Canada and other Western countries that have failed to repatriate citizens who fought for the Islamic State and now are detained in northern Syria, may soon face an even deeper conundrum about what to do about them, experts warned Monday.
The Trump administration has signalled it is prepared to stand aside in the event of a Turkish invasion of the region, which would be aimed at dislodging the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a U.S. ally in the war against ISIS.
Stark criticism from Republicans in Congress forced U.S. President Donald Trump to temper earlier tweets by saying he would stop Turkey from going too far with an incursion, but the gyrations have created turmoil among policymakers and allies.
Since the fall of ISIS, the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the YPG, have been holding approximately 11,000 ISIS detainees, including 2,000 foreign fighters, in more than two dozen camps.
There are as many as 32 Canadians (six men, nine women and 17 children) in two camps in northeastern Syria, according to research by Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University’s school of religion, which was published in Policy Options magazine last summer.
In the face of a Turkish military offensive, they could soon be free.
Was bound to happen
“Something like this was bound to happen,” said Michael Nesbitt, a senior fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “There was always a risk something like this would happen and if we didn’t take action [to repatriate them] national security could be put at risk…I’d be worried about the Canadians, where they end up.”
Over the weekend, the Kurds indicated they will pull military forces away from detention facilities and refugee camps in order to fight Turkish forces, said John Dunford, a Syrian expert at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
Over the last year, there have been four documented cases of detained ISIS fighters organizing riots or small-scale escape attempts at camps in Syria and northern Iraq.
Dunford said these incidents were not co-ordinated or sophisticated, but that may be about to change, because ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has ordered his followers to step up efforts to free those who’ve been captured.
“There is concern given the vulnerability of some of these facilities,” Dunford said. “Some of them are literally schoolhouses that have been converted. Even just the threat of a Turkish offensive into northern Syria, we could see an abandonment of those facilities.”
Prisoners could walk away
The consensus among defence and security experts is that the Kurds would let the prisoners go, leaving detainees and their families free to either return home, or rejoin the insurgency.
Dunford said, in his estimation, getting back into the fight is the most likely scenario for prisoners who could be released.
Some former Canadian ISIS fighters and their families have indicated they want to return home, but the Liberal government has said it’s too difficult and northern Syria is too dangerous for Foreign Affairs staff.