ISIS defeat in Syria fuels debate over foreign fighters’ repatriation

With funds short and corruption rife, ISIS fighters with access to ready funds can have themselves smuggled out of the camps.
Sunday 31/03/2019
Sensitive issue. Foreign women and children walk in al-Hol camp, which houses relatives of Islamic State group members in north-eastern Syria, March 28. (AFP)
Sensitive issue. Foreign women and children walk in al-Hol camp, which houses relatives of Islamic State group members in north-eastern Syria, March 28. (AFP)

TUNIS - As the last scraps of the Islamic State’s caliphate fall to the Western-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, the victors must deal with a potentially dangerous peace dividend: captured militants and their families.

Frustrated at Europe’s reluctance to accept repatriation of jihadists, US President Donald Trump in February threatened to release hundreds of Islamic State (ISIS) fighters. “The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial,” Trump posted on Twitter.

“The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them.”

Though some ISIS fighters have made their way to their home countries in the region, many remain in Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) camps in Syria. There are no official numbers for the prison camps or the number of ISIS prisoners within them.

However, the New York Times, citing unidentified US and SDF sources, reported there were seven camps. Most were said to be temporary facilities in former schools and government buildings. The Times said the camps housed 5,000-30,000 militants and their families.

The cost of housing, feeding and guarding the captives is significant and, with resources thin, corruption has become a factor. Many fighters are paying their way out of the camps and disappearing into the Syrian countryside, said Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group.

The SDF has suggested an international tribunal be established to deal with the thousands of ISIS prisoners.

“Allowing the SDF to have a tribunal would grant them the legitimacy of a state actor,” Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security said. “As you can imagine, a number of the states involved within the Syrian theatre are reluctant to see that happen,” he said.

Foremost among those states is Turkey, which regards the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, outlawed as a terrorist organisation by Ankara.

Granting the SDF status of international broker would also give the Kurdish-dominated organisation a degree of protection Turkey would not be comfortable with.

With US patience and international funding for the Syria campaign dwindling, the SDF must rely on what resources they can find to maintain the camps.

“Right now, everyone is looking to the Trump administration to fund the campaign,” Heras said, “but they’re not having it. They just don’t want to put more money into Syria, which leaves the SDF struggling to meet the existential needs of these prisoners — housing, medical care, security.”

Khalifa said she has visited several of the camps, “Conditions aren’t terrible,” she said, describing camps split into sections, housing foreign fighters, families and domestic insurgents.

“However, none of the camps were really built to house this many people for this long. There’s no plumbing but there’s food, medical care and educational facilities for the children,” with SDF officials attempting to enroll children of ISIS fighters in a distinctly left-leaning educational system, she said.

With funds short and corruption rife, fighters with access to ready funds can have themselves smuggled out of the camps, Khalifa said.

“There’s a definite threat there, particularly in eastern Syria,” Heras said. “We’ve seen a number there who have established themselves, asking local people to pledge allegiance to ISIS. They’ve also been active in arbitrating in tribal disputes and other local concerns. There are also those who have entered Idlib. We just don’t know what has happened to them or what they’re doing.”

There are prisoners deemed a low enough risk to be conditionally released. “The foreign fighters are easy enough to identify,” Heras said, “but for the locals it’s almost impossible. I mean, how do you differentiate between a support worker and a frontline fighter? You can’t. Either way, by releasing some of these guys, you’re establishing, at a minimum, a base for future recruitment.

“Many of these ISIS fighters are going to infiltrate whatever community they’re released into. What we’re looking at is a mafia-type situation. We know they’re there, we just can’t see them.”