US Backs Release of ‘Low-Level’ Islamic State Prisoners in Syria

An effort to reduce growing strains on overcrowded prisons in Syria, some holding thousands of captured Islamic State fighters, is being met with cautious optimism in Washington, even though it involves letting hundreds of the terror group’s adherents walk free.The plan put into motion last week by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political arm of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), calls for the release of so-called “low-level” Islamic State members under a general amnesty.Already, 631 such Syrian nationals have been freed, allowed to return to their homes, while another 253 have seen their sentences cut in half, and Kurdish officials say more releases are expected in the coming months.So far, the United States is on board.“We see these return and reintegration initiatives as positive,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA, noting the release “focused on nonviolent offenders who are not assessed to pose a radicalization risk to their communities.”The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the matter, also suggested aid could be available to help the process go smoothly.“We, along with our coalition partners, are prepared to support receiving communities as part of ongoing stabilization initiatives,” the spokesperson said.Concerns about what to do with captured IS fighters and IS supporters have only grown since the collapse of the terror group’s caliphate in March 2019.Within months, key Pentagon officials were warning that the more than a dozen makeshift prisons set up by the SDF to hold, at the time, more than 10,000 captured IS fighters, including 2,000 foreign fighters, were simply not sustainable.US officials have long warned the A man, suspected of having collaborated with the Islamic State (IS) group, is greeted by a family member upon his release from the Kurdish-run Alaya prison in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli, on Oct. 15, 2020.Not everyone is as optimistic, though.“ISIS likely recruited aggressively within detention centers due to the SDF’s failure to isolate radical elements of the population,” Eva Kahan, a researcher at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, told VOA, using an acronym for the terror group.“This initial release will supply tens to low hundreds of potential ISIS fighters or supporters to active insurgent cells in the Middle Euphrates River Valley and could add fuel to that insurgency’s flames,” Kahan said.Other experts who have studied the region, while not ready to rule out possible blowback, argue the success or failure of the prisoner releases may hinge more on what happens next.“Much is going to depend on the conditions that they encounter back in their communities and whether or not conditions are conducive to their reintegration,” said Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace.“The extent to which people are released into conditions that are the kinds of conditions that feed the grievances that often can lead to recruitment into groups like ISIS, it’s certainly a concern,” she said. “There’s no 100% certainty on this.”

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