Coalition against Islamic State in disagreement on how to handle jihadi detainees

Published November 15, 2019, 8:41 AM

by Gabriela Baron & Minka Klaudia Tiangco

By Reuters

WASHINGTON  – The United States on Thursday pressured members of a global coalition fighting Islamic State to allow foreign fighters to be repatriated, but despite consensus on the gravity of the problem, disagreements on whether and how to send people back persisted.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with U.S. soldiers based in Grafenwoehr, Germany November 7, 2019. (Jens Meyer/Pool via REUTERS/MANILA BULLETIN)
FILE PHOTO: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with US soldiers based in Grafenwoehr, Germany November 7, 2019. (Jens Meyer/Pool via REUTERS/MANILA BULLETIN)

Foreign ministers from the members of the global coalition against Islamic State convened in Washington to discuss the next step against the jihadi group, whose former leader was killed last month in a US raid in northwestern Syria.

Islamic State has lost nearly all its territory in Syria but is still seen as a global threat. It has also left behind some 10,000 detainees in the region and their families, and how to deal with them is among the top concerns of the coalition.

“No one should expect the United States or anyone else to solve this problem for them,” Nathan Sales, US coordinator for counterterrorism, told a briefing at the State Department. “We all have a shared responsibility to ensure that ISIS fighters are never able to return to the battlefield and to prevent ISIS from radicalizing or inspiring a next generation of terrorists.”

The United States wants hard-line fighters to be sent back to their respective countries and either prosecuted there or rehabilitated, but Europe does not want to try its Islamic State nationals at home, fearing a public backlash and due to difficulties in collating evidence against them, and risks of renewed attacks from militants on European soil.

“Our view is that it is not a feasible option … to ask other countries in the region to import another country’s foreign fighters and pursue prosecution and incarceration there. We just don’t think that’s going to be effective,” Sales said.

He urged countries to have a sense of urgency to repatriate and warned that the relatively stable situation regarding foreign fighters in Syria, which are held in prisons guarded by America’s SDF Syrian Kurdish allies, could quickly change.

“It’s Syria – we all know that things can change in the blink of an eye.”


Following on his campaign promise of pulling US troops out of overseas conflict zones, President Donald Trump last December said Washington was pulling out troops from Syria in a decision that sent shockwaves to its allies.

Since then, Trump has changed his mind several times and last month decided to keep a residual force in the northeastern part of the country, focusing on preventing Islamic State from staging a comeback and attacking the oilfields there. Washington is also keeping control of the air space.

The US decision to reduce its presence in northeastern Syria has left some of its Western and Arab allies, in addition to Kurdish forces in the region, feeling burned.

“The landscape of Syria has changed,” said a foreign diplomat who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity ahead of Thursday’s meeting. “The players who are shaping the future of Syria … (are) mainly Russia, Iran and Turkey.”

A Turkish incursion on Oct. 9 into northeastern Syria – for which Trump, albeit disagreeing, cleared the way by pulling a handful of troops in Ankara’s way – has also upended the dynamics in the region.

The diplomat said the US withdrawal and Trump’s reluctance to spend US blood and treasure to secure the Middle East had underscored a wider phenomenon of waning American influence in the region and the need for countries in the region to deepen ties to other powers, such as Russia and China.

But James Jeffrey, US special envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS, said nobody was doubting the US role in the fight against Islamic State. “Nobody is questioning the role of the United States in the fight against ISIS after they saw how we smeared Baghdadi,” he said at the briefing.

Earlier, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had also urged members of the coalition fighting Islamic State to step up their funding to help restore infrastructure in Iraq and northeastern Syria, parts of which were severely damaged by conflict.