The small number of Australians being held in prison camps in northern Syria has been an ongoing, albeit low-level, challenge for the Australian government. There are believed to be eight Australian fighters for the Islamic State in captivity, along with around 60 Australian women and children.
Despite its reluctance, the Australian government may eventually feel obliged to bring many or all these people home.
So far, the Australian public seems to have accepted the government’s line that it’s too dangerous to extract them from Syria. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison succinctly put it:
I’m not going to put any Australians in harm’s way.
An increasingly untenable position
The government believes there are valid security concerns in bringing these people back to Australia. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has claimed some of the women are “hardcore” and “have the potential and capacity to come back here and cause a mass casualty event”.
Identifying these people, gathering evidence about their crimes and managing domestic fears would be a big challenge.
However, the government’s position on extracting them from Syria has become less tenable after the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in October. This followed US President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal of the American military buffer in the region.
The invasion added uncertainty to an already fraught situation. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, who were central to the defeat of the Islamic State, were compelled to reinforce their forces on the border with Turkey.
Many of their forces have been engaged in controlling prison camps in northern Syria, where about 12,000 men and boys suspected of Islamic State ties, including 2,000 to 4,000 foreigners from almost 50 countries, are held. Some camps also hold about 100,000 Syrian and foreign family members of IS suspects.
The invasion focused attention on the state of the camps, which are overcrowded, unsanitary and experiencing considerable unrest. There have been some escapes from the camps, and many fear they are close to collapse.
The situation increases the possibility that young people in the camps will be radicalised.
Last week, the US government, which has repatriated some of its nationals, offered to help allies, including Australia, rescue their citizens from northern Syria. On the same day, Turkey called on Australia to repatriate its IS fighters and their families in Turkish custody.
Groups like Save the Children and Human Rights Watch have also called for the repatriation of women and children in the prison camps.
In Canberra, shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally has also argued Australia has a moral obligation to repatriate the women and children who were taken to Syria against their will.
Barriers to bringing detainees back
While Australia has not joined the Dutch in outright rejecting the US offer, the Morrison government has shown no enthusiasm for the idea.
Its position has been further undermined by the actions of other nations with citizens in the camps. Kosovo, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, for example, have already repatriated hundreds of prisoners.
And Britain is considering options for repatriating its citizens. A government document reported on last month said,
While difficult, the practical challenges in arranging and implementing an extraction (of IS suspects) are likely to have solutions.
Australia, by contrast, has continued to focus on the difficulties of extracting its citizens from the area, rather than tackling the legal challenges associated with bringing them home. Our legislative framework is still not sufficiently robust to deal with returnees.
The government has had many years to figure this out. In 2014, the UN passed a resolution obliging all countries to adopt measures to deal with the issue of foreign fighters.
There are ways to try those suspected of crimes committed in another country. The principle of universal jurisdiction, for example, would allow Australia to interrogate and prosecute those currently held in Syria.
Lower-level suspects who are desperate to escape from Syria could also be required to accept certain conditions, such as restrictions on movement and contacts and participation in re-education programmes. The Australian women in the camp have already indicated they are open to this.
But instead of looking at these options, Australia has endeavoured to keep out returning fighters and their families. Laws have been passed to strip some of their citizenship, running counter to several international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And the temporary exclusion orders bill passed in July gives Dutton the power to bar Australian citizens from returning home for up to two years if they are suspected of supporting a terror organisation.
There are few other options
Some governments have suggested that IS captives in Syria should be transferred to Iraq, where trials of suspected IS members have already been held. The problem with this idea is that Iraq’s justice system is deeply flawed and has imposed the death penalty after some highly dubious trials.
For example, France sent some suspects there only for them to be summarily sentenced to be hanged.
Equally unacceptable would be to allow the Australian prisoners to fall into the hands of the Syrian regime.
In coming months, as conditions in the camps deteriorate and Syrian government forces expand their control of the area, we can expect mounting pressure on governments like Australia’s to repatriate their citizens.
