The US Defense Post Newspaper posted an article in which it noted that Islamic State presented a danger to the whole world, and North East Syria in particular. As such, it is fitting that their territorial defeat was carried out by the Syrian Democratic Forces, in partnership with the Global Coalition.
Yet despite its military defeat, ISIS remains a grave threat. Their occupation in Syria continued for over five years, in which time they imposed their violent way of thinking on society and won open and clandestine support from sections of the international community.
Now, North East Syria faces a growing insurgency from ISIS sleeper cells, the burden of thousands of foreign ISIS fighters and their families in SDF custody, and continued support for ISIS among large sections of the population.
This much was made clear by the threats of those ISIS members who were forced to surrender to the SDF at ISIS’s final stronghold in Baghuz. ISIS survives, and without a doubt, they are building themselves up again, sending lone wolf attackers to Europe and aiming to carry out more attacks across the globe.
The war on terror has not been won. The next phase is the most important.
ISIS must be uprooted here, in the region where it burst into life. The world relied on North East Syria to lead the struggle against ISIS as a military force. Now, North East Syria needs the world to help it in the next, decisive stage.
Most pressingly, this means taking responsibility for the thousands of foreign fighters in SDF custody and solving the humanitarian crisis at al-Hol Camp, home to 11,500 foreign ISIS-linked women and children. These prisons and camps are ticking time-bombs, where ISIS’s most hardline militants live and plot together, and fanatic mothers indoctrinate rapidly-aging children.
International states either need to repatriate their nationals and deal with them according to their own laws, or support an international tribunal for ISIS fighters here in North East Syria. What is untenable is to abandon them here as a burden on the Autonomous Administration, close their eyes and hope in vain that the problem goes away.
But there also needs to be a wider program of support for North East Syria. Redevelopment will bring peace and stability to the region, enabling refugees to leave the camps which are fast becoming terror hotspots and take their place in the democratic community of North East Syria. Psychological support and education programs need to be put in place to tackle ISIS’s ideology.
There are exciting ideas being developed here in North East Syria for overcoming ISIS, from an international court for ISIS fighters to women’s education programs in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. These programs must be backed by international cooperation, which will only be possible if North East Syria is granted political status and recognized as a key and legitimate partner in the fight against ISIS.
Political status would insure North East Syria against Turkey’s continued threats of invasion against the regions east of the Euphrates.
Turkey’s invasion of and installation of jihadist proxies in Efrin totally destabilized the region, allowing sharia law, extortion, kidnapping, torture and gender-based violence to thrive in a previously secular region. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threatened invasion would similarly destabilize regions newly-liberated from ISIS, creating the perfect conditions for their resurgence.
More broadly, political status would enable North East Syria – currently surrounded by a Turkish- and Syrian regime-backed embargo – to open its borders to trade and investment. It would enable North East Syria to take its place at the negotiating table over the future of the region, to defend the interests of its 4 million inhabitants, and to propose its democratic, secular, women-led program as the best surety against terrorism and state violence in the region.
There is a global conversation going on over how to deal with ISIS, but the most important voices are not being heard – those of the local people who lost 11,000 of their sons and daughters to ISIS, and are still on the frontlines of the ongoing struggle to eradicate the terror organization.
That’s why the Rojava Center for Strategic Studies is welcoming over 125 guests from 15 countries across three continents to the International Forum on ISIS 2019, the largest event of its kind ever held in North East Syria. The Forum will bring anti-terror experts, policy-makers, and legal, religious and regional experts from across the globe to the soil where ISIS’s worst crimes were committed.
Ideas and programs being developed here in North East Syria will meet with research and proposals from global experts. ISIS will be approached as a global problem, requiring global solutions connected to the realities on the ground in North East Syria and Iraq.
Lawyers with experience of international justice mechanisms, top policy-makers, and global anti-terror experts will meet with those who have first-hand experience of tackling ISIS. The Forum will provide suggestions to address the security threat posed by ISIS on the internal, regional, and international level, and discuss the best ways of dealing with the remaining sleeper cells and eradicating ISIS’ fundamentalist ideology to preserve peace and stability in the region.
As American Enterprise Institute Fellow and keynote speaker Michael Rubin says: “The Kurds have built a functioning society out of the ashes of the Syrian War, and one that could thrive if the international community lifts embargoes and sanctions.
It’s time to stop treating the Kurds as a diplomatic football. They have earned their place at the table, and they have more credibility than others to shape the post-ISIS future.”
This Forum is something new for North East Syria, but we hope it will be the first step of many in an ongoing conversation between the region which led the struggle to defeat ISIS and those opposed to ISIS all over the world.