Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allied with the US-led International Coalition are now closing in on the last strongholds of Islamic State (IS) group fighters in Syria, and IS has said that a large number of its foreign fighters have surrendered and been taken to unknown locations.
There is also an ongoing debate about the readiness of European countries, where many of these fighters came from, to receive them. There have been discouraging views, including a suggestion not to prosecute these IS fighters for their actions since what they have done took place in Syria and not in their countries of origin.
US President Donald Trump told the EU it must take back 800 IS fighters captured in Syria by US-backed forces and put them on trial. “The US does not want to see IS fighters infiltrating Europe as their caliphate teeters on the brink,” Trump said. “The alternative is not good because we will be forced to release them.”
These statements imply that Trump wants to see the fighters behind bars or in the courts in European countries, since otherwise they could be released to wreak havoc across the globe. Trump’s call comes at a time when he is preparing to announce the demise of IS in northwest Syria, and the fall of the group’s last stronghold.
Some European countries, including France, have said they are prepared to take back former jihadists who fought in IS ranks in Syria, but the UK has been more reticent. London said that combatants under the control of Kurdish allies in northeast Syria could not return unless they contacted the British consulate in Turkey and requested to be returned.
The British government said it was facing a dilemma, especially regarding the wives and children of British fighters, since it would be an “immense challenge” to prosecute the fighters or prevent them from carrying out terrorist attacks back home.
The US does not want IS fighters infiltrating Europe, which is where they are expected to go, especially since the majority of them are nationals of these countries. It believes the time has come for others to “do the work that needs to be done” because it has announced it will withdraw from Syria after declaring victory over IS.
Diplomats meeting last week at the Munich Security Conference warned that taking control of territories under IS rule in Syria did not mean the end of the group’s ideological and terrorist threat. They added that the manner in which IS had closed ranks in Iraq, especially in Mosul, was a matter of concern.
From a security perspective, the fact that the US is saying it could release hundreds of IS fighters is concerning, since the group is categorised as a terrorist group around the world. It is also unsettling that the Kurds have transported hundreds of foreign fighters to undisclosed locations, without revealing their fate to the Syrians who were their victims.
It is disturbing that these fighters could vanish in areas supposedly under the full or partial control of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Iran.
It is morally dubious that the Europeans are so hesitant about deciding the fate of hundreds of IS fighters returning from Syria and Iraq without insisting on prosecuting them for the crimes they have committed in countries that have suffered tremendously from their mayhem.
Meanwhile, the SDF said it had surrounded remaining IS fighters in one neighbourhood of the town of Al-Baghur near the Syrian border with Iraq. Photographs of foreign fighters and their families fleeing the town that was once a gathering place for fighters who had fled other towns and villages from across Syria and Iraq have been shown, with Al-Baghur believed to be the last stronghold of extremist fighters in both countries.
Trump’s statements conceal a controversy in US inner circles about how to deal with his unilateral decision to withdraw 2,000 US troops from northwest Syria. The US military and many of the Arab countries want the Trump administration to delay the withdrawal so there is more time to reach an agreement about protecting the SDF troops, mostly Kurdish, from a possible Turkish invasion when the US leaves.
Turkey views the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPJ), key components of the SDF, as part of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) which is listed as a terrorist group by Ankara, especially as most of them are not Syrian Kurds.
Syrian television aired an address by Al-Assad on Sunday who said that his troops “will liberate every inch” of the country and warned the Kurdish troops not to rely on US protection. “We want to tell the groups that are counting on the Americans that the Americans are not protecting you. They will simply use you as bargaining chips,” Al-Assad said.
UK journalist Patrick Wintour wrote in the London Guardian newspaper that prominent Republican Party members of the US Senate such as Lindsay Graham had said that SDF forces had borne the brunt of fighting IS and that there would be long-term repercussions for the US’s reputation in the Middle East if it abandoned its allies at this point.
He said Trump was putting pressure on the Europeans to form an international force to protect the Kurds, including some foreign fighters captured by the Kurds and now in prison or refugee camps.
France has 400 soldiers in Syria, but British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in an interview in the Arab press that the UK was not planning on sending more troops to the region.
The Kurds are calling for some foreign fighters forced to fight with IS against the SDF to be used to replenish the number of combatants available to fight off any possible attack by Turkey or Syrian opposition groups backed by Ankara.
This proposition is disconcerting, since these fighters once fought with IS and participated in violence and terrorism, giving the International Coalition, Iran and Russia the pretext to use heavy weapons and air strikes against Syrian towns and villages that had embraced the revolution.
The present debate on the fate of the IS fighters in Syria has led many to claim that IS has benefitted from the support of the Syrian regime, Russia, the US, Iran and perhaps others. As the terrorist group approaches its demise, it is still unclear what this group is, how it began, how it is structured, who supports it, the source of its funding and arms, or its goals.
Analysts differ between those who assert IS’s origins in Al-Qaeda and trans-border radical groups, and others who believe it is linked to Iraq’s former ruling Baath Party. Another camp believes IS is linked to Syrian and Iranian intelligence agencies.
Many countries have benefitted from this group’s strategy and supported it in one way or another to achieve their goals. The group did not carry out any attacks against the Syrian regime, but it fought the opposition viciously. It was a key factor in distracting the world from the Syrian Revolution, an excuse to justify the mistakes of the regime, and a pretext for intervention by Iran, Russia, the US and Europe in the region.
It has served as a way of obliterating the crimes of the Syrian regime and as an excuse for sectarian militias to pour into Syria to fight it.
IS is all but annihilated, at least for now, but its fighters could still return to their old ways. Prosecution is the only way to exonerate the US and Europe from being shareholders in this joint-stock company which has, along with others, destroyed Syria.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Unknown fate of IS fighters