In the long run, these are Australian citizens who should be entitled to the benefits that come from that, including due process of law. It is hard to see how the government can continue to deny their rights.
“A very bad man” has been killed and “the world is now a much safer place”. The sentiment behind US President Donald Trump’s announcement of the death of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is difficult to argue with. Baghdadi was certainly a very bad man. And under his decade-long leadership of the Islamic State (IS) movement, many thousands of people in the Middle East and around the world suffered terrible brutality or death.
Common sense would suggest the world is indeed now a much safer place with Baghdadi’s passing. Unfortunately, however, there is no guarantee this will prove to be true in practice.
The 18 year-long so-called Global War on Terror in the wake of the September 11 attacks – the international military campaign to fight al-Qaeda, and then IS – has been almost entirely reactive and tactical.
It has lacked any consistent strategic purpose, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, the Philippines or anywhere else.
The strongest military coalitions the world has ever seen have fought the largest and most powerful terror networks that have ever existed. And this has led, directly and indirectly, to hundreds of thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars spent and remarkably little progress overall.
The special forces raids targeting Baghdadi, in Idlib, and his deputy, IS spokesperson Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir, in Aleppo, were undoubtedly significant achievements representing tactical victories of great consequence.
IS has been dealt an enormous blow. But just how long its impact will last is not clear. The lessons of the past two decades make it clear this will certainly not have been a fatal blow.
The IS insurgency, both on the ground in Iraq and Syria, and around the world, was rebuilding strength before these strikes and will not be stopped in its tracks by losing its two most senior public leaders.
Baghdadi as IS leader
Baghdadi may not be irreplaceable but in many respects he was uniquely suited to the times in which he led. He oversaw the rebuilding of IS from its previous low point a decade ago. He played a key role in expanding into Syria, replenishing the leadership ranks, leading a blitzkrieg across northern Iraq, conquering Mosul and declaring a caliphate. In the eyes of his support base, his credibility as an Islamic scholar and religious leader will not easily be matched.
He was not a particularly charismatic leader and was certainly, as a brutal, fundamentalist loner, not truly inspirational. But he played his role effectively, backed up by the largely unseen ranks of former Iraqi intelligence officers and military commanders who form the core of the IS leadership.
He was, in his time, the caliph the caliphate needed. In that sense, we will not see his like again.
Incredibly, 15 years after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi established al-Qaeda in Iraq, and almost ten years after Baghdadi took charge of the Islamic State in Iraq, there is so much about the leadership of IS we don’t understand.
What is clear is the insurgent movement benefited enormously from so-called “de-Baathification” – the ridding of Arab nationalist ideology – in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and toppling of the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein. The sacking of thousands of mostly Sunni senior military leaders and technocrats proved to be a windfall for the emerging insurgency.
IS has always been a hybrid movement. Publicly, it presents as a fundamentalist religious movement driven by religious conviction. Behind the scenes, however, experienced Baathist intelligence officers manipulated religious imagery to construct a police state, using religious terror to inspire, intimidate and control.
This is not to say Zarqawi and Baghdadi were unimportant as leaders. On the contrary, they were effective in mobilising religious sentiment first in the Middle East and then across the world. In the process, more than 40,000 people travelled to join the ranks of IS, inspired by the utopian ideal of religious revolution. Baghdadi was especially effective in playing his role as religious leader and caliph.
An optimistic take on Baghdadi’s denouement is that IS will be set back for many months, and perhaps even years. It will struggle to regain the momentum it had under his leadership.
Realistically, the extent to which this opportunity can be capitalised upon turns very much upon the extent to which the emerging leaders within the movement can be tracked down and dealt with before they have a chance to establish themselves.
What might happen now?
It would appear IS had identified the uncontested spaces of north-western Syria in Idlib and Aleppo, outside of the control of the Assad regime in Damascus, of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Northeast Syria, and beyond the reach of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, as territory in which its leadership could relocate and rebuild.
