The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are said to have captured and now hold well upwards of 1,000 ISIS fighters. Among the detained fighters are said to be 500 citizens of foreign countries. And this leaves the SDF to face the urgent question of what to do with them. Among those held are two members of the ISIS cell nicknamed the “Beatles” — the British nationals known for torturing and beheading their prisoners.
“Do I want them back in the United Kingdom?” the British defense secretary said of the fighters when discussing their return last month. “No, I don’t.”
“I do not believe that any terrorist, whether they come from this country or any other, should ever be allowed back into this country,” he continued.
And the story is much the same in France.
“They are fighters. They are French, but they are our enemies. The conclusion is that they will be judged by those whom they fought,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
How do we end the fight against ISIS?
Let’s start by having countries in Europe and elsewhere go after their citizens who joined the extremists.
Few countries have shown any interest in doing so. This apathy leaves the SDF to serve as the jailer, judge and jury of ISIS fighters it has captured. The ISIS fight has not yet ended, resources are at a minimum and the US-backed forces have received recognition from exactly no one.
Foreign nations may have shared the problem of fighting ISIS. But by washing its hands of the challenge of bringing their own ISIS fighters to justice, they are shredding what is left of their credibility. “Not in my backyard” seems to be the message, even if their backyard is exactly where these fighters were raised and come from.
This rejection of domestic trials comes even as the whole idea of an ”international community” faces pressure from a Syrian conflict grinding on and killing civilians, and an Assad regime willing to starve, besiege, bomb and deploy chemical weapons against its own people. Stepping away from responsibility has been a recurring theme of the war in Syria. But this time — when it comes to justice for foreign nationals and those they harmed, tortured and enslaved — should be different. And so far, it isn’t.
US officials have been clear and to the point on their view of what should happen to those fighters from outside Syria: bring them home.
“The most important thing is we figure out how we are going to deal with this, that we can deal with it, we don’t paralyze ourselves and just say there is nothing we can do. … That is the one thing I will say: Doing nothing is not an option,” said US Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Europe earlier this month. He had hoped to persuade US allies — including France and the UK — to take home and bring to justice their ISIS-supporting nationals. To no avail.
Mattis told reporters that “the important thing is that the countries of origin keep responsibility for them. How they carry out that responsibility, there’s a dozen diplomatic, legal or whatever ways.”
But right now the way that is happening is one that carries deep risk. To Syria, to the US and to a Europe that doesn’t want to bring its own home. As CNN’s Barbara Starr recently reported, “a small number of ISIS detainees have ‘recently’ escaped.”
That is, in part, because a force facing a continuing fight with ISIS and an offensive from Turkey with precious few international dollars backing it is being charged with hosting, protecting, detaining and trying these former ISIS fighters. In other words, doing a job that rich home nations don’t want to take on themselves.
Amid rubble, destruction and the challenge of pushing forward to reopen schools and resuscitate services in places once held by ISIS, the SDF is being given the added task—at great risk– of applying justice to foreign fighters.
“These aren’t necessarily the best detention facilities in the sense of they are being held in Syria and not in the most secure area. I think it would be better if we make sure they are prosecuted, if possible, in their countries of origin,” said Katie Wheelbarger, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, echoing Mattie. “I think it would be better if we make sure they are prosecuted if possible in their countries of origin.”
Right now those countries look to be in no hurry to pick up their ISIS fighters, let alone prosecute them.
“They have beheaded people, raped women and children and sold people. For me, it is paradoxical for those militants to now claim Western norms regarding protection of rights,” Danish Defense Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen said. “I think it’s pathetic for those people to ask to be given the safety in Western countries that they so despicably wanted to defeat.”
But it is not about their access to safety. Keeping them where they are threatens everyone’s safety. It is about justice — and embracing the reality that these fighters are not going away, nor are they the SDF’s problem. As Ed Husain wrote recently in the UK’s Sunday Telegraph, “British extremists who traveled to Iraq and Syria and pledged allegiance to ISIS should face charges of treason in Britain. They took up arms against their own armed forces, and killed and tortured British journalists.”
These men sought to grow a “caliphate” that raped, murdered, enslaved, oppressed and tortured. They aimed to attack their home nations and undermine the very values for which their countries stand. Abandoning them, rendering them invisible to justice doesn’t make them go away. Leaving them to the SDF may be the easier path, but it is not the wisest nor the safest one in the long term.