Though Syria still struggles with violence and fighting, the Islamic State’s territorial holdings have been almost completely eradicated. But while ISIS may no longer have physical control in the country, it has left young militants and a dangerous, extremist ideology. Thousands of those whom ISIS influenced have been imprisoned, and in order to finish the fight against the organization, its extremist philosophy has to be fought and its militants need to be educated and rehabilitated. But, though badly needed, there are few rehabilitation centers in Syria.
Just this spring the Islamic State lost control of its last sliver of territory in Syria, but many of those living in the area still declared that they believed in the extremist ideology and would pass it onto their children. The failure of the Islamic State has led to the imprisonment in camps of many young militants and their families who remain resolute in their extremism. These prisoner camps could potentially breed more terrorism and fortify radical thinking. In fact, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was in a US-run prison in 2004, he used it for ISIS recruiting. The need for education today is therefore dire.
In Tal Marouf, Syria, US-supported Kurds have used the camps as an opportunity to open a rehabilitation program for imprisoned militants, particularly young boys, known as “Cubs for the Caliphate,” who were recruited as child soldiers. Sadly, this is only one of a very few rehabilitation centers in Syria. But rehabilitation centers like the one in Tal Marouf are trying to fight ISIS ideology by educating militants and steering them away from a terroristic worldview.
The center in Tal Marouf acts like a juvenile detention center and school that both guards and educates. Those in the program are essentially serving sentences, but they are also being taught and given a routine that will train and guide them away from the radical ideology of the Islamic State. The head of the center, Khadija Muhammad, said that since many of these boys did not have any sort of training or normal childhood, it can be particularly difficult to put them on a normal schedule and life routine. But it’s essential to reeducate these young militants so that they don’t hold onto extremist philosophy and grow up to become fighters ready to bring back the Islamic State and try to take Syria again.
This kind of rehabilitation is vastly important, and supporting it should become a focus of American foreign policy in Syria since the US claims to be invested in re-stabilizing the country. Though the territorial threat of ISIS is melting away, its indoctrination imposed on thousands of Syrians is still a threat. And the only way to fight that ideology is with counter-indoctrination and re-education that will lead to de-radicalization.
The US-backed coalition of Kurds said that this kind of rehabilitation is becoming essential now that tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis who were under ISIS are now imprisoned. “In the end, it will take an international effort to ensure the enduring defeat of [Islamic State], and these programs are just one step,” the coalition stated.
Until now, the US and other countries involved in the Syrian conflict have primarily provided military support. But now the most important support needed is for the country’s rehabilitation, with centers like the one in Tal Marouf being crucial. When the US was involved in other Middle Eastern conflicts, a signature move was to lend military support, gain some kind of “freedom” for the right side, and then pull out and expect the yokels to figure out the rest. But this step of rehabilitation and fighting against the ideology that spawns terrorism is an extremely important step, perhaps the most important.
Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, told the Wall Street Journal that though ISIS may not have territory anymore, leaving a radical, extremist strain of thinking behind can be a real threat and lead to resurgence. “We put so much time and energy into attacking IS and doing the difficult part of it, why not finish the job? I haven’t seen any kind of strategy for what the next steps might be,” Clarke said.
Now is a key moment to support education and rehabilitation centers to prevent the ideology from resurging after the US has done so much to defeat it. A previous lack of support is the reason why there are so few today. In 2017 a de-radicalization center for former Islamic State militants was opened in Marea, an area in northwestern Syria that Turkey-supported rebels controlled. The center was opened by local opposition supporters. They understood that in order to really win the battle against the Islamic State they needed to not only physically oppose it but also philosophically fight against its indoctrination. But without sufficient donor support the center had to close, and those in the program were sent back to normal, rebel-run prisons. Chris Engles, a director at the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, said, “Here was this opportunity to work on reintegration and rehabilitation inside Syria. This seems like the classic missed opportunity.”
So, if the US is serious about supporting re-stabilization in Syria, there can’t be more missed opportunities to support rehabilitation centers and programs like those in Tal Marouf and Marea.
Abigail Liebing was an intern at Providence and is a student at Hillsdale College, pursuing a BA in history and a minor in journalism.
Photo Credit: Khaleel, a man who lost both his legs from one of the many improvised explosive devices hidden by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, operates a piece of heavy machinery to break down large chunks of concrete in an effort to clean up and rebuild the city of Raqqah, Syria, on March 13, 2018. Although the Syrian Democratic Forces, with the assistance of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, militarily defeated the terrorist group in Raqqah, the city was still largely boobytrapped with IEDs and other explosive remnants of war left behind when the last ISIS members fled the city. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy Koster.