US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on US allies Monday to take responsibility for their citizens suspected of joining the Islamic State and who remain in the custody of Kurdish forces in northeast Syria.
“This situation is simply untenable. It just can’t persist indefinitely,” Blinken said in Rome during his opening remarks at a ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
“The United States continues to urge countries — including coalition partners — to repatriate, rehabilitate and, where applicable, prosecute its citizens,” he said.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are holding some 10,000 suspected militants in informal detention centers. About 2,000 of them are foreigners, the US government estimates. The United States has repatriated 28 of its citizens from northeast Syria and is prosecuting many of them on terror-related charges.
But other countries are reluctant to deal with their citizens, even as the US-backed SDF warns that it lacks the resources to put them on trial or continue holding them.
Why it matters: More than two years after the collapse of IS’ self-declared caliphate, some 43,000 men, women and children with perceived ties to the terrorist group languish in detention and displacement centers scattered across northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch estimates.
Blinken highlighted the efforts of Kazakhstan, Finland and a number of Balkan and Central Asian countries that have successfully prosecuted or rehabilitated their citizens accused of supporting IS in Syria and Iraq. The secretary also described Italy as one of the few Western European countries willing to bring home its nationals.
Coalition members France and the United Kingdom, which suffered a number of IS-inspired terrorist attacks on their soil, have been particularly slow to reclaim their nationals and in some cases have revoked the citizenship of accused IS supporters. Some foreign governments cite concerns the IS suspects could evade justice in European courts due to a lack of battlefield evidence against them.
What’s next: Violence is rife in the Syrian detention sites, which experts warn could serve as a breeding ground for a new generation of terrorists and stateless children. Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, said in April that children are especially vulnerable to radicalization. The failure to reintegrate them, he said, risks “giving ourselves the gift of fighters five to seven years down the road.”
Health services are poor in the camps, and hundreds of children are believed to have died from malnutrition, pneumonia and other conditions in Hasakah province’s sprawling al-Hol facility. Aid organizations continue to sound the alarm over the potential for the coronavirus to worsen the already dire humanitarian situation.