The ghost town that ISIS commanders once called home in northern Syria sits four kilometres from the Turkish border. It has no name, at least not one the Kurdish soldiers guarding it from their hilltop perch can recall.
In any other part of Syria, it would now be bustling with activity. ISIS was ejected from this part of the Syrian countryside in 2015. But this town is different.
It’s not so much the pale yellow bones of dead bushes, or the prickly patches of dried out grass, or the square concrete structures that line the dirt road. Walking into this place feels like stepping into a space between the living and the dead.
During a visit on Sept. 24, I’m told by local Kurdish Civil Defense forces that the town is still booby-trapped. “Just last week someone got themselves blown up at the mosque,” one of them said.
ISIS has that effect: Everywhere it touches, it leaves behind a stain. You can feel it in the main square in Raqqa, the capital of its now defunct caliphate, where it once displayed the grizzly remains of its beheaded victims; and in Mosul’s old city, where the stench of death still lingers in the stagnant air more than two years after the city’s liberation in the summer of 2017.
The ghosts of ISIS are everywhere in northern Syria, in the tunnels they have left behind and the mines they planted; in the tens of thousands of their faceless, black-clad female followers haunting refugee camps; and in the thousands more of their dead fighters, some of their bodies still decomposing beneath the rubble of war.
On Oct. 27, about 250 kms to the east, that legion of ISIS ghosts welcomed another member. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader, was killed by American special forces in a nighttime raid in Barisha, a small village dotted with olive trees less than five kilometres from the Turkish border. It was a sudden end to a man who had slipped through death’s grasp on four previous occasions, and who was so rarely seen that his very existence felt spectral.
But if U.S. President Donald Trump is to be believed, Baghdadi died a very human death, “whimpering and crying and screaming” before detonating a suicide vest after a chase into a dead-end tunnel. His demise brings to a close another chapter in the ISIS saga, one that began in Iraq and continues to engulf Syria.
It’s fitting in some ways that Baghdadi was killed in northern Syria. It was here, during the early years of its rise that ISIS matured into the world’s most violent terrorist organization.
The stretch of farm fields, scattered villages and a few border cities abutting Turkey once offered ISIS its most important lifeline to the outside world. From 2011 to 2015, after Turkish authorities made the decision to back Syria’s Islamist rebels, the border was opened to whomever wanted to join the fight. Tens of thousands of young men flooded into Syria, joining the growing ranks of jihadist movements, and displacing the largely secular protestors who had first led demonstrations against the Syrian regime.
Local Kurds and Arabs watched with horror as their hometowns were flooded by foreign fighters from around the world and jihadist ideologues from around the Middle East. The residents of the ghost town fled; others in nearby towns like Tel Abyad, 30 kms to the west, chose to stay and weather the storm. By 2014, ISIS had positioned itself as the main group and controlled most of the border region with Turkey, providing an endless supply of recruits as well as a way to illicitly export oil.
In January 2015, the Kurds struck back. After their improbable victory over ISIS in Kobane, 70 kms west of Tel Abyad, they rolled east, taking back territory in quick succession. By mid-June that year, they had re-taken Tel Abyad, the largest town in the area, and continued east, depriving ISIS of its access to Turkey.
With the fall of ISIS, another acronym began circulating in the region, the YPG—an armed group that had been formed by underground Kurdish political parties at the start of the Syrian civil war. For the Kurds, the members of this latest militia were heroes and liberators. To the Turks, they were terrorists, an off-shoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought a long and bloody insurgency in Turkey.
Both groups were right, in their own way. The YPG had fought valiantly against ISIS, driven as much by survival as their own brand of leftist revolutionary ideology. They had proven to western nations, the U.S. in particular but Canada too, that they could be a valuable asset in the fight against ISIS. What everybody seemed to ignore was what made them such good fighters: They were as committed to their cause as ISIS fighters’ were to theirs. YPG fighters, like their ISIS counterparts, sought out martyrdom, and this made them deadly on the battlefield.
For the Turks, that same fervour was a threat. It not only manifested in a revolutionary drive to upend existing constitutional orders like Turkey’s but also in the almost cult-like allegiance to the man who developed that far-left ideological system, Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK. The establishment of a statelet based on Ocalan’s politics in northern Syria, directly on its southern border, was too much for Turkey to bear.
