WASHINGTON — In an effort to reduce the burden of Islamic State foreign fighters, U.S.-backed Syrian forces have recently handed over more than 300 IS militants, who have been captured in Syria, to the Iraqi government, which will reportedly try them for their actions against Iraqi civilians and security forces.
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) officials have indicated that the move has been made to seek legal avenues outside Syria to try the militants for the crimes they have committed, since the territory under the SDF control is not recognized internationally nor does it have a functioning judicial system in place.
Iraqi President Barham Salih, who is currently visiting France, said that his country is acting within the framework of international law in this respect.
“They are accused of having commanded operations against Iraqis and Iraqi installations in Iraq, and they will be tried according to Iraqi law,” Salih said on Monday.
Iraqi officials said they have taken custody of 13 IS fighters from the SDF, all of which were of French origin.
Contacted by VOA, SDF officials refused to comment on the details of the recent transfer of IS foreign fighters to Iraq.
Since the beginning of war against IS in 2014, Iraqi authorities have been trying detained suspects inside the country where hundreds of convicted militants have been executed or given long-term prison terms.
There are more than 800 IS militants of foreign origin in the custody of the Kurdish-led SDF, according to local SDF officials.
There are also about 2,700 IS family members, including women and children, who have been settled in two heavily guarded refugee camps in northeast Syria, the same sources said.
“These people are from 49 countries,” said Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of foreign relations in the Kurdish-led region in Syria.
“Iraq, Kazakhstan and Indonesia are the only countries that have so far taken their citizens. But the rest of the world seems indifferent about this issue, which is really disappointing,” Omar told VOA.
As SDF fighters are closing in on IS in its last stronghold in eastern Syria, more foreign fighters are expected to be captured. There are an estimated 300 IS fighters trapped inside the town of Baghuz, mostly foreigners.
Iraq has been actively seeking to take in an increasing number of IS fighters captured in Syria because of its proximity to areas where IS used to operate in the neighboring country, experts say.
“In the Iraq case, it is easy to take Iraqi nationals and others who have committed crimes because Iraq was directly involved in the war on IS,” said Khaled Ibrahim, a Kurdish lawyer who closely follows cases of IS foreign fighters in Syria.
He said Iraq has proven to be effective in terms of taking in and trying IS fighters.
Deal with the regime?
For the SDF, however, to appropriately address the issue of IS foreign fighters, some experts like Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, offers a different approach.
“The SDF could make a deal with the Syrian government to try the ISIS members for killing Syrians, just as the SDF has done by turning them over to the Iraqi government, which will try them for killing Iraqis,” he told VOA.
Kurdish authorities, however, said they have no intention of bringing up this issue with the Syrian regime.
“The regime has shown no interest or seriousness in dealing with this matter,” Kurdish official Omar said.
Washington considers the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as illegitimate for its atrocities against its own people.
“It is hard for the U.S. to argue that the Syrian courts would be less just than Iraqi courts,” Landis said. “The U.S. knows perfectly well how Iraqi justice is meted out to those that have tried to overthrow the state, especially suspected members of ISIS.”
While there aren’t any official statistics on IS foreign fighters held in Syria, most of them are believed to have come from France, Britain, Germany and other European and Arab countries.
U.S. President Donald Trump recently has urged European countries to take back their citizens who have fought with IS in Syria.
“The Caliphate is ready to fall,” Trump said in a tweet. “The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them.”
Local Kurdish officials ruled out taking such a measure, but stressed that keeping suspected IS foreign fighters in a volatile region for a long time with no prospect of repatriating them is risky.
“Our region is still unstable, so any major turmoil could offer an opportunity for these dangerous individuals to escape prison and pose yet another threat to the entire world,” said Omar of the local Kurdish administration.