US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces recently announced the final push to take Baghouz in Syria’s northeast from Islamic State fighters. This move comes months after a concerted effort by anti-ISIS coalition forces to take the neighbouring city of Hajin. As the ISIS self-professed caliphate collapses, more fighters and their families continue to be captured, and increasingly consist of foreign volunteers from northern countries such as France and the United Kingdom. The question now is whether these countries will repatriate their citizens, or leave them to face retribution from local authorities, such as in Iraq.
Forty thousand volunteers from over a hundred countries flocked to join ISIS during its rise. Crossing the border from places such as Turkey into Iraq and Syria, these foreign fighters fortified the organisation and aided in its expansion. Notorious individuals such as British foreign volunteer Mohammed Emwazi – aka Jihadi John, conducted beheadings to spread the network’s terrorism. Other volunteers such as British medical student Mohammed Fakhri Al-Khabass assisted with the recruitment of volunteers and used their skills to abet the organisation, highlighting a vast network utilised by ISIS to solidify control in Syria and Iraq.
Women flocked from across the world – voluntarily – to join the self-declared caliphate, marrying local fighters and raising children to further the ISIS ideology. These female volunteers indoctrinated the youth in Salafi-jihadist ideology, normalising violence against victims of the caliphate and preparing those youth to one day join and fight for the organisation. The result of this indoctrination is evident in the propaganda videos produced by ISIS from places like Deir ez-Zor, where prisoners were executed by young children. Given the totalitarian nature of ISIS ideology, all individuals under the proto-state’s control are used to further the expanse of the organisation.
Fighters of the caliphate were not the only ones that engaged in violence towards local indigenous populations. Wives of fighters participated in sexual, physical and emotional abuse of enslaved individuals, such as the Yazidis. Lebanese journalist, Jenan Moussa of Al Ann TV conducted an interview with an ISIS female volunteer and wife in 2017, where Jenan noted the lack of remorse for victims by the interviewed volunteer. In the interview, the woman explains in detail the process of selling and acquiring slaves – showing a lack of empathy, understanding and moral conscious for why such things are wrong.
Another interview conducted by the French journalist James Andre for France 24, highlighted a group of captured female volunteers living in a refugee camp in Syria’s northeast after being freed from places like Hajin and Baghouz. They were segregated from the rest of civilians freed from the organization’s control. In that interview, volunteers from France, Canada, Brazil and elsewhere express regret for joining the organization, emphasizing the horrible nature and alleged deceit that coerced them into joining. However, whether these ‘confessions’ are genuine is another question, as radicals amongst these volunteers still cling to ISIS ideology and harm individuals that speak out against it.
The response to the capture of foreign volunteers by the international community has been mixed. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a multiethnic coalition of militias leading the fight against the Islamic State – currently hold thousands of foreign ISIS volunteers and fighters in captivity. Coalition countries who are involved in supporting the SDF are reluctant to take back their citizens that joined ISIS. Fearing the risk these individuals pose at home, these nations – except for the United States and France – are slow to repatriate their renegade citizens and prefer that justice be delivered by the local authorities, regardless of the problems that arise from this policy.
The problems that occur from refusing to repatriate ISIS volunteers are two-fold. The first is the lack of international judicial oversight in trials in local countries such as Iraq. Islamic State volunteers who were handed over to Baghdad receive short trials that result in life sentences or death. This is despite the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) launching an investigation into ISIS’s crimes under resolution 2379 in 2017. There is a lack of proper legal course in trials that are governed by retribution rather than law. At first glance, this may not prove a problem to those who wish to see ISIS volunteers ‘get what they deserve’, but does it not serve to undermine justice for victims of the organisation’s brutality?
When the Bosnian war waged across former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the UNSC passed resolution 780. This resolution created the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The ICTY was tasked with the prosecution of perpetrators of human rights and international law violations. Under the ICTY, dozens were prosecuted for crimes against humanity, genocide and various other war crimes. Not only did it set a legal precedent in international law, but also verified the gravity of the crimes perpetrated by those convicted, leading to the classification of the massacre in Srebrenica – for example – as a genocide. The same process should be adopted for the prosecution of ISIS volunteers.