After the YPG took control of northern Syria from ISIS in 2015, hostilities with the Turkish military erupted. Shepherds on the Syrian side of the border who had grazed their flocks on fields straddling both countries found themselves the target of Turkish border guards who would fire warning shots if anyone came to close.
“Not even ISIS bothered us this much,” Muhammad, 22, told me during my visit, using an assumed name. “My neighbours have lost more than 10 sheep this way. The Turks once hit my truck with a bullet, even though I was still on my land. Sometimes I think they just do it for fun, to make us scared.”
All along the Turkish border, from Qamishli to the east to Tel Abyad to the west, farmers and shepherds told Maclean’s similar stories, of Turkish border guards taking pot shots at them, of dead sheep, and in at least one case, two dead farmers.
Then, sometime in early September this year, the shooting suddenly stopped. For a month the farmers had peace. U.S. military patrols passed by every few days and helicopters flew overhead. News began trickling in that Turkey had come to an agreement with the U.S. for a safe zone: The YPG would abandon a five kilometre swath of land along the border which would then be jointly patrolled by Turkey and the U.S.
When I spoke with Muhammad, the deal was still in place and he was happy. It had already given him a month of respite from Turkish attacks. The YPG had pulled out and it seemed like a solution was at hand. He didn’t even worry about Turkish forces rolling past his small concrete farmhouse. “As long as they are with the Americans, it’s fine,” he said.
On Oct. 6, Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke over the phone. According to the New York Times and Washington Post, Trump was supposed to find a way to calm Turkey’s nerves over the slow pace of implementing the safe zone. Erdogan was demanding a 32-km-deep territory where the YPG would be absent and security maintained by Turkish forces along with their largely Islamist allies among the anti-Syrian regime rebels. The Kurds had agreed to five kilometres, under U.S. pressure.
Days prior to the call, Erdogan had warned that Turkey was prepared to carry out its plans on its own. An operation, he said, was imminent.
Most experts believed it was bluster: The Turks would never risk an operation in Syria that would carry the possibility of hitting U.S. forces embedded in the region. But something odd happened during Trump’s conversation with Erdogan. According to Fox News, citing an unnamed senior military source, Trump “went off script.” Somehow, the message Erdogan received was that the U.S. would withdraw its forces, giving Turkey free rein to launch its operation.
Chaos ensued. With no warning, U.S. troops were ordered early on the morning of Oct. 7 to pull out. At the same time, the commander of the YPG, Gen. Mazloum Kobani, was told American special forces would be abandoning him.
Two days later, the Turkish operation began.
Trump supporters in Congress condemned Turkey. And Trump seemed to have a change of heart, penning a controversial letter to Erdogan on Oct. 9 threatening to destroy the Turkish economy if Turkish forces went too far and telling his counterpart not to be a “fool”. Erdogan reportedly threw the letter in the garbage.
The YPG took the only option left to them: They turned to the Syrian regime and Russia for help. Syrian troops moved into parts of northern Syria for the first time in five years while Russian jets flew overhead. As American special forces evacuated, locals pelted them with rotten vegetables.
In a matter of days, the entire complexion of northern Syria changed. What had once been a relatively calm, peaceful region ruled by U.S.-backed leftist guerrillas transformed into a war zone prickling with Islamist rebels, disillusioned leftist revolutionaries, Syrian regime soldiers, Turkish soldiers, a few hundred Americans and as many as 90,000 ISIS fighters and their families held in prisons and refugee camps.
My YPG contacts in the region have now gone silent. The one Canadian I know who is still there, Thunder Bay-native Kyle Town, who fought with the YPG during ISIS’s last stand, sounds despondent. “I’m not interested in having anything else about me written,” he told me by WhatsApp on Oct. 23.
When I met Town in northern Syria in February, he was ebullient. ISIS was on its last legs. The future of the utopian socialist society Town said he was helping the Kurds build seemed assured. When I asked him what he would do if Turkey invaded, he was confident and unwavering: “If I’m here and a hostile outside force—it doesn’t have to be necessarily Turkey—tries to come in and destroy what’s being done here and attack the people of this place and the society that they’re trying to build then of course I and the other international volunteers here are going to stay and defend it. It’s part of why we came here in the first place.”