Continuing the optimistic take, there is the slim hope that the success of Sunday’s raids in which the partnership between US special forces and the SDF was so critical will lead to Trump being persuaded to reverse his decision to part ways with the SDF and pull out their special forces partners on the ground, together with accompanying air support.
The fact Baghdadi and Muhajir were both found within five kilometres of the Turkish border suggests Turkish control of northern Syria is, to say the least, wholly unequal to the task of dealing with emerging IS leaders.
A reset to the pattern of partnership established over the past five years with the largely Kurdish SDF forces in north-eastern Syria could prove critically important in cutting down new IS leaders as they emerge. It’s believed the locations in northern Syria of the handful of leaders most likely to step into the void left by Baghdadi’s passing are well-known.
But even in the best-case scenario, all that can be realistically hoped for is slowing the rebuilding of the IS insurgency, buying time to rebuild political and social stability in northern Syria and northern Iraq.
“Remaining and expanding”. The propaganda tagline of Islamic State (IS) has rung hollow since the collapse of the physical caliphate. But recent developments in northeastern Syria threaten to give it fresh legitimacy.
US President Donald Trump lifted sanctions on Turkey after he announced the Turkish government agreed to a permanent ceasefire in northern Syria.
In a televised speech, he pushed back against criticisms of his decision to remove 1,000 troops from Syria, abandoning their Kurdish allies.
This decision allowed Turkish forces – a hybrid of Turkish military and Free Syrian Army rebels, including jihadi extremists – to surge across the Turkish border and begin intense bombardment of towns and cities liberated from IS.
Just how quickly and how far IS will rise from now remains unclear. One thing that’s certain, however, is that IS and the al-Qaeda movement that spawned it, plan and act for the long-term. They believe in their divine destiny and are prepared to sacrifice anything to achieve it.
In speaking about the resurgence of IS, we risk talking up the IS brand, the very thing it cares so very much about. But the greater risk is underestimating the capacity for reinvention, resilience and enduring appeal of IS.
And complacency and short-sighted politics threaten to lead us to repeat the mistakes of a decade ago that saw a decimated Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) insurgency roar back to life.
From violent beginnings
In 2006, Sunni tribes in northwestern Iraq killed or arrested the majority of ISI fighters with US support, reducing their strength from many thousands to a few hundred.
But with no backing for the Sunni tribes from the poorly functioning, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and the draw-down of US troops, ISI launched an insurgency in Syria before rising triumphant as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
ISIS quickly became the most potent terrorist group in history, drawing more than 40,000 fighters from around the world, and seizing control of north eastern Syria and north western Iraq.
The final defeat of the IS caliphate in north eastern Syria came after five hard years of fighting and 11,000 lives from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely composed of members of the Kurdish YPG.
To the US, the SDF fighters were local partners and boots-on-the-ground after multiple false starts and expensive mistakes from allying with rebel groups in the Free Syrian Army. Without this SDF alliance, the IS caliphate could not be toppled.
Trump’s betrayal could open up ISIS recruitment
Donald Trump’s betrayal of the SDF in recent weeks is disastrous on several levels. It ignores the threat IS represents and validates ISIS’s central narrative.
What’s more, it contributes to the very circumstances of neglect, cynical short-term thinking and governance failures that lead to giving the IS insurgency an open pathway for recruiting.
Trump’s reckless move to withdraw 1,000 special forces troops from Syria comes from an impatience to end an 18-year long “Global War on Terrorism” military campaign of unprecedented expense.
This is somewhat understandable. After almost US$6 trillion of US Federal expenditure and two decades of fighting, surely enough is enough.
But the inconvenient truth is IS and al-Qaeda jihadi fighters around the world have increased, in some estimates nearly four-fold, since September 11.
Still, betraying the SDF and pulling out of Syria for small short-term savings risks jeopardising all that has been achieved in defeating the IS caliphate in northwestern Iraq.
