With ISIS's territory entirely reclaimed in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have turned their attentions to destroying the last remaining sleeper cells belonging to the group in Deir ez-Zour.
Following ISIS’ military defeat in Syria in March 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched the next phase of operations against ISIS, which involves chasing the group’s remnants and sleeper cells in the country’s eastern countryside. Supported by the International Coalition, the SDF launched an operation on a village in Deir ez-Zour, which resulted in the arrest of dozens of ISIS militants.
“We began our campaign to hunt ISIS remnants in an area of 180 kilometres in the eastern village of Deir ez-Zour, and the campaign is still ongoing,” said Dijwar Halab, a commander in the SDF.
According to the SDF, they have captured thousands of militants since the launch of the operations; however, in many cases, suspected militants have been released due to mediation by tribal elders in Deir ez-Zour. The SDF says this practice is being conducted with militants who were forced to work with ISIS rather than those who hold the militant group’s violent ideology.
“As for those who cooperated with ISIS, they cooperated because of its presence in the region, and they were forced to do so,” said Dr Mohammed Bunyan, the head of the Arab National Association. “They can be released through mediation or pledges from their clans; there will be no problem.”
Activists have condemned this practice, saying that it puts people at risk because these militants can quickly revert to their extremist ways.
“These sleeper cells must be eliminated because they have ravaged the country, attacked civilians and soldiers and destroyed the country’s economy,” said Adib Shaker Aqil, a member of the Unions of Syrian Journalists. “Therefore, any intervention to release them will negatively affect the region and the country in general.”
With the fate of thousands of arrested militants still unknown, the SDF is attempting to mitigate the issue by releasing suspected militants who were forced to join the militant group. However, they are continuing to imprison and hunt down militants who hold an extremist ideological conviction and who seek to carry out heinous crimes.