. If Turkey takes in these prisoners, they will likely reconnect with their networks. Another question is where the government would put these people at a time when the country’s prisons are already overcrowded due to crackdowns on dissent.

Furthermore, how can Turkey handle a large group of “criminals” or “potential criminals” while it still hasn’t developed a comprehensive rehabilitation program for the Syrian refugees in Turkey who need mental support?

Some European countries, particularly Austria and Germany, have been working to develop rehabilitation and integration programs to fight against radicalization on different levels. Yet Turkey has failed to address this matter despite the magnitude of the problem it faces.

In a country where Islamism is on the rise on so many levels, religious education institutions and the government’s main official religious body, Diyanet, do not have a comprehensive strategy for countering IS’ jihadi-Salafi ideology, a dogmatist and devoted structure that constantly cites verses of the Quran and quotes from the Prophet Muhammad. 

Besides, the content of the religious education curriculum, some religious sermons recited in mosques and even some television programs help Salafists strengthen their arguments. 

Moreover, it remains unclear how Ankara can persuade European capitals to repatriate their citizens. If Turkey considers using IS prisoners as leverage against the West, there is a great risk that Ankara’s relationship with dozens of European capitals will be further strained.

So far only a handful of countries have shown interest in repatriation. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kosovo quietly took back their citizens who had joined IS. Russia also repatriated some of its citizens, but Chechens afraid of returning were not sent back. 

In Western Europe, Belgium, Norway, Holland and France only repatriated children — six, five, two and 18, respectively. While Germany took 10 children from Iraq, France left its 11 citizens in Iraq to be tried. Italy accepted one of its citizens back and put him behind bars. Britain and Denmark stripped citizenship from those who joined IS. Outside Europe, Australia repatriated eight children, and the United States took back 18 of its citizens.

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