That idyllic vision has disintegrated. In a single, sweeping military operation, a whole host of futures have suddenly collapsed into uncertainty: the future of Syrian refugees; the future of ISIS; Syria’s political future; and the future of NATO-ally Turkey.
Russia is now the preeminent power broker in Syria; Iranian influence in the region has been bolstered; and the Syrian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad, looks more likely than ever to regain control of all of Syria.
After the Turks invaded Syria, ISIS picked up its attacks in other parts of the country. Its sleeper cells inside fortified refugee camps were activated, sparking riots that in one case led to the escape of 700 ISIS-affiliated women and children. Intelligence officers at the infamous al Hol camp near Hassakah, described a scene of chaos. Women in the camp’s foreigner section, where the most hardened ideologues are kept, had risen up in revolt.
In Qamishli, the volatile northern Syrian city partly controlled by the Kurds and partly by the Syrian regime, five ISIS prisoners, including two Belgians, reportedly escaped after projectiles launched from Turkey hit a prison there, according to local Kurdish authorities.
Northern Syria spiralled into the kind of disarray that ISIS commanders still hiding in the deserts of Iraq must have relished. As the Turks and their allied proxy forces pushed deeper into Syria, SDF guards tasked with keeping the camps under control left their posts to help fight the invasion. Northern Syria’s Kurdish administration, sensing another abandonment at the hands of the U.S., quickly turned to the Syrian Regime and its Russian backers for help.
On Oct. 23, Russia and Turkey announced a truce that would see YPG forces withdraw from a 30 km zone along the Turkish border and Turkey take full control of the nearly 4,000 square km swath of territory it took over during its 2-week operation. It’s not clear what will happen to ISIS prisoners and their families. They now face two possible futures: A return to the ISIS fold, or death at the hands of the Syrian regime. It’s not hard to imagine which they will choose.
Given a third option, Rida Jabbar says she would happily return to Canada and face Canadian justice. When she walks into the intelligence office at the al Hol camp in late September, before the chaos began, she is draped in the head-to-toe niqab. Her eyes are the only features visible, but those speak volumes. She is clearly terrified. “They caught me talking on a mobile phone,” she says, her pupils darting between me and the female intelligence officer accompanying her. “Are they going to put me in prison? I was only talking to my father. Will they lock me up for that?”
The Vancouver native, who refuses to give her age or any identifying details about her life back in Canada, was captured by Kurdish forces while attempting to escape the disintegrating ISIS caliphate in the spring of 2018, along with her husband Mohammad Ali and their two daughters. Ali, who was interviewed by Maclean’s in Feb. 2019 at the central prison in Hasakah, claimed he was an ISIS sniper and trainer. He met Jabbar in late summer 2014, a few months after joining ISIS, at a holding facility for unmarried women who had joined the caliphate. They were married in September.
Ali claimed in February that he and Jabbar had both become disillusioned with the caliphate after the birth of their first daughter sometime in early 2016. As its territory shrank, it became clear, he said, that the ISIS leadership was more interested in its own survival than the welfare of the tens of thousands of foreigners who had come to help it.
It’s hard to know where either of them stand in terms of their ideological fervour. Like most of the 3,100 foreign women held at the al Hol camp, Jabbar also says she regrets coming to Syria. But her reasoning is hard to swallow. “I was tricked,” she claims in a high-pitched, mousy voice. “The recruitment videos I saw showed this beautiful place with gardens and parks. It wasn’t like that when I arrived. It was a war zone. As soon as I got here, they locked me in a house with other unmarried women.”
Not knowing she was walking into a war zone sounds far-fetched to say the least but Jabbar insists that she believed once she was inside the caliphate, there would be peaceful places where she could live. “They controlled entire cities by the time I arrived,” she says. “Their videos showed busy markets and kids playing. What they didn’t show was that these cities were being bombed every day.”
Still, she felt she was among her own people. While in Canada, Jabbar says she couldn’t express her faith fully without being branded an extremist. Over the years since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda had poisoned the image of Muslims around the world. Face veils had been banned in France, minarets in Sweden, and the Harper government in Canada had tried to pass the Barbaric Cultural Practices law that Jabbar saw as targeting devout Muslims like her. When ISIS announced its caliphate in June 2014, Jabbar felt there was finally a place for her in the world.