There is not just a legal precedent to be set, but a moral one too. Unless international support and oversight is provided to local authorities, then the system of justice that is delivered will not suffice to solidify in the public consciousness what happened to the many victims of ISIS. Ensuring an effective legal prosecution that highlights the extent of the group’s barbarism, as well as giving gravitas to the stories of victims will aim to preserve international law and human rights both in the present and the future. In turn, this will set a legal precedent and a standard from which to judge future atrocities by.
The second issue that arises from a refusal to repatriate ISIS volunteers is the security threat that these individuals pose to the longevity of the organization. There are thousands of fighters held in captivity in Syria by the SDF. Without continued support and military oversight, the maintenance of prisons which contain fighters will be challenged. With the withdrawal of the US from the region, concerns are rising over what will happen to these volunteers. These concerns are also exacerbated by the prospect of increased instability from threats of a military incursion into the area by Turkey, which is could result in a resurgence of ISIS.
As this phase of the war against the Islamic State ends, the question arises as to whether countries should repatriate their ISIS citizens or leave them to the fate of local justice. The poor quality of justice offered in those countries which currently holds ISIS volunteers, increase doubts over the effectiveness of local authorities to impartially prosecute these members. Waning military support coupled with weak infrastructure in Syria do not create confidence in the long-term security concerns of nations or for stability in the region. These concerns place the burden of responsibility on the international community in order to deal with the aftermath of ISIS. Western nations must take back that responsibility.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson (20/02/2019)
Original version available at Jerusalem Post:
The United States is in a precarious position. Its NATO ally Turkey for the last couple of weeks has been pressuring Washington into a tough decision: ‘People’s protection Units’ (YPG) or ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) (1). Ankara has placed enormous pressure on Washington to reconsider its support for ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) leading the Raqqa offensive, as it consists of fighting forces of the YPG, which Turkey considers an extension of a domestic “terrorist” organisation—‘The Kurdish Workers Party’ (PKK). Instead favouring FSA and ‘Turkish Armed Forces‘ (TSK) to take over the offensive, Ankara wants to push the Kurdish militia group fully out of Coalition’s efforts against ISIS (2).
Territory divide in Northern Syria. Red for SAA, Blue for FSA, Yellow for YPG, Black for ISIS.
Launching operation ‘Euphrates Shield’ in August of 2016, under the pretext of fighting ISIS in Northern Syria, TSK and FSA began a campaign to dislodge YPG from the region. Pushing first to Jarabulus and then onwards to al-Bab, TSK and FSA forces took land from ISIS—engaging in clashes with YPG as they went (3). During this time, SDF forces launched its own offensive in November—operation ‘Wrath of Euphrates’. Aiming to force ISIS from its second stronghold in Ar Raqqa, SDF strategically moved southwards and liberated large areas of land from ISIS militants(4).
Turkish Tanks heading towards FSA controlled areas in Operation Euphrates Shield.
YPJ and SDF fighters at announcement of Operation Wrath of Euphrates in November.
Plans for Raqqa froze in February, however, when Trump asked military officials to reassess—over a thirty-day period—the offensive(5). Ankara’s eyes set on Raqqa, negotiations between Washington and Ankara for FSA involvement became stagnant, as Turkey’s arrogance and stubbornness to deny compromise left its proposals for involvement dead in the water. Becoming more evident, that Ankara’s desire to extend its anti-PKK domestic policy into the realm of its foreign policy was not working in its favour(6).
Additionally, President Erdogan’s call for FSA to move onto Manbij after the capture of al-Bab, an area controlled by US-backed SDF and ‘Manbij Military Council‘ (MMC), increasingly greased Ankara’s grip of Washington(7). Leading military officials to push Turkey out of considerations for Raqqa, Ankara vows now to do what it can to take Manbij and move onto Raqqa—regardless of Washington(8). This increase in tensions in the region between Coalition forces is weighing heavy on US’ mind, as considerations over future of Raqqa’s post-ISIS state hang in the balance.
President Erdogan (Center) with AKP administration.
US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis.
