Fate of foreign fighters could fan tensions between key players in Syria

Some countries, such as the UK and Germany, argued that their citizens should face justice in Syria, where their suspected crimes as ISIS fighters were committed.
Sunday 24/02/2019
A woman (C) carrying a baby is escorted into a vehicle in Syria’s north-eastern city of Qamishli, after she was accused of belonging to ISIS. (AFP)
Security dilemma. A woman (C) carrying a baby is escorted into a vehicle in Syria’s north-eastern city of Qamishli, after she was accused of belonging to ISIS. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - The question of what to do with thousands of foreign extremists stranded in Syria could fan tensions between key players in the nearly 8-year-old conflict.

Several foreign powers, reluctant to take their citizens back because they see them as potential terrorist threats to their own countries, want foreign fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other radical groups to be dealt with in Syria, either by the courts or by military force.

Those goals could strengthen European concerns about Turkey’s plan to move against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in north-eastern Syria, where 3,000 captured ISIS fighters and family members are held in YPG camps, and could raise tensions between Russia and Turkey in the north-western Syrian province of Idlib.

The European Union’s Radicalisation Awareness Network said more than 42,000 foreign fighters from more than 120 countries headed to Syria to join ISIS. Among them were about 5,000 fighters from Europe, about one-third of whom had returned to their countries, the network said in a report in 2017.

The Soufan Centre, a US think-tank, put the number of foreign fighters from Russia and the former Soviet Union at close to 9,000, while more than 15,000 are from Middle Eastern and North African countries.

The issue of foreign fighters gained international prominence as the war in Syria draws to a close and the self-styled ISIS caliphate has been reduced to a small strip of land on Syria’s border with Iraq. US President Donald Trump called on European countries “to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial.” Otherwise, Trump added, “we will be forced to release them.”

European governments rejected Trump’s demand. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, argued that their citizens should face justice in Syria, where their suspected crimes as ISIS fighters were committed.

The YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US ally in the fight against ISIS, also wants foreign states to take back their citizens. Abdulkarim Omar, co-chairman of foreign relations in the SDF region in north-eastern Syria, said there were approximately 800 detained fighters from nearly 50 nationalities, in addition to at least 700 wives and 1,500 children kept in camps.

Omar, speaking after Trump’s statement, insisted that the SDF would not release ISIS prisoners. “We will not release them. We could never do this,” he was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Omar reiterated warnings that any attack on the region by northern neighbour Turkey, which has vowed to crush the YPG and its political mother organisation the Democratic Union Party (PYD), would spark chaos, allowing jihadists to escape. Ankara says the YPG and the PYD are terrorist organisations and a threat to Turkey’s national security.

“Of course, the PYD wants political reimbursement for its contribution to the fight against ISIS, which includes taking care of prisoners of war,” Magdalena Kirchner, senior analyst at Conias Risk Intelligence, said via e-mail. She said “protection against a Turkish offensive” was at the top of the PYD’s wish list.

Europe and Turkey had been at odds over the foreign fighters issue for some time, Kirchner wrote. Last year, Turkey protested a plan by France to have foreign ISIS fighters tried in PYD courts because that could lead to international recognition of the PYD “through the back door,” she said.

Turkey has said repeatedly it would send its troops into PYD territory to push Kurdish forces back from the border and to establish a “safe zone” for the return of Syrian refugees to their country. Kirchner said one scenario could see Turkey taking over holding camps for ISIS fighters and their families after a military intervention.

In Idlib, thousands of fighters, many of them from Chechnya and other parts of the former Soviet Union, are encircled by Syrian government troops. A Russian-Turkish deal has prevented a Syrian attack on the area, much of which is under control of al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). However, the agreement might not last because Moscow wanted to make sure that the fighters never return to their countries, Marc Pierini of Carnegie Europe wrote in a recent analysis.

“Russia wants to wipe out jihadists from Idlib province and refuses to see Chechen fighters return home,” wrote Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Ankara, “but Turkey is anxious to avoid a Grozny-style bloodbath in Idlib because it does not want a new wave of fleeing civilians to head to Hatay province in the southern parts of a refugee-tired Turkey.”

“This means the Russian-Turkish de-escalation zone around the region is only a temporary solution, as it parks the remaining jihadists in a no man’s land of sorts until Moscow and Ankara resolve their differences,” Pierini concluded.

Kirchner pointed out that concern about a possible return of Chechen and Uzbek fighters was one of the reasons Russia intervened militarily in Syria. Moscow preferred a limited fight against HTS managed by Turkey to a comprehensive assault by Syrian government troops because that could drive extremists out of Idlib, she wrote. China also offered military support because Uighur fighters from the Xinjiang region in western China are hauled up in Idlib as well, Kirchner added.

Recent gains by HTS in Idlib had driven pro-Turkish and foreign fighters under the HTS banner apart, Kirchner wrote, adding: “This could lead to intensified Russian and Syrian attacks on Idlib.”

The lack of an international consensus about who counts as a terrorist and who does not is a further complication to the issue. Several hundred foreigners, among them many Westerners, have joined the Kurdish YPG to fight ISIS and could face Turkish troops in a possible intervention by NATO’s second biggest army.