IS hardliners in overcrowded camps
IS will never return to its days of power as a physical caliphate, but all the evidence points to it tipping past an inflection point and beginning a long, steady resurgence.
IS has thousands of terrorist fighters still active in the field in northern Iraq. They’re attacking by night and rebuilding strength from disgruntled Sunni communities, as well as having thousands of fighters lying low in Syria.
But in recent months, the tempo of IS attacks has shifted from Iraq to Syria with the previously hidden insurgency reemerging.
As many as 12,000 terrorist fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, are detained in prisons run, at least until this week, by the SDF. Many are located in the border region now being overrun by the Turkish military and the Syrian jihadi it counts as loyal instruments.
Elsewhere, in poorly secured overcrowded camps for internally displaced peoples (IDPs), tens of thousands of women, many fiercely loyal to IS, and children are held in precarious circumstances.
In the Al Hawl camp alone there are more than 60,000 women and children linked to IS, including 11 Australian women and their 44 children, along with 10,000 IDPs.
The IS hardliners not only enforce a reign of terror within the camps, but are in regular communication with IS insurgents. They confidently await their liberation by the IS insurgent forces.
Liberated ISIS fighters
The hope of being freed is neither naive nor remote. Already, hundreds of fighters and IDPs have escaped the prisons and camps since the Turkish offensive began.
From mid-2012 until mid-2013, IS ran an insurgent campaign called “Breaking the Walls”. It saw thousands of hardened senior ISIS leaders, and many other militants who would later join the movement, broken out of half a dozen prisons surrounding Baghdad.
Suicide squads were used to blast holes in prison walls. Heavily armed assault teams moved rapidly through the prisons, blasting open cells and rushing the hundreds of liberated terrorist fighters into tactical four-wheel-drives. They were to be driven away in the desert through the night to rebuild the senior ranks of ISIS.
The liberated fighters were not only more valuable to ISIS after their time in prison, with many switching allegiances to join the movement, they were better educated and more deeply radicalised graduating for what they refer to as their terrorist universities.
It would appear the same cycle is now being repeated in northeastern Syria.
The five-day ceasefire negotiated by US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan ends today.
Despite the shaky ceasefire, the risk of economic sanctions from the US and worldwide condemnation, Turkey is likely to stay in Syria for a long time.
The anticipated clash between Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government is also unlikely to eventuate, for three three reasons:
Erdogan’s main aims require the army to stay in Syria for the long term
Assad’s and Erdogan’s goals in northeastern Syria strangely overlap
The coordinating role of Russia in Syria prevents the need for Erdogan and Assad to clash in open warfare.
Has Turkey achieved its objectives?
Even though Turkey has been building its forces on the border for some time, the US-allied Kurdish YPG (which Turkey considers a terrorist group) was caught by surprise. They were busy fighting Islamic State and not expecting the US to allow Turkish forces across the border. Battle-weary YPG forces were no match for the powerful Turkish army.
As a result, Kurdish commanders begged the Trump administration to intervene. The ceasefire deal was struck to allow YPG forces to withdraw beyond what Turkey calls a “safe zone”. Trump declared the ceasefire to be a validation of his erratic Syrian policy.
Turkey’s immediate objective of establishing a 32-kilometre deep and 444-kilometre wide safe zone across its border with Syria will likely be achieved.
Yet establishing this zone is just the precursor to Erdogan’s three primary objectives. Those are to resettle millions of Syrian Arab refugees in northeastern Syria, as a result helping to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish administration and, finally, to ensure his political survival by maintaining his alliance with the Turkish nationalist party (MHP).
The June 2019 political loss of the important city of Istanbul to the main Turkish opposition party, primarily due to Syrian refugee debates, has been an important trigger for Erdogan to act on his Syria plans.
These objectives require Turkey to remain in Syria at least until the end of the Syrian civil war. This would mean the status of northeastern Syria and its Kurdish population were clearly determined in line with Turkey’s goals. These outcomes could take many years to eventuate.
