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Kurdish Officials, Rights Groups Concerned Coronavirus Will Spread Among IS Prisoners in Syria

FILE - Foreign prisoners, suspected of being part of the Islamic State, lie in a prison cell in Hasaka, Syria, January 7, 2020.
FILE - Foreign prisoners, suspected of being part of the Islamic State, lie in a prison cell in Hasaka, Syria, January 7, 2020.

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread around the world, Kurdish officials and rights groups are warning of a catastrophe if thousands of Islamic State (IS) militants held in northeast Syria become infected with the deadly virus.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led military alliance that has been a major U.S. partner in the fight against IS in Syria, said the possibility is highly likely because local authorities lack adequate resources to prevent the virus from spreading.

“If the coronavirus reaches to these prisons, it will be out of control,” Nuri Mahmud, a senior SDF official, said.

“If the world is struggling to contain the spread of this virus, you can imagine how extremely difficult it is for us to deal with this crisis with our limited capacity,” he told VOA.

The SDF is holding at least 10,000 IS fighters, including nearly 2,000 foreign nationals, captured following the military defeat of the terror group in March 2019.

Rights groups fear that COVID-19 could spread quickly in prisons and detention centers in Syria because of poor sanitation, lack of access to clean water and severe overcrowding.

“In light of the pandemic, we have asked that all detainees in Syria have access to adequate medical personnel and for NGOs that can provide such support be allowed access to the detention facilities,” said Philippe Nassif, the Middle East and North Africa advocacy director at Amnesty International.

Looming threat

Experts say local forces and the U.S.-led, anti-IS global coalition are not prepared to prevent the spread of the virus among prisoners affiliated with IS, also known as ISIS.

“The threat from COVID-19 exploding among the ISIS prison population in SDF areas due to prison overcrowding and a lack of SDF resources is not abstract, it is looming,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East expert at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington.

“With the SDF trying to prevent the spread of coronavirus among the local population in northeast Syria, the ISIS prison population will be neglected,” he added.

On Monday, the central government in Damascus reported the second death from the coronavirus in the war-torn country.

Syrian authorities say there have been 10 confirmed cases of the virus, but health groups believe the number is much higher as the country has limited resources to test patients for the virus.

But Kurdish officials complain they are left alone to deal with a possible coronavirus outbreak in areas under their control in northeast Syria.

“Damascus is monopolizing the aid that comes from international organizations like the U.N,” SDF official Mahmud charged, adding that “whatever preventive measures taken so far in our region have been done with limited local resources.”

Prison break attempt

Last weekend, IS militants held in a detention center in the city of Hasakeh in northeast Syria attempted a prison break that caused panic in the region.

But SDF officials confirmed that no prisoners succeeded in the escape attempt.

“Due to great efforts made by our forces and swift intervention against the insubordination of ISIS detainees inside one prison, we were able to avoid catastrophe and take control,” Mazloum Abdi, general commander of the SDF, said in a tweet Monday.

Col. Myles B. Caggins, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq, told VOA in a statement that now “the SDF have full control of all the detention facilities. They’re doing a good job,” acknowledging that, “10,000 detainees is a lot to manage.”

What is next?

Kurdish military officials are calling on the intentional community to help them find a permanent solution to the issue of IS prisoners in Syria.

“Our allies must find a quick, radical solution to this international problem,” SDF’s Abdi said.

Amnesty International says it “has been calling on the international community to implement international justice solutions for IS detainees suspected of committing crimes under international law.”

“We are calling for suspects to be prosecuted in fair trials that preclude the death penalty and for victims and their families to receive justice and full reparation,” Nassif of Amnesty International, told VOA.

But experts say amid the coronavirus outbreak, swift measures should be taken to address the present crisis.

“The best that could be done is support from coalition countries to reduce crowding by building more detention centers and provide medical support from now, but these are only half measures and are likely to be too little, too late,” analyst Heras of ISW said.