US President Donald Trump demanded that European countries take back their ISIS fighters that he says the US and its partners have captured in Syria. In two tweets on Saturday night Trump said that if the UK, France, Germany and others did not act, then the US might be forced to release the fighters.
"The US does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go. We do so much, and spend so much – time for others to step and do the job that they are capable of doing," he tweeted. Trump announced that the US was withdrawing from Syria on December 19 and reiterated his view that the US has defeated ISIS in Syria, noting that they are "pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory."
The battle against ISIS in Syria is nearing its end with US Vice-President Mike Pence, Senator Lindsey Graham and others asserting at the Munich Security Conference that ISIS was down to just a few hundred square meters of territory in Syria. The US-led coalition and its Syrian Democratic Forces partners have been hammering ISIS along the Euphrates river and isolating their last fighters in a place called Baghuz. In the past weeks, tens of thousands of civilians have fled, including many suspected ISIS members and families. European ISIS members say that ISIS told them they should try to escape and surrender while local ISIS fighters sought to melt into the civilian population. Some ISIS members have gone underground into tunnel systems along the Iraq-Syria border.
Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF press office, said Saturday that ISIS is holding civilians hostage. "The final operation [is] to be finished in coming days following the rescue of civilians."
Among the civilians who have fled are numerous Europeans, including one well known British teenager who joined ISIS in 2015 and now wants to come home. MI6 head Alex Younger warned in Munich that western jihadists might return to their home countries and could pose a threat. Security Minister Ben Wallace has said that UK citizens who joined ISIS have a right to return to the UK and would be prosecuted if they committed offenses. Yet the UK won't provide consular services to its citizens in eastern Syria and there is no way for them to get home. Some of the ISIS war criminals who are now held in eastern Syria are wanted in Iraq for genocide.
They are in a kind of legal limbo, since the SDF is not seen as a state by European countries, and human rights organizations oppose the SDF handing over the suspected criminals to Iraq. At the same time, it is unclear how else they would return to Europe.
An estimated 5,000 Europeans joined ISIS. According to a report at Radio Free Europe that includes 750 from the UK, 600 from Germany and 1,600 from France. The UK initially sought to strip some of its citizens of citizenship who joined ISIS. More than 100 UK citizens were stripped of citizenship in 2017, according to reports, before a court ended the practice. The SDF holds more than 3,200 suspected ISIS members and their families, including people from 41 countries and hundreds of men who are thought to be hardened fighters and war criminals. Some of them are accused of torture, beheadings, enslavement, trafficking, mass rape, genocide, murder, terrorism, and other crimes.
The US says that it wants European countries to increase their commitment to Syria. In Munich, America's top general went hat in hand to ask for more troops while the US seeks to draw down its 2,000 boots on the ground. Yet Trump's tweet suggesting that the US captured the ISIS fighters and that the US could release them is being met with criticism. The ISIS detainees are actually held by the SDF, who must decide what to do with them. The US and the 79-member coalition have generally excluded the SDF from meetings – such as the recent one in Washington on February 6. The SDF has not participated in Munich or in other important conferences.
Furthermore, the SDF sent a delegation to Washington in late July to lobby the US to remain in Syria. The SDF has asked for more support to help hold the detainees. The suggestion that they might be released by Trump does not appear to have been coordinated with the SDF but illustrates US concerns and desires to pressure Europe to do more.
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.