Syria rehab center seeks to tame ‘caliphate cubs’

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An adolescent boy makes objects from beads at the "Hori" rehabilitation centre for former Daesh child fighters run by Kurds in Tal Maarouf, in Syria's northeastern Hassekeh province on February 11, 2018. (AFP)
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An adolescent boy sits in a chair in front of a mirror where he is learning hairdressing skills at the "Hori" rehabilitation centre for former Daesh child fighters run by Kurds in Tal Maarouf, in Syria's northeastern Hassekeh province on February 11, 2018. (AFP)
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An adolescent boy writes on a white board at the "Hori" rehabilitation centre for former Daesh child fighters run by Kurds in Tal Maarouf, in Syria's northeastern Hassekeh province on February 11, 2018. (AFP)
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An adolescent boy makes objects from beads at the "Hori" rehabilitation centre for former Daesh child fighters run by Kurds in Tal Maarouf, in Syria's northeastern Hassekeh province on February 11, 2018. (AFP)
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An adolescent boy writes on a white board at the "Hori" rehabilitation centre for former Daesh child fighters run by Kurds in Tal Maarouf, in Syria's northeastern Hassekeh province on February 11, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 20 May 2018
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Syria rehab center seeks to tame ‘caliphate cubs’

TAL MAAROUF: Thirteen-year-old Hassan may have committed atrocities for Daesh, but instead of jailing him immediately, the Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syria enrolled him in a rehabilitation center.
He was one of around 80 teenagers sporting trainers and tracksuits as they filled their lungs with chilly morning air in the courtyard of the Hori Center in Tal Maarouf.
Aged 12 to 17, they had all been detained by Kurdish fighters or the US-led Western forces who supported them during the battle to destroy the extremists’ self-styled “caliphate.”
Some are children of Daesh families, whose parents may be in jail, while others were directly recruited — forcibly or voluntarily — by the extremist group.
After their capture, they were selected for “rehabilitation” in line with the “second chance policy” of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) which controls the region.
Local officials admit their prisons are full and say they are hoping a constructive approach can help mend ties with local tribes that once backed the extremists.
It was early 2018 when Hassan checked into the Hori Center, months after the opening of the sprawling complex of red-brick rooms and dorms framing a rectangular lawn.
As the son of a senior Daesh commander in the Syrian city of Raqqa, once the de facto capital of the extremists’ proto-state, he regularly witnessed beheadings.
The Kurdish forces who captured him found a picture that shows him proudly holding a severed head, but whether the boy ever killed anyone himself isn’t clear.
“When he arrived, like many of them, he didn’t say hi, didn’t shake our hands and didn’t look us in the eye,” said Roka Khalil, one of the center’s two directors.
The center is run by two secular women and its boarders are asked to shave and give up their traditional garments for Western-style clothes.
Moving there was a culture shock for Hassan.
Like other teenagers Daesh called the “cubs of the caliphate,” he had been subjected to the group’s efforts to impose its brand of violence and religious conservatism on an entire generation.
Now, some of those youngsters are housed in dormitories where they have no access to phones or the Internet but where staff are available day and night, said Abir Khaled, the center’s co-director.
“We consider them as humans, as victims of the war,” she said.
While most of the children are Syrian, the center also hosts former “cubs” from countries including Turkey and Indonesia.
Their days follow a strict routine that includes a lot of sport, particularly volleyball, various chores on the compound and workshops training them to become barbers and tailors.
Also central to the rehabilitation process is a curriculum that includes history, geography, Arabic and Kurdish classes, as well as a “morality” class.
Many have experienced poverty, received very little education and grew up in tough family environments.
Four of them were dispatched by Daesh to carry out a suicide operation but surrendered instead, according to the center’s staff.
“It shows that their ideology is not that deep, and can be easily fixed,” said Khalil.
A third of the Hori Center’s “guests” have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to seven years, but Kurdish authorities believe they can be rehabilitated if they are given a supportive environment.
If their conduct is good at Hori, their sentences may be reduced and they could be released to their families within months.
Hassan is now awaiting trial and Khalil said he may be given a term of up to three years, although that could be reduced.
The Hori Center’s egalitarian and social values are directly inspired by those of the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan.
The charismatic leader, who has been imprisoned by Turkey since 1999, is the main ideological reference of the PYD, whose armed branch controls swathes of northern and eastern Syria.
Ocalan’s portrait is plastered all over the region, where supporters see him as a visionary leader but his critics denounce him as a Marxist autocrat — or even a terrorist.
The self-proclaimed Kurdish administration insists the Hori Center is not designed to implant PYD ideology in the heads of its young boarders, replacing one brainwashing with another.
Yet at Qamishli’s Alaya prison, which AFP was allowed to visit and where some of Hori’s “patients” were previously detained, the wooden models carved by inmates were often in the image of Ocalan.
Khalil said it was too early to describe the center’s activities as a success, but stressed that results were already tangible.
“Today, lots of them come to talk to us by themselves,” she said.
“Hassan doesn’t insult his classmates any more when there is a dispute, he doesn’t believe in paradise and the virgins any more, he even listens to music.”


Iran must stop supporting militias for peace offer to be taken seriously: Expert 

Updated 26 May 2019
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Iran must stop supporting militias for peace offer to be taken seriously: Expert 

  • Iran has for long pursued a policy of outsourcing its meddling to external militias
  • Among these are the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen

JEDDAH: Iran needs to dismantle its proxies and end its interventions in Arab affairs before seeking to normalize relations with its Gulf neighbors, a political expert told Arab News on Sunday.

“The Gulf countries have been calling for normal relations with their neighbors for years, but their calls have fallen on deaf ears on the Iranian side,” Hamdan Al-Shehri, a political analyst and international relations scholar, said.

Accusing Tehran of “playing games,” Al-Shehri described Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s suggestion that Iran wanted to improve relations with its Gulf neighbors as worthless “as long as it continues meddling in the affairs of other countries, and fails to halt its evil militias from sabotaging and destabilizing regional security.”

Iran has for long pursued a policy of outsourcing its meddling to external militias, which indirectly supports, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. 

Zarif, who is on a two-day visit to Iraq, told a joint news conference in Baghdad with his Iraqi counterpart Mohammed Al-Hakim that Iran wants to build balanced relations with its Gulf Arab neighbors and had proposed signing a non-aggression pact with them.

However, Al-Shehri said that Tehran needs to address three key issues — its nuclear program; its terrorist militias, which have been spreading chaos in the Gulf region and beyond; and its ballistic missile program — before making any such proposals.

“The question is, would Iran be ready to give up all three files? If they want their neighbors to accept them and normalize relations with them, they have to be honest and stop playing games,” he said.

Al-Shehri described Zarif’s regional tour as an attempt to rally support and send a false message that Iran has friends and allies who would stand by them in their crisis with the US.

“Where were these countries when Iran’s terrorist proxies in Yemen, the Houthi militias, launched missiles and drones attacking the holiest Islamic site in Makkah and other Saudi facilities?” Al-Shehri asked.

Zarif said Iran will defend itself against any military or economic aggression, calling on European states to do more to preserve a nuclear agreement his country signed.

“We will defend (ourselves) against any war efforts, whether it be an economic war or a military one, and we will face these efforts with strength,” he said.

Strains have increased between Iran and the US following this month’s sabotage attack on oil tankers in the Gulf. Washington and other regional allies have concluded that Iran is most likely behind the attacks. 

Tehran has distanced itself from the bombings, but the US has sent an aircraft carrier and extra 1,500 troops to the Gulf, sparking concerns over the risk of conflict in the volatile region.