Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

SDF Urges Coalition Troops to Stay, Seeks Help With ISIS Prisoners

SDF Urges Coalition Troops to Stay, Seeks Help With ISIS Prisoners

Monday, 18 February, 2019 - 15:15
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa, Syria June 29, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
London- Asharq Al-Awsat
The commander of US-backed forces in Syria called on Monday for about 1,000 to 1,500 international forces to remain in Syria to help fight ISIS and expressed hope that the United States, in particular, would halt plans for a total pullout.

The remarks by Mazloum Kobani, the commander-in-chief of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, followed talks with senior US generals at an airbase in northeast Syria and offered perhaps the most comprehensive view to date of his requests for an enduring military assistance from the US-led coalition.

"We would like to have air cover, air support and a force on the ground to coordinate with us," Kobani told a small group of reporters who traveled with the US military to an airbase at an undisclosed location in northeast Syria.

Kobani said there were discussions about perhaps French and British troops supporting them in Syria. But he stressed he also wanted at least "a partial group of American forces," who now number more than 2,000 in Syria, to stay as well.

US Army General Joseph Votel, head of Central Command, said after the talks with Kobani that he was still carrying out President Donald Trump's December order for a complete US withdrawal of American forces.

"We certainly understand what they would like us to do, but of course that's not the path we're on at this particular point," Votel told reporters.

Asked about any discussions on a continuing US presence in Syria, Votel said: "So the discussion really isn't about US forces staying here. We've looked at potentially what coalition (forces) might be able to do here."

ISIS foreign militants

SDF warned on Monday that hundreds of foreign militant fighters held in Syria represent a “time bomb” and could escape and threaten the West unless countries do more to take them back.

The fate of foreign fighters who joined ISIS, as well as of their wives and children, has become more pressing in recent days as US-backed fighters plan an assault to capture the last enclave of the group’s self-styled Caliphate.

Trump said on Sunday European countries must do more to take them back or “we will be forced to release them”. But European countries say there is no simple solution. Fighters must be vetted and prosecuted if they return.

“It is clearly not as easy as what has been put forward in the United States,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday ahead of a Brussels meeting with EU counterparts. “These people could only then come to Germany if we can ensure they are immediately put in custody. It’s not clear to me how all that can be guaranteed.”

Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of foreign relations in the region held by the SDF, said authorities there were holding some 800 foreign fighters. Around 700 of the fighters’ wives and 1,500 of their children are also in camps. Dozens more fighters and family members are arriving each day.

“It seems most of the countries have decided that they’re done with them, let’s leave them here, but this is a very big mistake,” Omar said. Their home countries must do more to prosecute foreign fighters and rehabilitate their families, “or else this will be a danger and a time bomb”.

European officials complain that dealing with the fate of the detainees has been made more complicated by Trump’s abrupt announcement in December that he plans to pull out the 2,000 US troops protecting the area where they are being held.

“At this stage France is not responding to (Trump’s) demands,” French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet told France 2 television. “There is a new geopolitical context, with the US withdrawal. For the time being, we are not changing our policy.”

Omar, the official in the Kurdish-led Syrian region holding the prisoners, said the authorities would never release the fighters, but they could escape in future, especially if the area comes under attack. The Kurdish-led forces are worried about a potential attack from Turkey once US troops leave.

With US help, the Kurdish-led militia are poised to seize ISIS' last holdout in eastern Syria. At the height of its power four years ago, ISIS held about a third of both Iraq and Syria in a self-proclaimed Caliphate.

Bringing militants and their families back home is deeply unpopular in European countries, many of which have suffered militant attack in recent years. European countries say their diplomats cannot operate in an area where Syrian Kurdish control is not internationally recognized.

Pleas from women to return with their children — such as Shamima Begum, a pregnant 19-year-old who left London as a schoolgirl to become an ISIS bride — have stirred up debate in their home countries. Omar said the Kurdish authorities had not been contacted by Britain over her case.

European security services worry returnees will prove a burden on state resources and may radicalize others.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told ARD television late Sunday that German nationals have a legally guaranteed right to return, but there's no way at present of checking that in Syria.

Maas said that "humanitarian cases," women and children, already have returned, but it would only be possible in other cases if court proceedings can immediately be launched.

He added: "We need information, we need investigations, all that is not in place, and as long as it isn't, I think this is extraordinarily difficult to implement."

“We have all done everything in our power to lock these people up. This announcement from Trump, I cannot comprehend,” Austria’s Foreign Minister Karin Kneissel said in Brussels.

Belgium’s justice minister called on Sunday for an EU-wide approach to the issue, pointing to doubts the Kurds will be able to maintain control over their territory without US support.

“The Kurds ... could be attacked by the Turks,” Justice Minister Koen Geens told public broadcaster VRT on Sunday. “If the ISIS fighters are released then we do not know what will happen with them. Control is better than total freedom.”

Several countries are already working quietly to repatriate minors on a case-by-case basis.

Of more than 5,000 Europeans — most from Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium — who went to fight in Syria and Iraq, some 1,500 have returned, according to police agency Europol.

Editor Picks