Returning Foreign Fighters and Their Families Takes on New Urgency After Trump’s Syria Decision

The announcement by the White House on Sunday that U.S. forces are withdrawing from the Syrian/Turkish border to clear the way for Turkey to launch a military operation created immediate confusion, indignation and panic from U.S. allies, international security organizations and human rights observers. Conflicting signals from the Pentagon on Monday did little to clarify U.S. intentions.

One of the most concerning lines in the White House’s original statement was that “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area,” raising the question: What will be the fate of foreign fighters and their families who are being detained in inhumane conditions in overcrowded camps and prisons in northern Syria and Iraq?

The detention of these foreign fighters has been a pressing security challenge for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group formed in 2015 and led by Kurdish fighters. Since the fall of the ISIS Caliphate, the SDF have been the de facto authorities responsible for the detention, oversight and security of these individuals. Despite growing international calls to address the problem, Western countries have done little to address it. Now, it appears the prospect of the SDF releasing the prisoners and/or being unable to secure this detained population will finally force this pressing issue into public consciousness in the United States and Europe.

A handful of countries have already actively and proactively (some with U.S. assistance) worked to return their nationals home including Kosovo, Kazakhstan, Russia, Bosnia, Tunisia and Macedonia. However, the most noticeable deficit has been with European countries who have consistently refused to countenance the return of any fighters, women or children to their countries of nationality and citizenship.

There are multiple reasons to bring home the individuals being held by SDF forces. They include the inhumane, degrading and increasingly dangerous conditions that women and children are experiencing in detention, where there are trapped in a situation, which, for many, is not of their own making. It seems obvious to note that countries have a positive obligation to take necessary and reasonable steps to intervene in favor of their nationals abroad, when there are reasonable grounds to believe that they face treatment in flagrant violation of international human rights law. This includes denial of justice; the imposition of the death penalty; torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; sexual violence; or deprivation of liberty in grave violation of human rights standards, including arbitrary detention, incommunicado detention, and detention that fails to comply with the most basic standards of humanity.

In particular, returning children is a humanitarian and human rights imperative. The argument that children are not deserving of protection constitutes a moral failure by their home countries, particularly those who have ample resources. State and non-State actors, at all levels, should affirm and respect the fundamental vulnerability of children caught up in armed conflict through a range of circumstances, almost always not of their own making, recognizing that none of these children can leave the camps without support and acceptance from their countries of citizenship.

There is obvious double-speak going on when countries affirm the rights of children and yet fail to act when their most vulnerable children are at risk. It is also worth noting that many of the women who were associated with ISIS fighters were groomed for travel to Iraq and Syria when they were minors. Many were sexually initiated or sexually violated as children once in Iraq, and many gave birth as minors. In any other context, we would use terms like trafficking and sexual assault to describe the experience of these girls. In the context of foreign females associated with ISIS and other groups in Iraq and Syria, the countries from which they came conveniently avoid using these terms.

An effective return process is the only meaningful way we are likely to hold individuals accountable for the serious and systematic crimes committed in Syria and Iraq. It is, in fact, the only way to close the enormous impunity gap for which the inadequate and dysfunctional judicial systems in both Iraq and Syria are not an answer. There is an urgent need for justice for all of the victims who have suffered violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the region. Returning these individuals to the countries from which they have come will start to address this complete lack of justice that has festered in Iraq and Syria since the start of the conflict(s) in the region.

Finally, as the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the Turkish border illustrates, the national security of multiple countries is implicated in the detention and safety of this detained group. Ensuring the transfer and return of these individuals to countries that have the security, legal and social infrastructure to manage them is a security imperative. It also constitutes positive implementation Security Council resolutions 2178 (2014) and 2396 (2017) and advances the long-term security interests of multiple countries.

I have previously noted the logistical impediments to return have been overcome by multiple countries, and some with far fewer resources than certain European ones. I have seen first-hand that country-to-country partnerships can be optimized in tracing, identifying and delivering the practical elements to extract individuals from SDF territory and ensure their safe return to home countries. Some of this work has been already done by countries preparing for the return of women and children, including ascertaining nationality and identifying family members in home countries to work with upon return. Thus, there is an “Emperor’s New Clothes” quality to arguments about the practicalities of getting women and children home.

Given the evolving circumstances on the ground, time is now of the essence, and countries need to act quickly and decisively in the shadow of a military offensive and mixed messages from the United States. As countries contemplate what appears to be the potential for an abrupt and unruly dismantling of the SDF camps, and the likely security, ethical and moral dilemmas that will follow, an ordered and speedy return, grounded in advancing the rule of law, criminal accountability, and the rights of women and children under international law, might finally look like the best option to take.

Image: Sara al-Abdullah, a volunteer caring for 24 orphaned children reportedly linked with foreign fighters of the Islamic State (IS) group, carries one of them at a camp in the northern Syrian village of Ain Issa, on September 26, 2019. Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity. Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).