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Turkey's Syria advance leaves Europe with foreign fighter dilemma

PARIS/BERLIN (Reuters) - European states are trying to fast-track a plan to shift thousands of foreign Islamic State militants out of Syrian prison camps and into Iraq, after the outbreak of fresh conflict in Syria raised the risk of jihadists escaping or returning home.

Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters are seen in action in the village of Yabisa, near the Turkish-Syrian border, Syria, October 13, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Europeans comprise a fifth of around 10,000 Islamic State fighters held captive in Syria by Kurdish militias, which are under heavy attack by Turkish forces. If the militias redeploy prison guards to the front line, there is a risk of jail-breaks.

Before Turkey began its offensive last week, European nations had been assessing how to create a mechanism that could ultimately see foreign fighters moved from Syria to face trial in Iraq for war crimes.

Europe does not want to try its Islamic State nationals at home, fearing a public backlash, difficulties in collating evidence against them, and risks of renewed attacks from militants on European soil.

Iraq saw some of the bloodiest battles against Islamic State and its government is already conducting trials of thousands of suspected Islamic State insurgents with many arrested as the group’s strongholds crumbled throughout Iraq.

Eleven legal experts from EU countries first met in June to assess their options and made slow progress, partly due to European concerns over the fairness of Iraqi justice. But the Turkish attack in northern Syria has since spurred European powers to fast-track it, diplomatic and government sources say.

“There is a sense that the Iraqis want their Nuremburg moment and that Iraqi families want to see Islamic State pay so we have to find a way that satisfies everyone so that they are judged without the death penalty being implemented even if that is the sentence,” said a European diplomat.

A core group of six nations, who have the bulk of fighters held in Kurdish prisons, including France, Britain and Germany, have now pressed ahead with narrowing options after ruling out a fully international “ad hoc” tribunal. Such a body could take years to establish and was unlikely to get U.N. Security Council backing.

They last met on Oct. 11 in Copenhagen focusing on a hybrid structure involving international and Iraqi judges. Those discussions are in parallel with the Baghdad government.

“It’s not simple. We don’t want to face litigation from jihadist families back in European courts,” said another European diplomat. “The situation is sufficiently complex that we didn’t need to add a degree of urgency when there wasn’t one. That has changed with Turkey’s actions.”

Negotiations with Iraq, which is also seeking millions of dollars in financial compensation for taking European fighters, are not straightforward.


Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said in June that his government was exploring the idea of prosecuting foreign Islamic State fighters currently held in Syria, but had at that time not received serious offers.

Three European diplomats said talks with Iraq were ongoing, and that there would be a push to accelerate those efforts in light of Turkey’s offensive, but that they were still some way off coming to an agreement with Baghdad.

“The Iraqis want money to pay for it, written agreements with every country and promises of no criticism of the proceedings,” Belkis Wille, senior researcher for Iraq at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

“This (Turkish offensive) is speeding everything up and makes it more likely,” she said.

With no recognized legal system in the Kurdish Syrian areas, Western countries have as a result not opposed the principle of transferring some jihadists from the region to Iraq to face justice.

About a dozen French jihadists were moved in January and subsequently sentenced to death. Officials say no foreigners appear to have been moved between the two countries since. The Europeans had been waiting to see whether those death sentences would be implemented.

“We don’t want them back and public opinion won’t support it,” said a French diplomatic source. “Beyond the most vulnerable children on a case-by-case basis, the option of repatriating the adults is clearly not what we want. That hasn’t changed because of the Turks.”

Those comments were echoed by Belgian, Dutch and German officials. “There are difficult questions to be answered about adult Islamic State fighters with German citizenship,” said a German foreign ministry source.


Other than the detention centers for fighters, thousands more women and children are in camps guarded by Kurdish forces in areas not specifically targeted by Turkey. The Kurdish forces have said that protecting those prisons and camps is also no longer their priority.

The Syrian Kurdish-led authorities said on Friday that five fighters fled a prison in the northeastern town of Qamishli after Turkish shelling. On Sunday, they said 785 foreigners affiliated with Islamic State, mostly women and children, managed to escape a camp at Ain Issa. Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

There are several detention centers in areas Turkey is set on capturing, which Ankara estimates about 1,000 foreign jihadists are held in. Turkish officials have said suggested they could eventually return all foreign nationals back to their home country.

“We took back our bad guys. There is a certain colonial hypocrisy from the Europeans on this subject,” a senior Turkish diplomat said. “They want fighters to be tried in the region under their conditions.”

European officials say their immediate priority is to persuade U.S. President Donald Trump, whose decision to withdraw U.S troops from northern Syria effectively enabled Turkey to make its advance, to reverse his policies and to persuade Ankara to cease its operations.

They argue that the offensive is weakening the coalition fighting Islamic State, which will embolden remaining Islamic State cells and pave the way for the group’s revival.

Underscoring those concerns the U.S. military has taken custody of two high-profile foreign Islamic State militants previously held by the Kurds and moved them out of the country, U.S. officials have said.

Jean-Charles Brisard, President of the Terrorism Analysis Center in Paris, said European powers were left waiting to see how the situation evolved, but that their policy of keeping their nationals in either Syria or Iraq to face trial had become “untenable”.

“All the European countries took a decision because of their public opinions not to repatriate their jihadists, but it was clear the Kurds wouldn’t keep them indefinitely,” France’s former ambassador to Washington Gerard Araud said.

“Sooner or late the jihadist question was bound to come up and obviously the only solution is to bring them back to be able to control them,” he said.

Additional reporting Anna Kauranen in Helsinki, Simon Johnson in Stockholm, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen, Bart Meijer in The Hague and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Frances Kerry