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حزب الله يتوجّه شرقاً نحو سورية
حزب الله يتوجّه شرقاً نحو سورية
Virus Fears Spread at Camps for ISIS Families in Syria’s North East
Virus Fears Spread at Camps for ISIS Families in Syria’s North East

حزب الله يتوجّه شرقاً نحو سورية

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الملخص التنفيذي

لقد استثمر حزب الله كل طاقاته في الدفاع عن الرئيس السوري بشار الأسد. وقد أظهر أنه سيدعم النظام السوري بكل الوسائل الضرورية، رغم الشكوك في قدرة هذا الأخير على تحقيق نصر حاسم وبصرف النظر عن مخاطرة حزب الله بمكانته الأخلاقية وجاذبيته العابرة للطوائف. مع انغماسه بعمق أكبر في الحرب الأهلية في سورية، والتي يبدو أنها ستستمر لسنوات، فإن حزب الله يجد نفسه منشغلاً على نحو متزايد عن محور تركيزه الأصلي المتمثل في محاربة إسرائيل ومُخاطراً بإحداث إعادة تشكيل عميقة لهويته.

كانت الأهداف العسكرية الأصلية لحزب الله في سورية واضحة، وتتمثل في إنقاذ نظام يرى فيه حليفاً محورياً وإبعاد الجهاديين السنّة عن حدوده وأحيائه. لقد كانت مساهمته بالغة الأهمية؛ فقد تمكنت قواته من إعادة الزخم المتلاشي للنظام ومكّنته من تحقيق التقدم النسبي الذي يتمتع به اليوم. لقد عززت محاربته للمعارضة السورية، التي يُشخّصها بتعابير طائفية حادة، من قاعدة دعمه. غير أن الأكلاف بعيدة المدى ـ بالنسبة لحزب الله والمنطقة ـ والمتمثلة في الانخراط في حرب طائفية صفرية، تعني أن الثمن الذي سيدفعه مقابل ذلك قد يكون جسيماً بقدر أهمية المكاسب قصيرة الأمد التي يحققها.

رحّب الحزب بانتفاضات "الربيع العربي" الموجّه ضد أعدائه وخصومه. لكنه وضع حداً عند سورية؛ ومع تراخي قبضة بشار الأسد، بات يرى بقاءه هو مرتبطاً ببقاء حليفه. كان سقوط الأسد سيحرمه من حليف محوري ومن ممر مهمّ للتزوّد بالأسلحة من إيران. إضافة إلى ذلك، ومع تحوّل الانتفاضة السورية إلى حرب إقليمية بالوكالة، فإن سقوط النظام كان سيؤدي إلى تغيير في التوازن الإقليمي يصب في غير مصلحته، أخيراً، مع ظهور تنظيمات مرتبطة بالقاعدة (أو انفصلت عنها) داخل صفوف المجموعات المسلّحة، فإن الحزب الشيعي، كجمهوره، بات يرى في الحرب الأهلية في سورية حرباً وجودية.

ظهرت مزاعم بمشاركة حزب الله العسكرية في سورية في أواسط عام 2012، بعد تحقيق مجموعات المعارضة المسلّحة مكاسب مهمّة جنوب وشرق سورية؛ وإحاطتها بدمشق، بشكل جعل النظام في خطر محدق؛ وسيطرتها على مناطق حدودية رئيسية مكّنتها من التواصل مع الجيوب السنّية على الجانب اللبناني. بعد شهور من ذلك، لعب الحزب، في أيار/مايو 2013 وبشكل علني، دوراً قيادياً في إخراج الجماعات المسلّحة من بلدة القصير الحدودية. عزز سقوط البلدة من قوة النظام وشجّع الحزب على توسيع معركته إلى جبال القلمون وما وراءها.

دفع التدخل العسكري الكامل حزب الله إلى منطقة مجهولة المعالم. من منظوره، لم يكن لديه خيار آخر؛ فقد أكدت الأحداث اللاحقة للحزب بأنه اتخذ القرار الصائب. لقد كانت حملته العسكرية ناجحة، وعززت موقع الأسد؛ ورغم مقتل عشرات الشيعة في لبنان في موجة من التفجيرات الانتحارية غير المسبوقة، على نمط التفجيرات التي تنفذها القاعدة، منذ معركة القصير، فإن الحزب مقتنع بأن عدداً أكبر كان سيُقتل لو إنه لم يُبعد المجموعات المسلّحة السورية عن الحدود اللبنانية. كما كانت الهجمات الانتقامية مفيدة للحزب من حيث إنها عززت قاعدته الشعبية من خلال التأكيد على أن المجموعات المسلّحة السورية ما هي إلا مجموعات من المتطرفين السنّة الذين كانوا دائماً يستهدفون شيعة لبنان.

