Trump’s Syria Gambit Risks Freeing ISIS Fighters Nobody Wants

(Bloomberg) -- A month after President Donald Trump said he’d pull U.S. forces from Syria, a critical global security question is unanswered: the fate of hundreds of Islamic State fighters and their families -- including Europeans and Americans –- held by Kurdish forces in makeshift prisons.

U.S. officials estimate there are 800 prisoners who need to be dealt with at a series of Kurdish-run prisons and holding facilities across northern Syria. Ilham Ahmed, a senior official with a Kurdish group that fought Islamic State alongside the U.S., says the number of family members of captured fighters may top 4,000.

One thing is clear, Ahmed says: “No one wants to take them.”

As Trump tries to meet a campaign pledge by getting America out of intractable Mideast wars, the prisoners have become a stumbling block -- one reason the administration has been walking back the president’s December promise of a quick withdrawal.

There was concern that the Kurds, facing the bigger threat of a Turkish attack after their erstwhile U.S. allies leave, may be unable or unwilling to hold the prisoners. That risked allowing hardened ISIS fighters to return to their home countries, or resume the fight in Syria, where the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate has been reduced to a couple of villages.

“This is a serious issue that’s got to be addressed quickly,” said Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, when asked about the ISIS prisoners.

‘Political Tool’

There’s debate over whether the Kurds would really let prisoners go, or are using them as leverage. Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at Eurasia Group, said the threat to free them is likely “just a political tool.”

America’s key local allies in the ISIS fight, the Kurds, were shocked and dismayed by Trump’s pullout plan -- and even more so when he invited their enemy Turkey to send troops into Syria to fill the gap. The perceived betrayal has spurred Kurdish leaders to start talks on reunifying their territories under the Damascus government of President Bashar al-Assad. So one potential fate for the jihadi captives is that they end up in Assad’s jails.

There are other possibilities. The U.S. preference would be for the countries that the ISIS fighters originally came from to take responsibility for them, said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But most foreign governments are reluctant to do so. Some fear the returning jihadis could radicalize their cellmates. Housing them separately could strain resources and legal systems. And there’s the question of what to do with their wives and children.

France’s BFM TV reported Wednesday that 130 French citizens could be returned from Syria. French officials have repeatedly said any returnees would be jailed and judged.

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


Among the hundreds of imprisoned ISIS fighters in Kurdish custody, Ahmed said there are 10 U.S. citizens, and that the U.S. isn’t asking for any of them back. The White House declined to provide an update on U.S. plans when asked by Bloomberg News.

Russia in December resumed a suspended program to repatriate children of ISIS fighters whose mothers are in prison and reunite them with other family members. A Belgian court also ruled in favor of repatriation, though the government may appeal.

Most of the captives and relatives are in limbo. Nawaf Khalil, a former Kurdish official in Syria and now head of the Center for Kurdish Studies in Germany, estimates that there are 950 ISIS prisoners of four dozen nationalities. He says Kurdish authorities have brought up this issues with the captives’ governments, “but frankly, they don’t want to deal with this headache.”

Western officials are floating a range of options for the prisoners. They could stay where they are, with some additional aid for their Kurdish captors; or get sent to their home countries, or to third-parties willing to jail them. The U.S. is considering the transfer of some of the most hardened fighters to the American military camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the alleged perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks are still held.

Wish It Away

The situation is more clear-cut in Iraq, says Nadim Houry, Paris-based head of the counter-terrorism program at Human Rights Watch, who’s been to three camps in northern Syria where foreign women and children are held. He wasn’t allowed to visit the men.

There are concerns about human rights or fair trials when Iraqi authorities prosecute jihadis, but “no question they have jurisdiction,’’ Houry says. Syria is a different story, “a legal vacuum that’s not sustainable,” and one to which European officials don’t have clear answers. “They just wish the problem would go away.”

One alternative is to establish an international court that would put ISIS fighters on trial before returning them to their home countries. The court could help determine which prisoners are the highest risk, and who could be let go.

Elena Suponina, a Middle East expert in Moscow, says that may ultimately be necessary, because Islamic State is trans-national and the prisoners hail from many countries. But it’s difficult to implement now because “Syria has not stabilized yet,” she says. Among the actors who’d have to cooperate in such a plan, “the disagreements are still too great.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.