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Governments still refuse to take responsibility for deluded, violent people unleashed on Syria, Iraq

Feb 20,2019 - Last updated at Feb 20,2019

US President Donald Trump is right in insisting that Daesh fighters and families held by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces in north-eastern Syria should return to their home countries and face prosecution for their crimes committed while associated with the cult. He has, however, foolishly threatened to release them if they are not repatriated. He is not in charge of their fate — the Kurds are.

Having captured these potentially dangerous people, the Kurds have said they would not free them but have warned some could escape. Until thousands of civilians and scores of fighters escaped from the Syrian town of Baghouz, the last bastion of Daesh, the Kurds had been holding 1,100 fighters and 2,000 family members, including 800 Europeans, who are confined in prisons and camps where conditions are poor. The Kurds have said they do not have the means to put fighters on trial or hold them indefinitely. The withdrawal of the 2,200 US special forces personnel from northern Syria has focused minds on how to deal with the problem of Daesh captives.

So far, the US, Lebanon, Russia, Indonesia, Sudan and Iraq have agreed to repatriate their citizens. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has said his country will repatriate 20,000 Iraqi fighters, families and refugees by April and that tent camps will be prepared to shelter in western Anbar province. This is an onerous task for a country devastated by two US wars and the conflict ignited by Daesh. Baghdad has dealt harshly with fighters, including women, captured during offensives against Daesh during 2016-2017, hanging some and sentencing others to long terms of imprisonment.

Russia has gradually repatriated some fighters, women and children. The US has brought home at least seven of its 129 citizens. Western European governments have been reluctant to accept Daesh detainees. France, with 400 citizens in Kurdish custody, said it is prepared to repatriate fighters and families on a case-by-case basis but, according to Human Rights Watch, Paris has shifted its stance somewhat and is prepared to take 130 fighters. So far, an unknown number of fighters and 70 children have returned to France.

Britain argued captives must apply to a British consulate in Turkey to obtain permission to go home. Unless Britain dispatches buses to the Kurdish jails and camps holding Britons and takes them to a British consulate, this will not happen. Several high-profile British fighters have been stripped of UK citizenship. This has been possible in cases of dual nationals but would be illegal if they are rendered stateless.

Last December, a Belgian judge ruled a woman and her children must be repatriated, and imposed a fine for every day they have not been returned home by early this month. Belgium supplied the largest number of fighters per capita in Europe.

By contrast, Canada which has four fighters and seven women and children held by the Kurds, has refused to take them back, arguing that extracting them from Syria is too difficult.

In recent days, the plight of Daesh wives and widows has been dramatised by US citizen Hoda Muthana, 24, a widow who has an 18-month old son, and Briton Shamima Begum, 19, who has a newly born son. Her Dutch husband has survived but is being held separately. Begum was one of three British schoolgirls who went missing in 2014, turned up in Daesh-occupied Raqqa in Syria and were married off to foreign fighters. The Home Office seeks to deprive her of citizenship, claiming her parents are Bangladeshi.

Having unleashed deluded, violent people on Syria and Iraq, most governments still do not want to take responsibility for them. More than 42,000 people from 120 countries went to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 75 per cent were fighters, 13 per cent were women and 12 per cent children. So far, 7,366 have returned to their home countries, 5,930 fighters, 256 women and 1,180 children.

Among the 5,000—6,000 Europeans, most are from Belgium, France, Germany and Britain. As Daesh lost territory, one-third of this grouping have, reportedly, returned home. Although Daesh is about to lose its last pocket of territory in eastern Syria, the US military estimates 20,000-30,000 fugitive fighters remain in Syria and Iraq.

A report issued last March by the UN Security Council’s Counterterrorism Committee shows that “relatively few returning foreign terrorist fighters posed a direct threat”, although some did carry out lethal attacks. Some returnees have “played a critical role in creating and strengthening terrorist groups and radicalising the recruiting terrorist networks.”

Potential Daesh returnees are different from those from other conflicts and will provide fresh challenges to their home countries. Arab and European countries cannot plead innocence, as many have meddled in the conflict in Syria, while the US and its Western, Turkish and Arab allies provided fertile soil for Al Qaeda, the parent of Daesh and its equally dangerous twin Jabhat Al Nusra, to take root in Iraq after the 2003 US war and a decade later by deploying foreign fighters in Syria. These countries even encouraged Daesh and Nusra to join the battle in Syria, and have been determined to oust the Syrian government without caring about the costs of recruiting, training and arming fighters who had no loyalties and eventually wound up in Daesh and Nusra, the most disciplined and powerful factions involved in the war.

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