لكن على المدى البعيد، فإن انخراط حزب الله في سورية يشكّل تهديداً للحزب، كما أنه إشكالي بالنسبة للبنان والعالم العربي الأوسع. لقد عمّق هذا التدخل الانقسام الطائفي الإقليمي، وغذى التطرف نفسه الذي يرمي الحزب إلى محاربته وأدى إلى تلاشي شرعيته بين شرائح من المجتمع كانت تدعمه في السابق. من خلال تصوير معركته على أنها هجوم استباقي على التكفيريين، فإن حزب الله صبغ جميع شرائح المعارضة، وفي الواقع جميع السنّة، بفرشاة التطرف السوداء. لقد بالغ في توصيف مذهبية المعارضة السورية كما خصومه المحليين، وبالتالي فاقم من هذه المذهبية. حزب الله، الذي كان يحظى باحترام واسع لدى جميع شرائح الطيف السياسي والطائفي، بات يُشار إليه على نحو متكرر الآن بـ "حزب الشيطان". لقد تضاءلت الحاضنة الشعبية التي كان يعتبرها الحزب بمثابة عمق استراتيجي، وكذلك السمعة التي كان حققها لنزاهته الأخلاقية. تكمن المفارقة هنا في أن تعزيز حزب الله لجبهته الشرقية قد جعله أكثر هشاشة.

هذه التطورات لا تبشّر بالخير بالنسبة للبنان، الذي يعتمد رفاهه على العلاقات بين الكتل السياسية والمجموعات الطائفية فيه. لقد تم احتواء الصدامات المذهبية التي مرّت بها البلاد عام 2013 ومطلع عام 2014 تحت مظلة ما يعرف بـ "الخطة الأمنية"، إلاّ أن هذه الهدنة مؤقتة على الأرجح. مع شعور سنّة لبنان بالإحباط، وحرص الشيعة على عدم خسارة المكاسب التي حققوها خلال العقود الماضية ووقوع المجموعات الأخرى بين الطرفين، فإن التصعيد الذي شهده هذا العام ما هو إلاّ مقدمة لما سيحدث إذا انهارت الاتفاقية الأمنية. في بلد طالما اشتكى من الشلل السياسي، فإن غاية ما يأمل به كثيرون الآن بات استمرار هذا الركود، بوصفه أفضل السيناريوهات.

قد يرى بعض منتقدي حزب الله الإقليميين ومنتقديه الدوليين، المتحالفين مع خصومه، جانباً إيجابياً في هذه التطورات: أي غرق حزب الله فيما يبدو حرباً لا نهاية لها في سورية، وقتاله لعدو متطرف وعنيد، وانشغاله عن تركيزه التقليدي على إسرائيل. إلاّ أن الدوامة نفسها التي تجتذب الحزب تجتذب أيضاً أعداءه، دون أن يكون هناك مخرج محتمل لأي من الطرفين. كما أن هؤلاء النقاد لا يرحبون بانتشار الجهادية الشيعية التي تغذيها الحرب في سورية.

ما هو ضروري، ليس فقط من أجل لبنان، بل أيضاً من أجل المنطقة بأسرها ـ أي الإحجام عن الخطاب المذهبي وسحب جميع المقاتلين الأجانب من سورية وطردهم ـ من غير المحتمل أن يحدث. حزب الله يؤمن باستراتيجيته الحالية، وأعداؤه مصممون على محاربة ما يرون فيه قوة احتلال شيعية. طالما ظل الصراع في سورية ثقباً أسود، فإن حزب الله سيبقى عالقاً في نطاق جاذبية هذا الثقب، وهو ما سيُحدث فيه تحوّلاً لا يقلّ عن التحوّل الذي سيحدثه انخراطه في الصراع برمّته.

بيروت/بروكسل، 27 أيار/مايو 2014

A general view of al-Hol camp in al-Hasakeh governorate, Syria, 8 August 2019. AFP/Delil SOULEIMAN

Virus Fears Spread at Camps for ISIS Families in Syria’s North East

Disease has long been a daily concern at al-Hol, a detention camp in north-eastern Syria for families of ISIS militants, but now each death raises anxiety about COVID-19. With repatriations on hold, the UN and other international bodies must step up medical and humanitarian aid.

When someone dies at al-Hol, a detention camp in north-eastern Syria that holds mostly women and children related to ISIS militants, the blame turns rapidly to COVID-19. Fears are mounting about the illness, even though there are no confirmed cases, and even though untimely death is already common, due to harsh living conditions and other infectious diseases that kill dozens of people on average each month.

