Europe Stands Up to Trump Threats Over ISIS Prisoners in Syria

(Bloomberg) -- European Union countries said they won’t be steamrollered into taking back citizens caught fighting for Islamic State in Syria just because U.S. President Donald Trump tells them to.

France said it’ll assess each case on its merits, Britain threatened to stop ISIS veterans returning home and Germany said it won’t accept them without guarantees they can be taken into custody straight away.

France “won’t respond to injunctions,” Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said Monday on France2 television. “We are ready in case anything changes, but at this stage we are keeping the case-by-case policy we have always had.”

Trump on Saturday threatened to release EU nationals captured during U.S. military operations against ISIS unless European governments take responsibility for them.

The prisoners were actually taken by Kurdish militias, backed by U.S. and other coalition forces including France and Britain. The Kurds have warned they can no longer hold them because of Trump’s plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said at a meeting of his counterparts in Brussels that his country has had few opportunities to check on Germans held in Syria.

“They could come to Germany only after ensuring that they could immediately be taken into custody," he told reporters Monday. "At the moment it’s not evident how all this could be guaranteed.”

British Home Secretary Sajid Javid wrote in the Sunday Times that: “My message is clear: if you have supported terrorist organisations abroad I will not hesitate to prevent your return. If you do manage to return you should be ready to be questioned, investigated and potentially prosecuted.”

Islamists in Jail

Soufran Group, a risk advisory company, estimated in late 2017 that about 1,900 people from France, 915 from Germany, 850 from Britain, 530 from Belgium, 280 from the Netherlands joined Islamic State before and after its 2014 declaration of the Caliphate. Larger numbers joined from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, and Tunisia.

Many have died in years of fighting and some have returned home. Flows to and from the group dropped off sharply in 2018 as Kurdish forces surrounded the Caliphate’s capital of Raqqa and Turkish troops crossed the border into Syria, cutting off arrival routes.

U.S. officials have estimated there are about 800 people from four dozen countries at a series of Kurdish-run prisons and holding facilities across northern Syria. Kurdish officials have estimated that with family members the number of prisoners may top 4,000.

Germany estimates fewer than 100 of its nationals are being held by the Kurds, including women and children, while French officials say about 60 French adults and 90 children are involved.

“They are French but they fight France so they are our enemies,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in parliament Jan. 30. “But dispersion would be worse, so we have to be prepared for all eventualities, and that includes repatriation.”

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