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Al-Hol detainees attack guards and start fires as Turkish assault begins

Camp holding thousands of Islamic State suspects thrown into 'chaos', says Kurdish official
A general view of the al-Hol camp in al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria (AFP)
By in
Erbil, Iraq

The Turkish assault on northeast Syria has prompted Islamic State group-affiliated women and youth in al-Hol's camp to attack guards and start fires, a Kurdish official told Middle East Eye.

Kurdish-held northeastern Syria has been on high alert since the United States announced on Sunday it would leave the area in anticipation of a Turkish offensive.

Over the three days since the US announcement, chaos has broken out in the teeming al-Hol camp, Mahmoud Kro, an official that oversees internment camps in the Kurdish-run autonomous area, told MEE.

Some 60,000 people suspected of being affiliated or linked to the Islamic State (IS) group, the majority women and children, are being held in the camp.

'There are attacks on guards and camp management, in addition to burning tents and preparing explosive devices'

- Mahmoud Kro, Kurdish official

“There are attacks on guards and camp management, in addition to burning tents and preparing explosive devices,” Kro told MEE from Qamishli.

The status of al-Hol’s detainees has been a major concern since Turkey began making more threats to invade northeast Syria this year.

In the phone call between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump on Sunday that precipitated the United States’ pullout, the US president pressed his Turkish counterpart on the fate of foreign IS suspects in Kurdish custody, MEE revealed.

‘Targeting our existence as Kurds’

Turkey launched its assault on northeastern Syria on Wednesday alongside its Syrian rebel allies, aiming, it says, to push the Kurdish YPG militia at least 32km from the border.

Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the outlawed PKK militant group.

However, the YPG is a leading component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia, which has been Washington’s principal partner on the ground in the fight against IS.

SDF fighters guard al-Hol, but Kro said the Turkish attack would draw them away to join the battle.

“Any war in the region will force the present forces guarding the camp to go defend the border,” he said. “This will increase the chance of chaos in the camp.”

Map showing where SDF-run detention centres and prisons for IS captives are across Syria (MEE)

Kro said that the administration in al-Hol has not made any preparations for a war with Turkey because the SDF’s priority is protecting northeast Syria and Kurds.

“In terms of preparations, our first priority is protecting our region and existence,” he said. “The Turks are targeting our existence as Kurds to the first degree.”

Some officials from the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF, agree with Kro’s assessment that the detainees in al-Hol could get out.

“If fighting breaks out between the SDF and Turkey, security at prisons will relax and prisoners could escape,” Bassam Ishak, the co-chair of the SDC in the US, told MEE ahead of the offensive.

Meanwhile, SDC spokesman Amjad Osman said, as other Syrian Kurdish officials have, that a Turkish attack on northeast Syria would negatively affect the continuing war on IS in the country.

'This blackmail reveals the true face of the YPG and demonstrates how it has no intent of fighting against IS'

- Turkish official

“We are committed to fighting terrorism,” he told MEE. “But now our priority is to, first of all, confront the Turkish threats. And this will have a negative effect on our battle against Daesh,” using the Arabic acronym for IS.

However, Turkey has bristled at the suggestion that the camps and fight against IS will be endangered by Ankara’s offensive.

“This blackmail reveals the true face of the YPG and demonstrates how it has no intent of fighting against IS,” a Turkish official told MEE.

Some residents of northeast Syria are already starting to flee. Many fear yet another war in the country that is still dealing with the conflict between government and rebel forces, and lingering IS attacks.

Osman stopped short of saying the SDF would pack up and leave al-Hol. However, it will be hard for the group to keep holding the Syrian, Iraqi and international detainees during such a war, he said. 

“We are trying as much as possible to continue protecting the camps,” Osman said. “But any attempt to drag us into a military battle with Turkey will have a dangerous impact.”