Following ISIS’ loss of the last sliver of territory in March, US President Donald Trump asked the UK, Germany, France and other European allies to take back the over 800 ISIS members that are captured in Syria and to put them on trial in their home countries. However, European countries have shown to be reluctant to repatriate nationals that have been accused of being affiliated with ISIS or have been involved in the fighting. They claim that bringing them back would pose serious security concerns and they fear that they may have difficulties obtaining enough evidence to prosecute them. They have chosen to revoke their nationality instead, passing on the responsibility to those countries where the fighters are held.
The recent withdrawal of US troops from Syria and the invasion of Turkey have created further tensions in the region, leaving liberated areas unable to contain ISIS fighters in camps, meaning the potential for further activity and radicalization, as many are being freed or have escaped. The Syrian Democratic Forces, in charge of caring for the situation in these camps in northern Syria, have called for an urgent long-term solution as they are struggling to maintain cohesive control over their assigned territories, but European countries are also unable to find a comprehensive way out of the situation. ISIS has lost its territory and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but has readjusted to the circumstances and continues to carry out numerous attacks and to grow in numbers. Therefore keeping ISIS fighters and relatives in the region without being prosecuted will not help the situation and could lead to further recruitment in both the Middle East or Europe.
The issue here is not only the continuing of terrorist activity in the region but also the conditions that these European nationals are living in. Conditions in these camps are inhumane and desperate. Widespread trauma among children subject to abuse, inadequate sanitation, and medical facilities as well as a general environment of lawlessness are present and becoming the norm in the camps, which again is strengthening the risk of further radicalization.
The instability in Syria following the Turkish incursion and the long-term detention of these men, women, and children are problematic for many security and humanitarian reasons. European governments should then address the challenge by accelerating the repatriation of their nationals, but instead, they have chosen to respond with exclusion policies and laws, displacing their responsibility onto others.
Some European officials have been trying to send suspects to be trialed in Iraqi courts or international tribunals but, despite some advantages to this prospect, it has been criticized over the risk of unfair or unreliable trials. Therefore, although it will expect some political courage to do so, European governments will have sooner or later to bring ISIS members home.
It is the fastest way to bring ISIS fighters into accountability for crimes through fairly conducted trials, it will get detainees and their relatives out of an unsustainable security situation and therefore limit the risk of the spreading of ISIS activities in the currently unstable northern Syria.