What are the differences between disengagement and rehabilitation programs in stable settings and in conflict zones?
Violent extremists make civil conflicts more complex and less manageable. Whether in the Middle East, Africa or South Asia, one of the many problems presented by conflicts involving violent extremists is how to deal with these combatants and associates when they surrender or are captured. There have been many attempts to disengage, deradicalize, rehabilitate and reintegrate violent extremists around the world, but most research focuses on stable settings such as Western Europe and North America. What, then, do we know about how to do this in the middle of conflict?
It’s one thing to put a terrorist offender in a Western prison through a disengagement and rehabilitation program. But the challenges are far greater in a location such as northeast Syria. The territorial defeat of the Islamic State group (ISIS) left around 10,000 former combatants and thousands of family members in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC).
But what is the status of the former combatants? Are they criminals or prisoners of war? Are their families displaced victims, or should they be viewed as suspected perpetrators? How should they be treated, and by whom? The SDF and SDC may have de facto jurisdiction, but they are not recognized as sovereign by any country and are under military and political pressure on all sides. And as several political controversies in recent years have shown, few states seem interested in taking responsibility for even the most vulnerable and most victimized of their own citizens in northeast Syria.