Introduction by Ali El Shamy
Despite ISIS’s major territorial losses and humiliating military defeats, it’s hard to forget that the terrorist group had once controlled large portions of both Iraq and Syria. Since its 2014 military takeover of Mosul, wide swaths of northern Iraq, and its declaration of Caliphate, many had feared that the group would eventually penetrate other borders throughout the region and spread beyond Iraq and Syria. Over the years, the group’s operations had spread from the Middle East to Europe in the West and Southeast Asia in the East. What’s worse is that many foreign nationals attracted to the organization’s message decided to go to IS strongholds in the region and become fighters, operatives or brides.
Today, the situation in the Middle East could not be any different as the group is on the brink of being militarily destroyed. As it stands, Baghouz in Syria is the final remaining IS stronghold. Many of IS’s former fighters are arrested, detained, in hiding or seeking to go back to their homelands. Despite these victories, there are still many questions that remain unanswered such as what course of action should be taken on former IS fighters, how we avenge the ones who suffered the most from the group’s diabolical actions and how do we rebuild the lands destroyed during ISIS control? While current events present new opportunities for the people previously living under IS siege, a lot of time will be needed to heal most of the wounds inflicted.
BAGHOUZ: THE LAST STRONGHOLD
As of 2019, the village of Baghouz is the only IS territory remaining, thus constituting just one per cent of the land that the group had during its zenith. It is the farthest east village from the Syrian city Deir ez-Zor and is 3 kilometers away from the Syrian-Iraqi border. Baghouz is known for its green and fertile land as most of its dwellers used to work as farmers, it had scenic views that delighted the many tourists who used to visit the village. But, everything changed since IS invaded the serene land and viciously destroyed it.
Back in September 9, 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched the Al Jazeera Storm campaign, which set to free the Eastern front of the Deir ez-Zor countryside and has since then reached all the way to Baghouz and the SDF have been thus far successful in defeating IS forces across the Syrian-Iraqi border and returning kidnapped civilians to their homes. In September 2018, the SDF launched the final phase of Al Jazeera Storm campaign in which it battled the final IS enclaves in Hajin and its bordering towns such as Baghouz Fawqani and Sousa.
THE YAZIDI GENOCIDE
During IS’s reign of terror, among those who had suffered the most were the Yazidis in Iraq and Syria. The Yazidis follow an ancient monotheistic gnostic faith and are considered to be devil worshippers and heathens by ISIS. As such, IS committed a series of mass killings of Yazidis from all walks of life. The group would also abduct Yazidi women and girls and use them as sex slaves, all these targeted atrocities are widely recognized as a genocide. Majalla spoke with the Iraqi-Yazidi activist, Ali El Khansory, who told us about the status of IS in Baghouz and how they might react to their imminent defeat. He also discussed the future of the Yazidis and how they can heal from the hellish scenario they endured.
According to El Khansory, the battles between the SDF and IS are still ongoing, while the SDF has tried persuading the remaining IS forces in Baghouz to surrender peacefully the offers came to no prevail. As a result, the remnants of ISIS have decided to meet their demise the hard way. El Khansory has also noted that there have been negotiations with IS to release 200 Yazidi women and children that are still held captive, the captured children are as young as 6 and the oldest among them are only 16. While, IS has allowed their own women and children to leave its camps, it refuses to let one Yazidi captives out of their sights. Furthermore, the Yazidis have been used as ransom leverage since the terrorist group asked for a safe route towards Idlib, Palmyra Desert or Al Anbar in return for the kidnapped women and children, but naturally the SDF refused to even humor such a demand.
Even on its last legs, ISIS is still committing many atrocities on the Yazidi population. El Khansory recounts the most recent of said massacres that took place just days before New Year’s Eve. According to El Khansory, an IS general contacted him via WhatsApp and advised him to rescue the captured Yazidi women because the IS leader, Abu Bakr El Baghdady had ordered the execution of an unspecified number of Yazidi women. A few days later, news had spread that 50 of the captured Yazidi women had been killed just days before the start of the New Year. That same general messaged El Khansory after the massacre and asked him why he did not do anything about it, to which he responded that he had no way of verifying the validity of the threats. The general said that the threats are 100 per cent true and that he should rescue the captives as quickly as possible since IS forces will not hesitate to kill more Yazidis as long as the SDF keeps continuing its advances. Unfortunately, at this point in time it is hard to tell what will happen to the rest of the captives. Furthermore, IS’s threats turned out to be true as a Daily Mail article reported that the International Coalition infiltrated one of the last IS enclaves in Baghouz and found 50 cut-off heads belonging to Yazidi girls and women. The report also said that the British Royal Air Force’s Special Forces found the heads inside waste bins. The Yazidi activist also showed us voice messages from an IS fighter demanding 50,000 US dollars for each Yazidi captive. Another voice message from a Moroccan IS fighter revealed that he wanted the money because he would use it to pay a smuggler to take him to Turkey.
Both El Khansory and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that many IS assailants escaped to Turkey during that past few months. It is believed that at least 85 IS families paid smugglers to take them to Turkey often charging from 10,000 dollars per individual and 50,000 dollars per family.