Storming Western Manbij with TSK armour and troops, FSA engaged with YPG in a series of clashes south of Al Arimah region in the nearby villages of Tall Turin and Qahar(9). Well clashes on the field escalated, MMC took this time to default to Russia and negotiate a trade: In exchange for SAA governance of territory near Arimah region, MMC would have a buffer zone created between it and FSA(10, 11). During the announcement of this trade by MMC, US ‘Special Operation Forces‘ (SOF) moved into Manbij and Coalition officials quickly confirmed their commitment to SDF, as well as MMC(12).
Armoured vehicles of SOF enter Manbij.
Now that Ankara has its eyes wide shut on the Raqqa offensive, as it continues to deny negotiating with YPG and continues to believe that its FSA should lead, SDF continues its operation against ISIS. Advancing eastwards and cutting off road between Dier-ez Zor and Raqqa cities, SDF look to encircle the capital(13). Restricting blood flow to the serpent, SDF continue to wrap a noose around Raqqa and force ISIS into an ever-increasing stranglehold. By way of Pentagon providing oversight with airstrikes and armour, as well as with Washington fending off Ankara’s political bombardment, the road to Raqqa is clear(14).
SDF vehicles in eastern Raqqa.
Situation map of Raqqa offensive. Link: http://syria.liveuamap.com/en/2017/6-march-sdf-have-cut-the-road-between-raqqa–deirezzor-cities
However, how long this road will be clear for in this hostile political environment is uncertain. Ankara’s determination to undermine offensive seems unwavering, as TSK and FSA continue to do battle with YPG near Manbij. In this contentious atmosphere, Washington has to ask itself an important question: How far will it go to keep its alliance with Ankara? I think the answer to this question will only become known in a post-ISIS Syria, which most likely will be in the next two years. Moreover, with Turkey increasingly becoming an Islamist dictatorship, US willingness to stop “radical Islamic terrorism” will be put to the test(15). I hope for the best, but am prepared for the worst, as the US should be.
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives iin Washington, U.S., February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool
For the last nine months, Erdogan has increased crackdowns on journalists and political dissidents, especially Kurdish ones. In November alone, Erdogan arrested dozens of Kurdish MP’s and ‘Peoples’ Democratic Party’ members in Southern Turkish districts, which are predominantly Kurdish(16). This hunger for power that Erdogan displays and the evident desire to target any organisation that is remotely Kurdish or connected to PKK is frightening. Demonstrating a napoleon complex with censoring of media, Erdogan and Turkey demonstrate to the International Community exactly why no self-proclaimed free person should view it favourably.
Moreover, Erdogan’s domestic policy against fighting PKK ‘terrorists’ has extended over two nations external of Turkey and has shaped Turkey’s foreign policy. In Iraq, Ankara’s oversight extends to the ‘Kurdish Democratic Party’ (KDP) in Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) who is headed by President Barzani(17,18). Barzani and Prime Minister Yıldırım of Turkey have increased Turkish forces to KRG, training ‘Rojava-Peshmerga’ (Roj-pesh) and sending units to Sinjar in response to PKK. Occupied by a large Yazidi population, Roj-pesh units pushed recently into the area in an attempt to scare PKK out(19).
President Barzani (left) and President Erdogan (right) in Istanbul, in late February.
Denying this imposition from Turkish forces, ‘Sinjar Resistance Units’ (YBS) and locals armed themselves in response(20). A force created in conjunction with the PKK, the YBS was Yazidis response to ISIS’ massacre of its population in Sinjar in 2014. Now threatened by a new authoritarian force, Yazidis find themselves in the middle of a tough situation. This has not been easy, given that Roj-pesh fired upon YBS and civilians now flee a new battle area(21). One only hopes the Yazidis will find a place for their own, as it seems KDP deny them that now. (Kurdish Unity is something that I wish could be, as was in the days of fighting Saddam Hussein. However, tribalism runs deep.)
A family of Yazidis leave the Sinjar area. Displaced from Clashes between Roj-Pesh and YBS.
It is important to remember principles when analysing conflict, as it can become very easy to be a megaphone for a party. One principle that has guided me through is that of taking the side of the oppressed against tyranny and injustice. ‘Take the side of the victim; aid them in their struggle’. Those seeking to do justice and protect those facing tyranny should be supported. And those who depart from this are generally not to be trusted. However, even keeping to this principle is not always easy. But you have to try.
The Battle lines are drawn.
Current Situation map of Syrian conflict, March 6th.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson