In the last weeks of fighting in eastern Syria thousands of ISIS members and their families have fled what remains of their "caliphate."
Many of the people fleeing claim that they were cooks or tea salesmen under ISIS, not fighters or religious extremist supporters. But some of them have spoken openly with journalists, admitting part of their role and demanding their right of return to their home countries in the West.
One woman told a reporter from The Times of London that she was nine months pregnant and desperately wanted to return home. She had left the UK in February 2015 with several friends to join ISIS. This was six months after ISIS had committed genocide against Yazidis in Iraq and sold more than 6,000 women and children into slavery.
For the volunteers from the UK and other western countries, joining ISIS gave them the chance to be the elite in the Syrian "caliphate" ISIS was building. On arrival in Raqqa, according to the report, the UK volunteers applied to marry other English speaking ISIS members. She ended up with a white Dutch convert, while another UK citizen married an American and a third married an Australian. It appears ISIS had a kind of segregated system, trying to keep European members apart from locals, who were viewed as inferior.
Some of the foreigners don't seem to have learned much Arabic, despite being in Syria for years.
While an estimated 50,000 ISIS fighters fought and died, these Westerners enjoyed a good life in Raqqa. They also had no qualms with the systematic murder ISIS carried out. Beheadings didn't bother them. Despite having crossed illegally into Syria, they saw the victims of ISIS as being illegally in the country. From Raqqa, this particular woman traveled to Mayadin, Hajin, Susah and then Baghuz, as ISIS lost territory in 2018. Eventually she fled to a refugee camp at Al-Hawl (Hol) where some 39,000 people are located. Some of them are ISIS families.
Up until December 2018, there were around 3,200 ISIS members and families being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main partners of the anti-ISIS coalition. Many of these are foreign fighters and families who came to Syria in 2014 and 2015, carried out atrocities and now want to return home.
In the battles around Hajin and Baghuz over the last month, thousands more ISIS families, members and some civilians have fled. Some have been fingerprinted and detained as likely ISIS members, others have gone on to IDP camps. Many of the suspected families have also gone to the camps because the SDF doesn't have the resources to deal with them or document their potential crimes during the ISIS occupation.
The SDF said on Wednesday that there are still 3,000 civilians, including ISIS families, in Baghuz.
UK STATE of Security Minister Ben Wallace said that British citizens in Syria have a right to return, but that the UK would not put officials at risk to bring the Britons home. At least 56 women went to join ISIS from the UK in 2015, according to estimates. The UK stripped 104 people of British citizenship in 2017, many of them ISIS members. There are no UK consular services in eastern Syria, with which to serve the women who joined ISIS.
Canada also finds itself in a bind. While Canada's Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan has said the root causes of ISIS must be addressed, one Canadian ISIS member told reporters in Hasakah, in Syria, that he felt abandoned.
Referred to as Mohammad Ali, he went to join ISIS with his wife. "Every time I get taken for an interrogation or an interview I'm hoping it's with someone from the Canadian government, someone that can clarify my situation and give me a bit of hope."
ISIS denied hope to the 10,000 Yazidis it systematically murdered and sold into slavery, but ISIS members feel it is unfair that western countries won't take them back. Ali says he never shot civilians and he has nowhere to go now. "How can they leave me sitting here like this in limbo," the Kurdish website Rudaw reported him saying.
According to Canada there are at least 25 other Canadians in eastern Syria held by the SDF. The Canadian says he was disillusioned when ISIS executed a Dutch friend of his. "The foreigners feel they were left out, hung out to dry." The foreigners want to go home, while locals are "melting back into the population" and waiting for an ISIS resurgence, he said.
The account in The Times also indicates that foreign fighter families were given special instructions that they could flee if they wanted, while the local fighters would stay or melt into the population.
There are also hundreds of other foreigners being held in Syria. More than 400 Belgians went to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and kill local people. Some of them survived, but Belgium's Foreign Affairs and Defense Minister Didier Reynders said his government had received no request to repatriate them, according to a report on Kurdistan 24.
The Belgians and others are in somewhat of a legal limbo because the SDF is not a state, and it can't request wealthier European countries to take back their citizens. At the same time, human rights organizations have said the SDF should not turn over the ISIS members to Iraq or the Syrian government, leaving them in legal limbo for now.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Iraq, the country is seeking to repatriate up to 20,000 of its citizens, the Associated Press reported. Iraq has been successful in getting Russia and Tajikistan to take in 27 citizens and 75 children born to those citizens. These children of ISIS are innocent of their parents crimes.
Iraq has sentenced some of the parents to death and others to long prison terms, handing down sentences to the Western volunteers and Iraqis who committed ISIS crimes.
Western European countries have shown almost no interest in taking back even the children who are stuck in camps like Hawl, in Syria. Trinidad has done more, helping to bring back two boys abducted in 2014 and taken to Syria by their ISIS-volunteer father. In early January, the mother was flown to Syria and reunited with her children, illustrating that it is possible for foreign governments to bring back the children.
The SDF has asked many of these governments to do more. They say citizens from 41 countries have been detained.
European countries have expressed concern that the SDF might release them as the US withdraws from Syria and the SDF administration faces budgetary shortfalls and a crisis. But the same countries have refused to pay for the detainees to be housed.
Concerned that some might get free, France and the US have vowed to prosecute some ISIS members. The US indicates it may prosecute members of the 'Beatles', the ISIS group that tortured and murdered foreign journalists. Locals say the FBI is present in eastern Syria, but results of investigations have so far born no fruit and the ISIS detainees are still waiting.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.