Turkey raises pressure on Europe to take back foreign ISIS fighters

About 1,200 foreign ISIS fighters are in Turkish prisons and 287 members, including women and children, were recaptured during Turkey’s offensive.
Sunday 10/11/2019
Men, allegedly affiliated with ISIS, sit on the floor in a prison in the  north-eastern Syrian city of Hasakah, October 26.	(AFP)
Unresolved problem. Men, allegedly affiliated with ISIS, sit on the floor in a prison in the north-eastern Syrian city of Hasakah, October 26. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Following its military operation that gave Turkey control over part of north-eastern Syria, the government in Ankara pressured European countries to repatriate hundreds of their citizens detained as fighters for the Islamic State.

Turkey’s demands could lead to new tensions between Ankara and the European Union because many European countries, worried about the danger posed by radicalised and battle-hardened returnees, are reluctant to allow the return of Islamic State (ISIS) fighters or their wives and children.

“We need full cooperation and active partnership with our allies in terms of fighting with terrorism,” Fahrettin Altun, communications director for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wrote in response to questions. Turkey was “suffering a lot” because of the problem, he added.

The Turkish Army and pro-Turkish Syrian rebels secured a stretch of Syrian territory between the border towns Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn since the beginning of their operation October 9.

Ankara wants to push the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia away from the border but says it is fighting ISIS as well. Turkish officials said the military captured the sister of dead Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the northern Syrian town of Azaz.

Ankara’s appeals to the Europeans point to a wider problem for the European Union. The YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hold thousands of ISIS fighters and tens of thousands of their family members in camps that have not been taken over by the Turks or lie outside proposed “safe zones.” The SDF’s detainees include 800 fighters from Europe, 700 women and 1,500 children, a CNN report stated.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said about 1,200 foreign ISIS fighters are in Turkish prisons and 287 members, including women and children, were recaptured during Turkey’s offensive after they escaped from detention centres.

Ankara accuses the YPG of freeing around 750 ISIS members. Altun said there are 20 German nationals among the suspected ISIS supporters in Turkish detention.

Erdogan said in October that 500 ISIS members who escaped detention in northern Syria during the Turkish operation were from “various countries” such as France, the Netherlands and Germany. He added that around 150 Turkish ISIS members caught in Syria would be tried before Turkish courts but it was not clear what the Europeans would do. “Will those countries accept to take back the ones that joined ISIS?” Erdogan asked.

Approximately 40,000 foreigners from all over the world joined ISIS during the expansion of the jihadists’ self-styled caliphate in 2014 and 2015. About 10% of those were from Western Europe, the European Parliament said in a report last year.

About 1,300 of European ISIS fighters had returned to their home countries by 2016, the report stated. The rest were either killed or captured as the extremists suffered military setbacks that ended with the loss of the last piece of territory held by ISIS earlier this year.

The issue is creating friction between Turkey and European countries, some of which have stripped their nationals involved with ISIS of citizenship.

Although under the New York Convention of 1961, it is illegal to leave someone stateless, several countries, including Britain and France, have not ratified it and

recent cases have triggered prolonged legal battles, Agence France-Presse reported.

Britain stripped more than 100 people of citizenship for allegedly joining jihadist groups abroad. High-profile cases such as teenage ISIS recruit Shamima Begum and alleged recruit Jack Letts sparked court proceedings and fierce political debate in Britain.

Soylu said Turkey would not accept this approach.

“The world has devised a new method,” he said. “They say ‘Let’s strip them of their citizenship… Let them be tried where they are.’

“It is impossible for us to accept this view… We will send Daesh (ISIS) members to their countries whether they strip them of their citizenship or not.”

Turkey is backed by US President Donald Trump who said Europe is not doing enough to deal with its citizens that joined ISIS.

“They came from France, they came from Germany, they came from the UK. They came from a lot of countries,” Trump said in October. “And I actually said to them, if you don’t take them, I’m going to drop them right on your border and you can have fun capturing them again,” he added, in reference to the Europeans.

Anthony Dworkin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, argued that European countries should repatriate their citizens despite political and legal challenges. Foot-dragging could have unwanted consequences, Dworkin wrote in a commentary on the council’s web page.

“As negotiations between the Kurdish authorities and the Syrian government continue, Damascus could emerge as the arbiter of the detainees’ fate” in eastern Syria, Dworkin wrote. “A regime with a well-documented history of torturing and killing prisoners would have control of many hundreds of European citizens, including large numbers of children.”