So, any withdrawal before the primary objectives are met will be seen as a defeat within Turkey. Erdogan wants to enter the 2023 presidential elections claiming victory in Syria.
Erdogan’s and Assad’s goals overlap
With the US no longer a serious contender in Syrian politics, Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin are the only leaders capable of stymieing Erdogan’s objectives.
Prior to Turkey’s military intervention, the relationship between the Kurdish leadership and Assad administration was one of mutual avoidance of conflict. Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, they have never clashed militarily.
The expected outcome of this policy was that the Kurds would have an autonomous region in northeastern Syria and an important role in post-civil war negotiations. Assad had no choice but to agree to this in order to stay in power.
The Turkish intervention opens new possibilities for the Assad government. The speed of the alliance between the YPG and Assad indicates the Syrian government senses an opportunity.
The Kurdish-Assad alliance allows Assad’s forces and administration to enter areas they could not enter before. Assad wasted no time in wedging his forces in the safe zone by seizing the major Kurdish town of Kobani in the middle of the Syrian-Turkish border.
Despite the Kurdish-Assad alliance, resettling Syrian Arab refugees in Kurdish regions will weaken Kurdish claims to the region and suit Assad’s goal of a unified Syria that he totally controls.
There is another immediate benefit for Assad. Idlib is a strategic city in northwestern Syria and the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition to Assad. Resistance groups defeated elsewhere were allowed to gather in Idlib. Careful negotiations took place in the past few years to avoid an all-out bloodbath in Idlib.
Assad will almost certainly ask Turkey to abandon its patronage of Idlib and opposition forces l
ocated there. In return, Assad will allow a temporary Turkish presence in northern Syria.
So, although Kurdish forces signed a deal with Assad, it is highly unlikely this will evolve into active warfare between Turkey and Syria. Instead, the situation will be kept tense – by Assad forces remaining in Kobani – to allow Erdogan and Assad to get what they want.
Russia will prevent a Turkey-Syria clash
This is where Russia and Putin come in. Russia is an ally of both the Turkish and Syrian governments. To save face, Erdogan is unlikely to sit in open negotiations with Assad. Negotiations will be done through Putin.
When Putin and Erdogan meet on October 22, the main negotiating points will be to prevent a war between Turkey and the Russian-armed Assad forces. Erdogan will ask the Russian and Assad governments to allow Turkey to stay in the zone it established. In return, Russia will request further concessions on Idlib and perhaps more arms deals similar to the S-400 missile deal.
A deal between Erdogan and Assad suits Russia because it serves the its main objectives in Syria – keep Assad in power to ensure Russian access to the Mediterranean Sea and weaken NATO by moving Turkey away from the alliance.
If the Kurds realise Assad has no intention of fighting Turkey, they may decide to take matters into their own hands and engage in guerrilla warfare with Turkish forces in northern Syria. While this may deliver a blow to Turkish forces, Erdogan will use it to back his claim they are terrorists.
Regardless of what happens, Turkey will stay in northern Syria for the foreseeable future, no matter the cost to both countries.
The eventual winner in Syria is looking to be the Assad government, which is moving to control the entire country just as it did before the 2011 uprising.
The ramifications of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the Turkish-Syrian border continues to have a seismic effect on the situation in northern Syria.
Faced with the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who controlled the area were forced to make compromises. On October 13, they announced a deal with the Syrian army, which began moving troops towards the Turkish border. A five-day ceasefire was brokered by the US on October 18, during which Turkey agreed to pause its offensive to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw.
For many, the SDF proved itself to be the most effective force in the fight against Islamic State (IS). Turkey, however, considers the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it, the US and EU label as a terrorist organisation.
But behind this lies a long history of Turkey denying the very existence of the Kurdish conflict, and the political and cultural rights of its Kurdish population. Understanding this history helps explain why the conflict is so intractable, and the impact it continues to have on Turkey’s foreign policy choices.