He went on to tell us that he tried to find out the nationalities of the IS fighters in Eastern Syria, but the general he’s in contact with refused to disclose such information. Nevertheless, El Khansory was able to find out that many IS fighters in his region had Canadian citizenship.
The activist insisted that IS will continue to pose a threat to the Yazidis for the foreseeable future, but the bigger tragedy is the fact that many of those who committed these crimes have escaped to their villages neighboring the Shankal village thus escaping the prospect of paying for their actions. He also said that there are at least 3,000 hidden IS fighters in Mosul, Kirkuk and Diyala.
THE SINJAR MASSACRE
Yazidis living in Iraq also suffered from the terrorist group’s murderous actions. Since 2014, IS has been systematically killing Yazidis living in Sinjar, Iraq as well as the city’s surrounding villages. The group has been responsible for the deaths of Yazidi men, women, children, youth and elderly. Iraqi Yazidis have been killed in mass executions and were subsequently buried in mass graves. Women and girls faced the most inhumane acts of torture and most of them were raped, the age of the women did not matter to IS since girls as young as six were raped by members of the terrorist group.
THE UNITED NATION’S STATISTICS OF THE ONGOING GENOCIDE
According to the UN, the Yazidi population in Iraq was about 550,000. However, IS’s occupation has since caused about 360,000 Yazidis to be displaced. To put IS’s viciousness into context, 1,293 Yazidis alone were killed in the early days of the occupation. ISIS is also responsible for the deaths of 2,745 Yazidi orphans. Moreover, the UN has discovered 71 mass graves and tens of individual Yazidi graves in Shankal. El Khansory would go on to say that many of those responsible for the Yazidi genocide roam free throughout Turkey and face no prospect of punishment. Even those who are in Iraqi and Syrian prisons have not been properly tried for their actions.
LEGAL PROBLEM REGARDING FOREIGN IS FIGHTERS
To get a clearer picture on the legal issues surrounding foreign IS fighters, we spoke to Gheith El Tamimi the President of the Iraqi Center for Diversity Management (ICDM) and an expert in Islamist doctrine. According to El Tamimi, Iraqi courts cannot try many IS assailants who killed and tortured Iraqi citizens since many of the crimes were committed on Syrian land, which they have no jurisdiction over. It is also important to note that the Iraqi government still continues to discriminate against Yazidis and other minorities. El Tamimi thinks that the Iraqi government should set up a special tribunal court for the Yazidi genocide, given the hardships that they faced. Alas the Iraqi government idly stands by as the Yazidis continue to suffer.
JOINT QATARI-TURKISH ROLE IN AIDING JIHADIST GROUP
El Tamimi has also mentioned that there are states and international actors who have went out of their way to help IS and its operations. For instance, Turkey often acted as a rendezvous state where jihadists would meet before going into Iraq and Syria, he also mentioned Qatar as one of the world’s largest funders of jihadist groups. He said that there are agreements with Turkey and Qatar in order to conceal their roles in supporting and financing ISIS, he also said that Erdogan now has the opportunity to maintain these kinds of deals given the current internal situation in Turkey.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The United States’ decision to pull out its troops from Syria and Iraq will serve a huge blow for Syrian Democratic Forces since it will now be responsible for dealing with the almost 8,000 IS troops and fighters in the region. This will also leave the SDF with the responsibility of dealing with the foreign IS fighters. It is important to note that the SDF has already arrested many of those fighters but now faces the dilemma of countries refusing to take back their citizens. Moreover, the SDF does not have the capacity to give the prisoners long sentences or execute them. There is also the logistical problem of not having enough prisons for the fighters and the instability of the region given Turkey’s ventures in the East of the Euphrates.
US President Donald Trump recently went to twitter and demanded that European states take back their nationals who went to join IS, it is estimated that there are at least 800 Europeans who joined the group. However, most if not all European states rejected these demands, for instance French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called French IS fighters “the enemy of the state” and British Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, recently stripped Shamima Begum, the teenager who became a Jihadi bride, of her British citizenship. He then stripped 100 British IS members of their citizenships. If Europe continues to reject taking back these IS members then they will likely end up going to unstable states in the region like Libya or go in hiding in Iraq and Syria. They could even go to Pakistan and Afghanistan and carry out operations for those willing to pay.
Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper recently published an article stating that Erdogan has told Trump that Turkey would transfer 800 IS fighters to the Syrian Democratic Forces, given the Turkish government’s involvement with the group it’s hard to believe that the move does not carry within it any ulterior motives.
We also spoke to Abd El Karim Omar, the head of External Relations Authority in Northern and Eastern Syria, and he said that the military defeat of IS does not mean the defeat of terrorism or extremist ideology. This is because there are stilll silent operatives that lurk throughout Iraq and Syria. There’s also the fact that the ideology that helped IS spread is still present and that cannot be defeated through military means. Finally, many IS members and fighters have gone to Idlib and Jarabulus where they disguised themselves as liberal revolutionaries when they are in fact hardline jihadists. He also said that the mission cannot be declared accomplished until Syria is rebuilt into a free and democratic state for all walks of life, it is only at that moment we can start putting an end to the fuel that drives extremist ideology.
When asked about the crisis regarding foreign IS fighters, he suggested that the international community come together and establish an international tribunal that would try the former members. The international community would also need to build special prison units to hold the former fighters, which in turn would be guarded by an international security force.