zenith: The escape attempt at al-Hasaka prison, where many ISIS prisoners are held, was the biggest attack since the end of the caliphate. What exact circumstances allowed this to happen?
Fabrice Balanche: IS was able to infiltrate the Arab quarter of al-Hasaka – thanks to a kind of Omerta. ISIS could rent rooms and move around the neighborhood without anyone telling the police.
Does IS still have the support of parts of the local population?
I spent a month in northeast Syria. When I visited Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, Kobane and Qamishli, I was very surprised by the nostalgia for ISIS among the Arab population, people telling me how they had ample access to electricity and to fuel. Moreover, the economic situation was not the total disaster that it is today. Borders are often closed, making trade between Syria and Iraq difficult. People feel nostalgia for better economic conditions under IS rule, but the Arab population also finds it difficult to accept being ruled by the Kurds.
How likely is another escape attempt in northeast Syria?
Around 10,000 IS fighters and thousands of their family members are imprisoned. The current objective of IS is to free these people. It is also important that the group shows strength in getting these people out, so it will renew its attacks on the prison camps.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the United States have worked closely together to combat the prison break. Does the threat of a resurgence of ISIS call for closer cooperation between the United States and the SDF?
This prison break woke up the United States and the West in general. People in the West thought that the SDF were taking care of ISIS prisoners for them. Western countries have failed to repatriate IS fighters and the danger of a new IS threat has been all but forgotten. Western countries have also barely provided assistance to the SDF, even northeast Syria is plagued by Turkish attacks, as well as a financial crisis.
What changed after the al-Hasaka attack?
In December, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) closed the border crossing to Syria, even though it is a major trade route for northeastern Syria. When the fighting in al-Hasaka began, the United States pressured KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani to reopen the border. The United States believed that the SDF could not fight ISIS if the economic crisis was not alleviated somewhat. This attack proved that strong cooperation with the FDS is still necessary. The Kurds are fed up with the arrangement of securing ISIS prisoners for the West. They are risking their lives to lock up our terrorists. So they expect some kind of support. If Western countries do not want to repatriate their jihadists to Europe or the United States, they should at least be ready to share the burden of the fighting.
Qamishli Christians have deeply opposed efforts to impose the Kurdish language on them. Does the SDF still enjoy the support of Christian communities in northeast Syria?
The Christian communities of Qamishli were originally rather on the side of the regime in the conflict. They opposed the idea of Kurdish separatism because they supported Syrian nationalism. Later, they also strongly opposed school curricula in the Kurdish language. In 2017, the Kurdish-dominated administration wanted to impose a new Kurdish-language curriculum in Kurdish areas. Christian children could still visit private Christian schools, which teach the official Syrian curriculum in Arabic. However, non-Christian Arabs were no longer allowed to attend private Christian schools and had to go to Kurdish schools.
What was wrong with these changes to the school system?
There are only a few secondary schools in northeast Syria, so many parents seek alternatives in regime-controlled territories. However, Kurdish diplomas are not recognized there, whereas those from private Christian schools are. Because people have educational opportunities for their children in mind, non-Kurdish communities have tried to push back on these changes.
Have relations between the SDF and the Christian communities improved?
The administration quickly backed away from its changes to the school system after facing popular backlash. Moreover, relations between the Arab tribes and the administration also improved. The Kurdish-led administration has learned to be more flexible towards the local community. An example: at the beginning of 2017, the Kurds wanted to put an end to the practice of polygamy. However, the administration then backtracked and no longer intervened.
What role do Christian militias play within the FDS?
A very small. Sutoro’s militia is an example: more than 90% of its members are Muslim Arabs or Kurds, with very few Christians in service. Because many Christians have fled Syria. In the province of Hasaka, the Christian population fell from 10% to 2%. Most of the young people who would normally fight in the militias fled to Europe. Christian militias are therefore mostly symbolic.
If Christian militias only employ a small percentage of Christians, what good are they?
In northeast Syria, the three official languages are Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac, the language of Syriac Christians. The Kurdish administration wants to highlight the involvement of Christians in the political process, in government and within the SDF. Those seen as protectors of the Christian community in Syria are more likely to gain support from the West.
Did you witness any Turkish attacks during your visit to northeast Syria?
Turkey is still bombarding the Kurdish side from army positions in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. The extreme northeast of the territories held by the SDF, near the border with Iraq, is also attacked. Turkey wants to destroy trust in the administration of northeast Syria. The bombings do not kill many people. Its purpose is to destabilize. The attacks are supposed to sow fear, force people to flee and block investment. I visited Kobani four years ago. It was a dynamic city in full reconstruction. People were returning from Iraqi Kurdistan because of job opportunities. Today Kobani is a dying city.
ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi was killed by US special forces on February 3. What role did he play within the organization?
After al-Baghdadi’s death in October 2019, he became IS supreme leader and reorganized the group. He planned operations like the prison break from Hasaka. Currently, IS no longer plans to directly control the territory, as it did between 2013 and 2018. Quraishi has instead focused on reorganizing its financial network.
Is this just a transitional phase or does IS intend to no longer exercise territorial control?
After the collapse of the so-called caliphate, ISIS realized that now was not the time for them to stand their ground. The military supremacy of the United States and Russia makes this impossible. Their Kalashnikovs don’t stand a chance against airstrikes. IS plans to stay underground and target its enemies with guerrilla attacks. It also makes it easier for them to rebuild their organization. It is a strategy similar to that of al-Qaeda.
Were countries other than the United States involved in the Quraishi hunt?
Quraishi was hiding just a few kilometers from the Turkish border in Idlib. 9,000 Turkish soldiers are stationed in Idleb and the Turkish secret services are very active in the region. Turkey probably knew that Quraishi was hiding in Idlib and passed the information on to the Americans.
What did Turkey get in return?
In 2019 Trump withdrew US troops from Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, two days later Turkey attacked the area and three weeks later the US killed Baghdadi. If we keep in mind the implications of the events of 2019, we should ask ourselves today: did the United States give Turkey the green light for an attack on the Kurds in exchange for information on the location of Quraishi?
Is Idlib a safe haven for IS militants?
The area is not 100% safe for them. Many former IS fighters moved to Idlib after the fall of Raqqa in 2017. Most of them were foreigners. They came to Syria to join the jihad and then used personal contacts to join other Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Is it easy to get from northeast Syria to Idleb?
If you have money, you pay smugglers and they organize a transfer. At the border, anything is possible.
Is IS also organizing a return to regime-held territories?
I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, but what people have told me is that the situation there looks even worse. The economic and security situation in general is worse. The Syrian army is the target of IS fighters. When I was there, near the border at Deir ez-Zor, IS attacked and killed Syrian soldiers using thick smoke to mask their advance. ISIS is stronger in regime-held areas because the Syrian army is not as capable in terms of counter-terrorism operations as the SDF. This is why IS prefers to stay in areas held by the regime because it is less dangerous for the group.
Is IS also organizing a return to Iraq?
Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city, is under Shia occupation and this is unacceptable to Arab Sunnis. The Institute for the Study of War estimates that the group has up to 15,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. IS is able to recruit a new generation of militants, frustrated, without hope, without a future, without jobs. So they join ISIS.
Fabrice Balanche is a geographer and political scientist teaching at the University of Lyon. He is also a Fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.