By International Crisis Group
What’s new? Alongside the thousands of foreign fighters detained in north east Syria are thousands of non-Syrian children and women. Western governments have for months publicly wrestled with political and policy qualms about repatriating their nationals. Turkey’s incursion into Syria highlights that the window for repatriation or transfer could close suddenly.
Why does it matter? The long-term detention of these men, women and children in north east Syria has always been deeply problematic for security and humanitarian reasons. The Turkish incursion and shifting balance of power in the region makes the security of the camps where they are held more precarious.
What should be done? As a first step toward addressing this challenge, Western governments should accelerate repatriation of their national children and women. They should recognise the diversity of women’s backgrounds and repatriate those who are unthreatening. They should also pour substantial diplomatic and financial resources into developing responsible options for the remaining population.
Tens of thousands of detained foreign men, women and children associated with ISIS in Syria’s north east pose a formidable challenge for both their governments of origin and the region in which they are housed. Paralysed by domestic politics and insecure about their capacity to prosecute and police returnees, Western governments have failed to repatriate roughly 1,450 individuals within this population who are their nationals, while the humanitarian and security situation in the camps where women and children are held has gone from bad to worse. Now, Turkey’s incursion into Syria underscores that Western governments could lose the opportunity to repatriate their citizens at will, but they still have a window to remove many of their nationals. Detaining and repatriating Westerners associated with ISIS carries risks and challenges that vary for men and women, but the ongoing and unresolved presence of both in the region is a stark problem, and the unattended fate of their children an egregious humanitarian oversight. States should move out all of their nationals, starting with women and children.
For nearly a year, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – an umbrella force including Kurds and Arabs, led by the Kurdish People’s Protections Units (YPG) – have guarded roughly 13,500 detained foreign women and children in three makeshift camps in Syria’s north east. A smaller number of male foreign fighters – perhaps 2,000 – are held in a separate prison network. Field research focusing on the largest of the camps for foreign women and children, al-Hol, reveals a picture of squalor, sexual abuse and endemic violence.
Governments outside the region have approached their nationals’ repatriation in very different ways. Russia, Malaysia, Uzbekistan and Kosovo have made concerted efforts to begin repatriations, although hundreds of their nationals remain. North African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia have done little. Also lagging are Western governments – particularly EU member states, Canada and Australia – which as of October 2019 had brought home only roughly 180 (110 of these by Kosovo). Torn by internal debates and divisions, they have neither taken effective measures to alleviate suffering in the camps in the short term, nor steps that would enable them to repatriate and, where appropriate, prosecute their nationals in the longer term.
Meanwhile, the rapidly unfolding events of October 2019 have demonstrated just how precarious security is in the region where the detainees are housed. Although the SDF has retained control over the camps and prisons (chiefly by deploying YPG fighters) and the U.S. – after first announcing its withdrawal – has chosen to keep nearly 1,000 troops deployed near eastern Syria’s oil fields, the balance of power has shifted. In the face of the announced U.S. withdrawal and Turkish incursion, the SDF has reached a military agreement of sorts with Damascus, raising concerns that the Syrian regime – which is widely and credibly alleged to have committed atrocities against prisoners in its custody – might assert authority over the camps.
So what to do? Ideally, all non-Syrian governments that have nationals in detention in Syria would repatriate them, relieving this war-scarred region of a burden it is ill-equipped to handle, ending a humanitarian crisis that taints all associated with it, and mitigating a range of security risks from adults escaping to children radicalising amid the hopelessness of the camps. But within this group some governments are better equipped than others to take the lead. Western governments – with their greater resources and fewer numbers of detainees – are arguably chief among them. Less apparent is what might make these governments revise the cold calculations by which they have already stranded hundreds of their nationals in Syria’s north east.
The most viable approach may be to divide the population, and put women and children at the front of the repatriation queue. While officials may feel there is no politically palatable way to bring home men – most of whom were fighters, and some of whom will be difficult to imprison because of prosecutorial and evidentiary challenges – children appropriately benefit from a presumption of innocence, and women are a diverse group. Their roles varied, with a significant number uninvolved operationally. Although there may be some militant and operationally experienced women whom Western governments decide they will not take, the goal should be to keep that number to an absolute minimum. Up to this point, most Western governments have done the very least they could get away with in terms of repatriations; they should instead be stretching to do the most.
As for those who cannot be brought home, the situation in Syria remains too dynamic, and other possible dispositions in the region (including in Iraq) too fraught from both a security and a human rights perspective to make a definitive recommendation. Western governments will need to work with all interested parties to explore the possibility of developing legitimate justice mechanisms, obtain credible treatment assurances and build facilities where detainees can be securely and humanely held. If not, repatriation may be the only option. Regardless of the obstacles they face, the countries whose nationals came to fight for ISIS cannot responsibly wash their hands of them. Nor can they meet the challenges that they pose by continuing to look away.
Republished, with permission, from the International Crisis Group, where the full report can be found.