Claiming ignorance about what life would be like under ISIS rule, however, is not a defence that will fly with the Canadian public. Ali, during his time with ISIS, called for attacks against western targets on social media and joked about playing soccer with the head of murdered journalist James Foley. His contrition now, while still jailed in Hasakah, ranks somewhere between opportunistic or too late to matter.
Jabbar’s naivety could be genuine but she still believes ISIS atrocities, including beheadings and the enslavement of Yazidi women, were justified under Islamic law. The question now is what to do with the two of them, and the estimated 40 or so other Canadians—men, women and children—who remain in camps and prisons scattered around northern Syria.
The Turkish invasion and subsequent fallout have added an extra layer of urgency to the problem of ISIS detainees. Al Hol, a sprawling complex housing more than 71,000 ISIS-affiliated women and children, including 10,700 foreigners, has turned particularly dangerous.
During the ISIS last stand last spring, thousands of women, mostly foreigners, fled the fighting along with their children and were brought by SDF forces to al Hol. According to camp officials, many of these women are the most extreme ideologues who not only stayed until the very end of the caliphate but were willing to die for it. Intelligence gleaned from interrogations suggests some of the women were instructed by ISIS commanders to enter the camps and organize there for a future uprising.
Jabbar arrived a year before those hardened ideologues but is also kept in the guarded foreigners section where they are held. She claims these new arrivals are “more extreme than ISIS.” The tone of the camp changed after they arrived, she says, with more and more women covering up under the niqab. “These extremist women are next level takfiris,” she says, using the derogatory term for Muslims who excommunicate fellow Muslims. “They started going around testing everyone, judging who is Muslim or not and punishing women who made even the smallest mistake.”
Now, al Hol’s foreigner section patrolled by a violent Hisba group—the takfiri women who have appointed themselves arbiters of right and wrong behaviour. They have burned down the tents of women they deem insufficiently pious and organized knife and hammer attacks on guards.
What’s worrying, says Stephen A. Kent, a professor of sociology and an expert on new religious movements at the University of Alberta, is the effect life in a radicalized camp will have on the estimated 7,000 children housed there. According to Jabbar, the Hisba women have also set up secret schools in tents to indoctrinate these children in ISIS ideology. That in itself, Kent warns, should force the international community to do something about their nationals.
“What’s going on right now at al Hol is a dystopic nightmare,” he says. “The camp is almost certainly radicalizing a generation of young people who will likely grow up hating the United States for its backing of the Syrian Democratic Forces, hating the west and hating anything that that they wish to blame the camp conditions on. So we’re looking at an intergenerational problem here involving ISIS.”
Indeed, a brief walk through the camp is enough to set off warning bells. Children cling to their mothers’ flowing black niqabs, eyeing their Kurdish guards and foreigners like me with suspicion. Some of them throw rocks, calling me an infidel, others fight violently among themselves or use handmade paper Kalashnikov assault rifles to play at war.
The ISIS precursor, al Qaeda in Iraq, was born in American prisons where inhumane conditions offered its ideologues a steady flow of recruits. History appears to be repeating itself.
Experts have warned repeatedly that while ISIS has lost almost all of the territory it once controlled, it is not finished; in fact, they say, the loss of its caliphate makes it even more dangerous. Freed from the burden of running a state, it can now focus its resources on an insurgency and plan attacks on western targets.
Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria has been a gift, particularly to those ISIS detainees wallowing in camps and tasked by their commanders to groom the next generation of militants. “It’s important now to deal with this issue of women and children,” Dr. Abdulkarim Omar, Co-Chairman of Foreign Affairs for the Kurdish administration, told me a week before the Turkish incursion. “Many of them are innocent of crimes but the longer they stay here in the camp, the more radicalized they will become. And if Turkey carries out its threats, it’s likely many of them will escape.”
Turkey has carried out its threats, and many ISIS loyalists have escaped. The coming weeks and months will determine whether the stain of ISIS will spread again or if it can be contained, whether the Trump calamity everyone was hoping wouldn’t happen will produce more ghost towns, more deadly no-go zones and more chaos on which ISIS can feed or, by sheer luck, some semblance of peace.
Northern Syria may very well be the place where we witness the end of the Syrian war or its next, even deadlier, incarnation.