Nisan Ahmado and Zana Ome – Voice of America
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are seeking help from the international community to deal with more than 2,000 Islamic State foreign fighters and their families who are being held in Syria.
A Kurdish official from the SDF told VOA that captured IS foreign fighters are a burden on them because the countries of origin for these fighters still refrain from dealing with citizens who joined the terror group in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and beyond.
“This is an international case that needs the collaboration of international actors, and in order to solve this matter, we need to work together to resolve it,” Abdul Karim Omar, co-chairman of the SDF Foreign Relations Committee, told VOA.
Omar added that running away from the issue or delaying it is not the best course of action, given that some of these fighters are dangerous individuals.
The call by the Kurdish officials comes after SDF announced plans earlier this month to launch its final military operation against the last pockets of IS in Syria's eastern Deir el-Zour province. The operation is aimed at clearing IS militants from the province.
Efforts to deal with the issue of captured IS foreign fighters are proving difficult because of legal issues and also because of the issue of verifying their identities. IS has reportedly urged its foreign members to destroy their identification cards and passports from their respective countries.
Among those in SDF captivity are also the wives and children of these fighters. SDF officials are calling for their repatriation to their countries of origin.
Casandra Bodar, 23, a Belgian national, told VOA she traveled with her husband to Syria to live in the so-called Islamic State. After the death of her husband last year during the battle of Raqqa, she surrendered to the SDF.
“They questioned me many times, and every time the investigators asked me what do I want. I tell them that I want to be tried in my own country [Belgium],” Bodar said.
SDF officials told VOA they continue their discussions with a number of Western officials to find a solution to the issue.
Recently, a Belgian official visited Qamishli town in north Syria in the Kurdish-controlled areas to discuss Belgium fighters in SDF captivity.
SDF officials say that countries whose citizens are in custody should either repatriate them or help SDF put them on trial.
“All governments should repatriate their citizens or help us set up an international tribunal. So far, we did not receive any help,” Omar told VOA.
SDF says it has 2,225 foreign nationals in custody, including 516 men, 534 women and 1,175 children from 44 different countries.
The fate of foreign IS fighters captured in Syria and Iraq remains a dilemma for their countries of origin, as Western countries continue to differ on how to deal with them.
In February, U.S. officials reportedly held a closed meeting in Rome with a number of European countries to discuss the repatriation of IS foreign fighters detained by the SDF. The meeting did not produce any tangible solution.
Also in February, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said it was imperative to address the issue as an “international problem.”
“The most important thing is we figure out how we are going to deal with this, that we can deal with it. We don’t paralyze ourselves and just say there is nothing we can do,” Mattis said.
An estimated 40,000 fighters from more than 120 countries are believed to have joined the fighting in Iraq and Syria over the years. While thousands of them have died, some Western officials say thousands more have escaped or have been captured.