Battle Against ISIS In Al-Baghouz Causes Refugee Surge In Al-Hol Camp

The ongoing operation by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against ISIS in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz is drawing to a close, both in terms of the battle itself and the power of the so-called caliphate. The Battle for Baghouz, on the Euphrates River near the Iraq border, has been waged since the beginning of March, with a steady stream of fighters surrendering, along with a surge of thousands of refugees left in desolate conditions.

Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the SDF forces, tweeted on Tuesday 19 March, “#SDF is in control of Daesh encampment area in #Baghouz. This is not a victory announcement, but a significant progress in the fight against Daesh. Clashes are continuing as a group of ISIS terrorists who are confined into a tiny area still fight back.” ISIS now holds a tiny sliver of territory in what remains of its tent town outside the village of Baghouz.

As reported by Middle East Eye, Ali Abdullah Ayoub, the Syrian Defence Minister, said the regime would continue to liberate areas under the control of the SDF. So, once this battle is over and ISIS is largely territorially defeated, the war is likely to continue.

Sonia Khush, the Syria Response Director for Save the Children, said: “Children, particularly young children, are coming out of the last ISIS-held areas in absolutely desperate conditions. Many are starved, sick and emotionally distressed from what they have been through. In the overcrowded displacement camps, their lives are still at risk from infectious diseases, cold and hunger.”

While the SDF forces allowed many to evacuate before launching their operation to liberate Baghouz, many civilians – or, some would say, human shields – remained in the small encampment as heavy artillery rained down. Many of the evacuated former residents have said that the bombardments have killed many who remained in the area. Nobody would disagree that ISIS is a deplorable regime and needs to be defeated, but this approach in Baghouz seems to leave little room for civilians to survive the fighting. It seems that necessary contingency plans have not been put in place to mitigate the influx of internally displaced persons (IDPs).  Over the last two months, more than 60,000 people have evacuated the village. The majority of these have been transferred by the SDF to the al–Hol refugee camp in the northeast of Syria.

Conditions at al–Hol are deteriorating quickly. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on 15 March that the camp had a population of 70,000, with tens of thousands expected to arrive in the coming weeks. The camp’s original capacity was only 10,000. Children are suffering from acute malnutrition, pneumonia, dehydration and diarrhea. Over 100 people have died so far in recent weeks, 80% of whom are children under five years old. The shortage of water, healthcare, and hygiene services compounds the crisis day by day.

A majority of those in the camps are foreign born. The international community needs to step up their commitment, take responsibility for their citizens, and repatriate them. This would lessen the strain on the facilities in the camps and make room for Syrians to be treated. Additionally, the international community needs to continue to provide as much support to the humanitarian relief effort as possible. A peaceful and diplomatic solution must be encouraged by all parties to ensure no more unnecessary human suffering is endured.

George Gale