Scary rumours started spreading in al-Hol early in March, when a three-year-old child and a seventy-five-year old woman, both Russian citizens, died. It was definitely COVID-19, some women maintained. Others said the child had died of tuberculosis and the woman of a heart attack. As camp authorities instructed residents to stay in their tents and shops in the camp’s market began to shut, women started stockpiling food and water. When guards dug a perimeter trench, one frightened woman blurted out that they were readying mass graves. A deep disquiet arose as well in Roj, a smaller detention camp close to the Iraqi border. Women in both camps began calling and texting relatives abroad if they felt sick, frantically recounting their symptoms. “We’re having conversations about how we expect to die here”, one wrote.

Crisis Group has been unable to visit the camps under present conditions. But from telephone calls and WhatsApp/Telegram messages with camp residents and their relatives as well as with UN officials and humanitarian organisation staffers, a vivid sense of panic emerges.

As in all displacement camps in Iraq and Syria, people live without clean water, adequate food or reliable medical services – much less soap, hand sanitisers or protective gear. Al-Hol and Roj hold 66,000 and 4,000 women and children, respectively, most of them relatives of ISIS militants but some former affiliates of the group themselves. The majority are either Syrians or Iraqis, with the numbers roughly split, and around 13,500 are from other countries. Their hazy legal status as neither combatants nor civilians, and the stigma attached to them, discourages some UN aid bodies from providing any service at all. It also puts doctors and guards in the position of looking after women whom they view as unrepentant ISIS militants.

Should this virus hit places like al-Hol, we risk being in a position where we are just going to watch people die.

As of now, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in either camp, though there are no testing kits, either. But with a key border crossing from Iraq, Faysh Khabour, closed because of the virus, cutting off aid supplies, and medical capacity in the region direly limited, the outlook is bleak. “They already have a hard time isolating tuberculosis cases, so forget social distancing”, Fabrizio Carboni, regional director for the Near and Middle East at the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Crisis Group. “Should this virus hit places like al-Hol, or much of north east Syria, we risk being in a position where we are just going to watch people, the most vulnerable, die”.

Winter scene from al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria in March 2020. This photograph was shared with support group members by a camp resident who wished to remain anonymous.

Since the last ISIS strongholds in Syria fell in early 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia that partnered with the U.S.-led coalition, has largely been left to deal with tens of thousands of ISIS detainees and affiliated family members. Many of the detainees’ home countries refuse to take them back. In addition to al-Hol and Roj, which mostly house women and children, the SDF struggles to guard, care for and feed thousands of men and boys crammed into makeshift prisons. It receives some U.S. funding, but its resources are woefully lacking. The anti-ISIS coalition has been slow to deliver extra support – more training for guards and new equipment – that it promised for overseeing detainees. Humanitarian workers describe these sites as ridden with tuberculosis and perilously overcrowded, with one speaking of “dramatic mortality rates”.

Following ISIS’s defeat the authorities inherited a fragile health system and destroyed infrastructure.

On 30 March, ISIS detainees rioted and overran a prison in Hassakeh city, ripping off doors and taking control of one floor of the facility. It took nearly a day for the SDF to quell the uprising and determine that no one had escaped. The militants had been compelled to break out, SDF authorities later said, partly by fear of contracting the virus in such cramped quarters. The prospect that something similar could happen at al-Hol, where tensions flared regularly between militant women and camp guards even in pre-pandemic times, worries Western officials, as well as the Autonomous Administration of north-eastern Syria, the political entity that governs the SDF-protected region.

The strain of guarding so many detainees is overwhelming the Autonomous Administration. Badran Çiya Kurd, one of its senior officials, told Crisis Group that it must look after not just camps like al-Hol but also a native population of over five million (a recent UN estimate cites three million), as well as a million internally displaced Syrians. Following ISIS’s defeat, he said, the authorities inherited a fragile health system and destroyed infrastructure, the overhaul of which required massive international support just to meet the population’s basic needs, let alone ward off a pandemic. The camps, he continued, would be hardest hit, because of overcrowding and lack of facilities and preparedness: “Any spreading of the virus will lead to unprecedented catastrophe”. Much of the north east’s population relies on daily jobs to get by, forcing workers to choose between self-isolation measures and survival. The area has also suffered from Turkey cutting the water supply it controls from Allouk station, a step emanating from disputes between Ankara and the SDF over the exchange of water and electricity between regions the two respectively control. The water is now flowing again, but it has yet to reach civilians in a number of areas. The loss of the Yaroubia border crossing with Iraq earlier in the year (a January UN resolution failed to re-authorise its use), Çiya Kurd said, was now causing intense hardship, reducing the movement of humanitarian aid into the area, in a manner now compounded by the recent COVID-related closure of Faysh Khabour.