No room in the nation state
The Kurdish conflict cannot be understood without considering the question of power and exclusion. Its origins go back to the mid-19th century when the Ottomans attempted to end the 300-year-old autonomy of the Kurdish principalities in Kurdistan. This struggle for autonomy wasn’t resolved during the rule of the Ottoman era, and when it collapsed, all of the new nation states that eventually emerged – Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – inherited their own Kurdish conflict.
The Turks and the Kurds fought a successful war of independence together in 1919 against the Allied forces. Nevertheless, when the new Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, Turkish identity was presented as its unifying force, at the expense of the society’s political, social and cultural differences.
Not only was political power further centralised in Ankara, but the domination of the ethnic, Turkish and Sunni majority became the norm. The decision to create a centralised and homogeneous nation state was implemented in a top-down and violent fashion. The seeds of the long-term problems that Turkish and Kurdish communities confront today were created by this decision.
Various Kurdish groups challenged this new social and political order with different revolts, uprisings, and resistance, but these were violently suppressed. Repressive policies of assimilation were later implemented to transform the Kurds into civilised and secular Turks.
A conflict buried
The Kurdish conflict laid buried for many years. Then, the most serious challenge to Turkey’s nation state project was initiated by the PKK in 1984, which embraced a political agenda called democratic autonomy. The violent struggle between Ankara and the PKK has resulted in a huge economic and human cost.
Peace talks which began in 2013 with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan were widely considered to be the best chance for ending the conflict, but these collapsed in 2015. This led to increasing violence in the form of a destructive armed conflict in southeastern Turkey and a wave of bombings, including in Ankara and Istanbul.
The resolution of intractable conflicts is only possible when conflicted parties can confront their past and learn from it. In 2015, amid attempts by Turkish opposition parties to reopen peace negotiations with the Kurds, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted: “There is no Kurdish conflict”. Such positioning, which continues today, keeps the political dimension of the conflict in the background.
The state carefully controls what can and cannot be said about the conflict. Typically, words such as “terror” and “traitor” are used to criminalise those who criticise government policy towards the Kurds. A group of academics who signed a petition in 2016 calling for the resumption of peace talks were charged with making “terrorism propaganda”. The non-violent wing of the Kurdish movement – activists, politicians, political parties – has also been criminalised.
Instead of confronting their failure to bring about peace, Turkish political elites have tried to apportion blame elsewhere. Erdoğan, for example, repeatedly refers to an invisible “mastermind” who orchestrates the PKK. Such rhetoric is deployed to play on the collective fear and anxiety about national security felt by parts of Turkish society.
Some have called this the “Sèvres syndrome” – referring to the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that marked the end of the Ottoman empire and proposed to divide it into small states and occupation zones. The treaty was never implemented, and superseded by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty which recognised the Republic of Turkey.
This syndrome – also referred to as “Sèvres Paranoia” – in essence reflects the collective fear that the Treaty of Sèvres will be revived and that the Turkish state is encircled by enemies who want to divide and weaken the country.
Today, this line of thinking is an integral part of Turkish political life and continues to influence public perception towards the external world. In a 2006 public opinion survey, for example, 78% of participants agreed that “the West wants to divide and break up Turkey like they broke up the Ottoman Empire”.
In this way, the Kurdish conflict has been used to mobilise Turkish society to act against its own collective interest: a peaceful and just society. Policies aimed at managing the conflict have been implemented mostly within a state of emergency, in ways that continue to undermine Turkish democracy. Not only has the tremendous economic and human cost of the conflict become a “normal” part of Turkish life, but the state has also been successful in actively keeping the political dimension of the conflict at bay.
For a long time, Turkey refrained from talking about the Kurdish issue by assuming that it would eventually fade away. But it didn’t and instead, the conflict has become more deeply entrenched. Time will tell whether the Turkish state will ultimately gain or lose by its latest military intervention in Syria. However, what’s clear is that the Kurdish conflict will get more complicated with this latest move, and both the Turkish state and Turkish society will no longer be able to ignore it.