As detainees are released from Al-Hol, concerns in Syria's Euphrates river valley
By OMAR ABU LAYLA
What follows Autonomous Administration’ releasing thousands of people from al-Hol camp and SDF’ prisons?
On October 15, 2020, at a press conference, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced the release of 631 detainees from its prisons. This step is the first of its kind. The released detainees were already sentenced on terrorism charges and had already served over half of their sentences. At the press conference, held in the city of Qamishli, Amena Omar, joint head of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) said that the released detainees are Syrians who cooperated with Daesh, but who had not committed crimes. She added that the Autonomous Administration had released the detainees following tribal sheikhs’ requests and intermediation.
On October 5, 2020, the Autonomous Administration announced that Syrian families would leave the al-Hol Camp; but foreign families would remain. Riyadh Darar, joint head of the SDC stated this to the AFP. Thousands of people will leave the camp located in the al-Hasakah governorate. The camp currently shelters 64,000 people 24,300 of whom are Syrians, according to United Nations (UN) figures.
Detainees reunited with their families in Deir Ezzor
According to testimonies of individuals living in the area, not all the released people were Daesh members, as many of them were accused of committing offences, or even were arrested upon malicious reports that increased when Daesh lost control over al-Baghouz, amid the chaos prevailing in these areas. The released Daesh members did not participate in killings and provided non-combat services. They were released as a result of tribal intermediations and parents’ demands, especially in areas of Deir Ezzor.
Protests in Deir Ezzor increased the Autonomous Administration’s response to demands by tribespeople in areas east of the Euphrates. Among the demands were to stop using the educational curriculum that the Autonomous Administration tried to impose in the areas, releasing prisoners from the Autonomous Administration’s prisons, and allowing 20,000 Syrians mostly from Deir Ezzor to leave the al-Hol camp. The Autonomous Administration is expected to release other prisoners soon. Earlier, tribal intermediations convinced the Autonomous Administration to allow some families to leave the camp. The recent release was the largest to date.
Date with devastation and insecurity
This release is of course welcomed by the prisoners’ families and parent of civilians in the al-Hol camp; however, not all the released people can return to their original areas and homes. Many of them cannot return to the Assad regime and Iranian militias -controlled areas, because of fear of arrest or harassment. Many of those released prefer to live in the SDF-controlled areas. These areas have not entirely restored normal life yet due to the effects of the fierce war that the International Coalition and the SDF waged against Daesh, latterly in the al-Baghouz area. The war resulted in devastated infrastructure - a significant part of which has not been rehabilitated yet.
Key infrastructure sectors like health and education suffer due to multiple crises even two years after the liberation of the area from Daesh. For example, patients are obliged to go to hospitals in al-Raqqa or al-Hasakah in critical cases. Blood samples are taken from people for coronavirus tests in al-Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. Dozens of schools are still destroyed, and young men and bread winners complain about unemployment and lack of job opportunities. Many families remain dependent on foreign aid - whether by money transfers, international organizations’ assistance working with the SDF, or working with the Autonomous Administration’s Deir Ezzor Civil Council’ institutions. People working with these parties undergo significant pressure by Daesh.
There have been a number of assassinations.
People of the Deir Ezzor countryside, especially in the eastern area complain about insecurity , as assassinations increase. Tribal figures and dignitaries have been targeted. Recently, a tribal sheikh of the al-Akidat Tribe was assassinated in the town of ash-Shahail. Other security incidents had preceded this assassination. The sheikh’s assassination stirred street angry protests as protesters showed dissatisfaction with the lack of security in the Deir Ezzor countryside. Assassinations have included employees of civil and military administrations. The most recent of these incidents was the targeting of the local council’s employees’ vehicle in the village of al-Ji’a, in western Deir Ezzor.
Protests in Deir Ezzor increased the Autonomous Administration’s response to demands by tribespeople in areas east of the Euphrates.
Many people living in the al-Hol camp suffer from poor psychological conditions, especially as thousands of children witnessed violent incidents and experienced difficult displacement when the battles intensified during the last stages of liberation of the Deir Ezzor countryside from the extremists of Daesh. The rest of the people are not in a better situation. Many women at the camp suffer from severe psychological complications due to experiencing extreme deprivation and losing family members. Earlier,the al-Hol camp lacked any psychological support program by specialized organizations when these women were living in the camp; however, narrow-domained programs are now being conducted in the camp. There is still however insufficient rehabilitation programs available to people in the camp, and this lack of available services continues when they return to their original areas in Deir Ezzor controlled by the SDF, or stay as displaced people in the areas where they are. The Autonomous Administration lacks resources, and consequently has no plans to provide psychological support or systematic financial urgent aid for these people. International organizations operating in the area also have no wide-scale plans to support the people economically or psychologically.
This applies also to people released from prisons, as difficult conditions and a fragile economic situation await them. The Syrian pound has sharply devalued, contributing to economic collapse and devastation. The currency devaluation increased with the implementation of the Caesar Act. All this is taking place against the background of the coronavirus epidemic.
As a significant part of the prisoners includes Daesh members who did not participate in killings and conducted non-fight missions, poor conditions could push weak -spirited people to work with Daesh groups operative in the Deir Ezzor countryside despite intense security campaigns by the International Coalition and SDF.
The release of thousands of people from Deir Ezzor from the al-Houl camp and hundreds of others from SDF prisons comes in response to demands from below. Intermediation and discussions preceded the release. Tribal people were apparently taken by surprise by the wide-scale releases that met their demands towards their sons held in SDF prisons.
It is vital that the releases be accompanied by economic and psychological support programs - whether undertaken by the Autonomous Administration itself or in coordination with international organizations. Otherwise the releases are likely to negatively impact on war torn areas in Deir Ezzor countryside where infrastructure is fragile, and also to have a negative psychological impact on those released.
One of the missions of the International Coalition is increasing the pace of the rehabilitation of infrastructure, and ensuring the population’s quality of life, thus decreasing tensions in the area. Another mission of the International Coalition is supporting international organizations and guiding them in order to plan a rehabilitation and psychological support program offering the necessary support the people of this area, which suffered greatly both from the period of Daesh rule, and from the destruction which accompanied its defeat.
The author is a Syrian expert who focuses on security and governance dynamics in northeast Syria. CEO @DeirEzzor24, which has a group of researchers inside the country.