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Weeklong Operation Loosens Islamic State Grip on Syria's al-Hol Camp

An image obtained from the media office of the Kurdish People's Protection Units in Syria (YPG) March 29, 2021 shows YPG forces conducting a security operation the previous day at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp. (AFP PHOTO/HO/YPG)

U.S.-backed forces in northeastern Syria are hailing significant gains following a nearly weeklong effort to clear Islamic State terror group operatives from the region’s largest displaced persons camp, though they warn the danger is far from over.

Officials with the Syrian Democratic Forces and the region’s internal security forces announced the end of what they described as the first phase of an operation to pacify the al-Hol displaced persons camp, a sprawling collection of tents that are home to some 62,000 people, which has become both a hotbed and a hub for IS activity.

The operation, which involved about 5,000 troops searching the camp tent by tent, resulted in the arrests of 125 suspected IS operatives. Officials said 20 of those taken into custody are sleeper cell leaders responsible for a wave of more than 40 execution-style killings that has gripped al-Hol since the start of the year.

“Many members of the IS terrorist organization have moved to the camps as civilians in order to reorganize the camp and create a conducive atmosphere,” Ali al-Hassan, a spokesman for the internal security forces, said in a statement Friday.

FILE - Special forces of the Syrian Democratic Forces keep watch in the vicinity of al-Hol camp, in Syria's northeast, March 30, 2021.
FILE - Special forces of the Syrian Democratic Forces keep watch in the vicinity of al-Hol camp, in Syria's northeast, March 30, 2021.

But al-Hassan underscored the danger from IS in the camp “is not over.”

“Without international support it will not last long,” he said of the recent gains. “The international community must help, and the citizens of every country must return to their homeland."

The vast majority of the population are women and children, almost half of them under the age of 12, forced from their homes as IS established and then lost a self-declared caliphate that spanned swaths of Syria and Iraq. Thousands more are the wives, children and relatives of hard core IS fighters, left without anywhere to go when the caliphate ultimately collapsed two years ago.

In the weeks leading up the just-completed SDF-led crackdown, U.S. and western intelligence and security officials warned it was increasingly evident that the IS families had not given up the cause, and they were instead treating al-Hol as “the final remnant of the 'caliphate.’”

U.S. officials told VOA many of them had become active in smuggling rings, using criminal networks to smuggle out some families from al-Hol, while sneaking in IS sleeper cell operatives and weapons.

Other officials highlighted growing evidence that al-Hol has become a key hub in the terror group’s rebuilt financial network, helping it move cash from Turkey to cells across Syria.

Officials with the U.S.-backed SDF also have told VOA that many of the operatives who managed to infiltrate al-Hol were taking orders from IS leaders in Iraq who have been playing key roles in the terror group’s effort to reorganize and resurge.

Officials said late Friday that some of them were still in al-Hol when security forces swept through.

“At least one emir was arrested,” Sinam Mohamad, the U.S. representative for the SDF’s political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), told VOA late Friday.

Mohamad identified him as Abu Mohammad Al-Jemili, an Iraqi and former member of al-Qaida, who served as a judge responsible for enforcing IS’ version of sharia, or Islamic law.

Earlier Friday, SDF officials said they also had captured Abu Karar, identifying him as the second most senior IS operative at al Hol.

In addition, at least four other IS operatives, described as senior or high-ranking officials, were captured.

Those arrested during the SDF-led crackdown at al-Hol are, for now, being held in a separate detention facility, where they are being interrogated.

Moreover, SDF personnel are examining laptops and mobile phones for possible intelligence.

In the meantime, Western officials and analysts remain concerned that IS has been successful in establishing other footholds, especially in areas that are off limits to the SDF and the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition, from which it might be able to launch a new offensive, possibly in conjunction with Ramadan later this month.

“The Syrian regime has been incapable of securing the Central Syrian Desert due to its vast and difficult terrain and the regime’s paucity of forces,” said Eva Kahan, a fellow at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

Nor has there been much substantive help from Moscow or Tehran, both of which have sent forces to Syria to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, she said.

“Russian- and Iranian-efforts have barely kept key roads clear of ISIS checkpoints and make minimal effort to expel ISIS from these mountainous areas, such that ISIS can continue to move freely,” Kahan said, using an acronym for the terror group.

VOA’s Kurdish Service and Kurdish Service stringer Zana Omer contributed to this report.