A fighter of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army in Aleppo, on Tuesday (photos: AFP)
In launching its assault against northern Syria on 20 November, Turkey has presented the Islamic State (IS) group with opportunities to return to the region.
On 22 November, Turkish missiles struck in the vicinity of the Al-Hol Refugee Camp, which not only houses IS prisoners but is also home to tens of thousands of civilians, around half of whom are children. The chaos on top of the harsh humanitarian conditions in the camp has given rise to a climate conducive to IS indoctrination and other activities.
Ankara claims the latest episode in its Operation Claw-Sword in northern Syria is in response to the bomb attack on Istiklal Avenue in downtown Istanbul on 13 November. The Turkish authorities have blamed the attack on the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main contingent of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which Turkey maintains is a branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).
The SDF has been compelled to withdraw its forces guarding the camps holding IS prisoners in northern Syria in order to respond to the Turkish threat. The reduced security is likely to facilitate contacts between IS leaders and operatives inside the Al-Hol Refugee Camp and enable the latter to strengthen their influence in the camp, now akin to a communications and coordination centre for terrorist operatives.
IS has repeatedly attempted to make a comeback in the wider region, taking advantage of whatever openings arise. As Iraqi National Security Advisor Qassim Al-Araji said in April, “the IS terrorist organisation still presents a real threat because of the Al-Hol Camp in northeastern Syria where thousands of its terrorists are in prisons guarded by the SDF. IS is constantly attempting to break into these prisons in order to free its members.”
The prisoners inside the camp are also likely to take advantage of the fewer SDF guards in order to stage prison breaks. The numbers of attempts at these have been on the rise, despite the security precautions put in place by the Syrian Kurdish forces.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has indicated that the current Turkish aerial assault will be followed by a ground incursion into northern Syria. Turkey has simultaneously been intensifying its bombardment of northern Iraq, where it has targeted PKK positions.
In the summer, Turkey amassed its forces along the border with Syria preparatory to launching an incursion into northern Syria where it intends to carve out a 30 km buffer zone under its control. Ankara suspended the incursion for unstated reasons, but it appears bent on carrying it out this month, now that an opportunity has arisen.
Turkey intends to use the area in order to repatriate the millions of Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey. The refugee issue has become a thorn in Erdogan’s side as the 2023 general elections approach.
The Turkish strikes against Hasaka in northern Syria where the Al-Hol Camp is located will not only weaken the SDF’s control over the camp but also its ability to maintain security in the area, which again could work in IS’s favour. Some analysts believe that the military operations in northern Syria combined with Turkey’s strikes against Iraqi Kurdistan, which have coincided with the Iranian strikes against the same area, might not only help IS reassert itself in Syria but also in Iraq.
Turkey’s determination to invade northern Syria, take over SDF strongholds, and displace the populations in these areas is likely to induce IS operatives and cells in the camp to do battle with the Asayish, a branch of the SDF that functions as an internal security force and fulfils various security roles such as police and counterterrorism.
IS may also step up attacks against civilians in the camp who oppose its ideology. A recent example was the murder of two girls in 2018 by IS jihadists in the camp. Since the beginning of this year, around 20 people have been killed in mysterious circumstances in the Al-Hol Camp, and the jihadist wives of IS operatives have had a hand in murdering women who have abandoned the extremist ideology of the organisation.
In addition to worsening the security situation in prisons and detention centres holding IS prisoners by drawing SDF forces away from them in order that they can be redeployed against Turkish forces, Ankara’s insistence on remilitarising Syria will create a fertile environment not just for IS to strengthen its hold inside the Al-Hol Camp, but also for the terrorist organisation to reposition itself elsewhere in Syria and Iraq.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.