As camp managers struggled in late March to get a doctor into Roj, citing increasing demand for medics in the area, women took to selling each other goods at inflated prices as anxiety grew in both camps. Huddled on the dirt floor in her six square meters tent in with her four children, a 31-year-old French woman texted from al-Hol to her mother back home that she feared they’d had their last full meal for a while. A Syrian woman wrote that she felt ill, had no tent for shelter and worried about who would care for her two boys if she died. Another Syrian woman said a local NGO came to instruct women on how to wash their hands properly. But usually, she added, there isn’t enough water in al-Hol for regular hand washing. “We don’t understand what is going on, so people are scared”, she said. “It’s hard to breathe”, another woman in Roj said by text to Alexandra Bain, director of the Canada-based Families Against Violent Extremism, “and we have heavy coughs”. In exchanges Bain showed to Crisis Group, women in the camps, using shared phones, described “never-ending coughing”, fever and successive days without access to a doctor or basic pain medications.

The messages paint a picture of an area already acutely lacking in medical personnel and supplies, where need is greatest in hospitals and camps recede in priority, and where nervous doctors reprimand women for asking about the virus. Sometimes the messages are punctuated by asides (“Ahhh, my daughter just vomited”); sometimes by desperation (“some people here want to take their own lives”); and sometimes by resignation (“if corona hits here, we are done for”).

An Iraqi refugee carries her child as she walks around in a camp in al-Hol, Syria, 13 March 2017. AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN

Though the majority of these camps’ inhabitants are children and women under 50, a great many may already suffer from pneumonia, chest infections and tuberculosis. These “co-morbidities”, says Will Turner, emergency operations manager at Médecins Sans Frontières, put the camp population in elevated peril from the coronavirus. The danger is highest in areas like the “foreigners’ annex”, where non-Syrians and non-Iraqis are housed. Due to difficult access negotiations between aid groups and camp authorities, the annex has received no direct medical services in months. Even trying to pass COVID-19 health advice into the annex is a challenge; the camp does not officially permit women detainees to have mobile phones and will not allow the distribution of flyers inside.

The “foreigners’ annex” has received no direct medical services in months.

As of mid-March, at least two countries had active repatriation plans under way for the foreigners in the camps, one for a small number of detainees and the other for a significant number that – in a rare occurrence – included men. Getting to this stage typically requires ceaseless and multi-layered political wrangling – within home governments, and between those governments and north-eastern Syria’s governing authorities. But for now, COVID-19 has disrupted these plans. “This definitely means a halt to repatriations”, one Western official told Crisis Group. “[No one] can commit resources to repatriation now or for the foreseeable future”.

It is likely that COVID-19 will afflict the whole of the north east, indeed all of Syria, including regions under state control and the rebel-held pocket of Idlib. The authorities in the north east cannot be expected to bear the entire burden of this escalating and enormously trying humanitarian crisis. The majority of the population in al-Hol and Roj are children, and whether they are Iraqi, Syrian or of some other nationality, their well-being and that of their caregivers needs safeguarding.

The U.S. should push both the Iraqi authorities and the Autonomous Administration in the north east to agree to a regular, two-way humanitarian exemption to the temporary border closure at Faysh Khabour, so that aid groups working across the Iraqi border can maintain their activities and supply lines in both directions. To be persuasive to the Iraqi and SDF authorities alike, this request should be accompanied by delivery of humanitarian aid and COVID-19-relevant kits and equipment for the populations in Syria’s north east and Iraq proper, including other displaced persons camps. International bodies, in particular the UN, should make a major push to provide health education and test kits. The SDF, for its part, should continue to release as many Syrians from al-Hol as possible, reducing the camp’s congestion. But one border crossing is not enough: the UN Security Council should also consider immediately re-authorising the use of Yaroubia as a humanitarian access point into the north east. Waiting for the next resolution on the logistics of aid delivery into Syria, likely this summer, would result in a damaging delay. Moscow should reverse its earlier position and refrain from opposing the reopening of Yaroubia, as Damascus has not permitted the delivery of health supplies through its territory in a way that would compensate for its closing.

The UN Security Council should consider immediately re-authorising the use of Yaroubia as a humanitarian access point into the north east.

At no time in recent months have prospects for the men, women and children detained in these camps looked more uncertain. While the Autonomous Administration is seeking to step up the release of Syrian detainees at al-Hol, for Iraqis and other non-Syrians the chances of leaving do not look good. The painfully slow process of repatriation by home governments, already so fraught within states’ domestic politics, is now frozen, and it will take a monumental effort to make it a priority again anytime in the near future. Which is why women’s anxiety about the virus, together with the symptoms they are presently experiencing, merges with a more generalised panic about the future.