The refugee camp in northern Syria known as al-Hawl has been the cause of much hand-wringing since early 2019, especially regarding the women and children who make up 94 percent of its residents. These residents originate from dozens of countries, but mainly Syria and Iraq, and some are alleged to have ties to the Islamic State (IS). The exact number of supporters is difficult to assess, but the most extreme adherents come from the foreign contingent. With the October 2019 decision by U.S. president Donald Trump to allow a Turkish military operation in northeast Syria against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), anxiety regarding the camp has turned to panic. But the United States, in retreating, is not the lone culprit. The larger international community also bears much responsibility for failing to resolve the future of al-Hawl’s residents. This has allowed IS followers in the camp to “remain,” a longtime rallying cry for the group in the face of its various enemies.
Since al-Hawl’s population began to swell in early 2019, the SDF has been burdened with maintaining an unsustainable status quo at the camp without a long-term vision or the resources for reintegrating and repatriating the women and children housed there. The urgency of this task should have been underlined—including for U.S. officials—after President Trump first announced he would withdraw all U.S. troops from northeast Syria in December 2018, before reversing his decision. Since early March 2019, the situation at al-Hawl has clearly been tenuous, and inappropriate handling of it appeared certain to lead to other problems. Now, with the U.S. troop withdrawal, the potential for an IS breakout of the camp increases by the day as a consequence of these failures. Other dynamics, such as the likely return of the Assad regime and Iran’s proxy network to northeast Syria, will introduce even greater instability that could be exploited by IS.
To better understand the scope of this humanitarian and burgeoning security disaster, one must look holistically at the situation at al-Hawl since the last holdouts from IS territory in Baghuz, Syria, arrived in late March 2019.