In Syria, captured ISIS fighters get short sentences, art therapy
QAMISHLI, Syria - At a closely guarded prison in this northeastern Syrian town, former Islamic State fighters make papier-mâché models of birds, flowers and trees while serving sentences that typically run two or three years.
Across the border in Iraq, Islamic State detainees are being held in degrading conditions, subjected to torture and often, when brought to trial, given long sentences or the death penalty, according to human rights groups.
The Syrian Kurdish allies of the United States are attempting a different approach. Their goal, Kurdish officials say, is to rehabilitate and reintegrate many of the Islamic State fighters in their custody, in hopes of deterring a revival of the militant movement.
The Syrian Kurds' leftist ideology precludes the death penalty, and their few functioning courts issue light sentences for fighters not found to have committed major crimes. Hundreds more militants have simply been freed in deals with local Arab tribes whose cooperation the Kurds need to maintain.
By acting with leniency, the Kurds hope to break the cycle of revenge that has trapped so much of the region in conflict for decades, said Khaled Barjas Ali, a senior judge in the terrorism courts run by the self-proclaimed Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria.
"If I sentence a man to death, I am spreading hate. We want to give people reasons to trust us," he said. "If you take revenge, people will be radicalized. But with reconciliation we are sure we can finish the problem."
It is an imperfect effort that is patchily enforced, inexpertly applied and acutely under-resourced. But it raises a question unanswered by the wider international community despite nearly two decades of war against terrorism: Do harsh punishments work to deter extremism?
"It's the million-dollar question," said Colin Clarke, an expert in counterterrorism and deradicalization with the Soufan Group consultancy. "We still don't have a good understanding of what works and what doesn't work. We don't have a large body of evidence to look back upon."
The United States and its allies vigorously prosecuted the military campaign that resulted in the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in March. They have put less effort into managing the aftermath of the war, including what to do with the approximately 90,000 Islamic State fighters and family members who survived the battles, he said.
"As soon as the kinetic fight was over, it's, 'Oh, ISIS is done,' and we walk away," Clarke said, using another name for the Islamic State.
The Syrian Kurds have been left almost alone to accommodate, feed and guard the captives now being held in either prisons or internment camps. Among the detainees are 1,000 foreign fighters and 9,000 of their wives and children from 46 countries, only 14 of which have agreed to repatriate citizens and mostly only children, according to the Kurdish administration.
The Kurds are appealing for international help and are promoting a proposal for a U.N. tribunal to bring to justice the foreign fighters they hold. But the international community has shown little interest in backing the plan, said Letta Tayler of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Unlike Iraq, the Kurdish administration in Syria's northeast is not an internationally recognized sovereign state and is moreover closely affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and Europe. That precludes many forms of direct assistance that might imply recognition, diplomats say.