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Hundreds of foreign fighters from the self-declared Islamic State group, as well as their wives and children, are as of March 2019 in the custody of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, in Syria. And almost all of them are in legal limbo, since the countries they emigrated from refuse to take them back, putting an unprecedented burden on the SDF.
The co-Chair of Foreign Relations of the SDF, Abdulkarim Omar, has pleaded for world powers to readmit their nationals. He has noted that most countries appear to think they can just abandon their citizens in SDF custody in Syria, which, he says, is a ‘very big mistake.’
An SDF spokesman, Mustapha Bali, added that there is no recognized legal infrastructure in northern Syria, making it impossible for IS detainees to receive a fair a trial. However, most European countries have demonstrated little political will to retake their jihadists.
France said it will only take back fighters on a ‘case by case’ basis. Sajid Javid, the UK Home secretary, has vowed to take a more extreme approach by preventing any British national that fought with terrorist groups from returning to the country. Their position is rooted in fears that nationals who fought for IS may have acquired the skills and connections to launch attacks when they return.
This is particularly scary for Europeans states since they may not have enough evidence to incriminate every single returnee. To avoid the risk, countries are opting to strip their nationals of their citizenship, sparking uproar and debate among rights activists and policymakers.
British IS bride Shamima Begum, who fled to join the self-declared caliphate when she was just 15-years-old, is the most notable case. Although Begum’s is of Bangladesh origin, she doesn’t have another passport than her British one. Javid’s decision to revoke her British citizenship has thus left her stateless and effectively contravenes international law.
Javid nonetheless said that Begum’s baby would remain British, but it died soon after the announcement. Besides the legal implications of stripping someone of their citizenship, analysts warn that doing so helps IS in the long run.
“Groups like Islamic State have been incredibly successful at planting the seed in people’s minds that Western governments and Western societies do not care about their Muslim citizens,” Katherine Brown, a senior lecturer in Islamic Studies at Britain’s University of Birmingham, told Time.
Brown added that by violating human rights and the rule of law, countries that strip away citizenship from returning jihadists are aiding the notion that Muslims are a state of an exception in the West.
Germany disagrees. On March 4, Eleonore Petermann, spokeswoman for the German interior ministry, said that German ministers have reached a consensus to strip the nationality of any dual citizen that participates in combat operations for a terrorist group abroad. However, the law is not retroactive, so it cannot be applied to any German IS fighter who is stranded in Syria right now. Belgium has also previously re-sorted to the same strategy.
Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch (HRW) director of terrorism and counter-terrorism, told Fanack Chronicle that stripping IS captives of their nationality is extremely short-sighted.
He said that children of IS fighters constitute the largest number of people languishing in camps in Syria, and risk growing up stateless unless they are claimed. The only solution, stresses Houry, is for countries to claim these children and put their parents on trial.
“In absence of a fair trail, we are basically left with a Guantanamo situation where people will be held without trial and no prospect of being released,” Houry told Fanack.
“There is even a risk that IS captives will be transferred to Guantanamo, where there are grave violations of human rights. That would be an epic failure in the fight against terrorism. If anything, Guantanamo is a rallying cry for future jihadists,” Houry added.
Khaled Diab, a columnist for Al Araby, further argues that installing a two-tiered citizenship system is inherently undemocratic. In his eyes, a just legal system should ensure the equality of all citizens before the law.
“Applying the principle of revocation of citizenship only to naturalised citizens, dual nationals and citizens who are (theoretically) entitled to citizenship elsewhere, who have been almost exclusively Muslims, is an expression of blind bigotry, not blind justice,” he writes.
Despite Diab’s logic, British Prime Minister Theresa May has previously claimed that citizenship is indeed a privilege, not a right, and that dual nationals can lose their British nationality. Yet if citizenship is a privilege, asks Diab, then what have citizens like Theresa May done to acquire it, besides being born in the country? The short answer is: nothing.
Then again, even if governments changed their approach, retrieving their nationals is still a tricky endeavour. Because Turkey does not recognize the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the political wing of the Kurdish People Protection Unit (YPG) that is leading the SDF, IS captives are unable to transit through Turkey.
The other option is travelling through northern Iraq, which is where Russia retained its citizens that fled to join the caliphate. However, European officials say that the Iraqi authorities are reluctant to let large numbers of IS captives enter the country. Dealing with Bashar Al Assad may be a last resort, but that would lend the dictator a lot of leverage over his western rivals.
For now, the biggest problem is that there is little political will to explore any of these avenues. One solution could be to establish an international tribunal on the ground in Syria or Iraq. The prime minister of Belgium, Charles Michel, has advocated for this approach. Belgian officials also argue that the U.S announcement to leave a few troops in northeast Syria could make international trials viable.
But Assad and Erdogan would need convincing, since they have clear reasons to object the creation of an international tribunal in Syria’s northeast. Despite the idea, Houry from HRW is adamant that the only solution is for all states, including western countries, to assume responsibility over their nationals.
“We are talking about nationals from 47 countries, and only a very limited number of countries, which we can count then on one hand, have taken their fighters back,” Houry told Fanack. “Coalition partners [that fought IS] have also shown zero political will to take back their nationals, and they just can’t push this burden on local authorities.”