US President Donald Trump set the cat amongst the pigeons when he called on EU states to take back 800 Daesh fighters held by American and Syrian Democratic Forces to the east of the River Euphrates. He said that it is the responsibility of the European countries to take back their citizens and their families, and threatened to release them if the countries do not do so.
The controversy still rages in Europe, and the majority of the countries in question seem to be leaning towards rejecting the US demand. They each have various justifications and reasons, but while this rumbles on in Europe and the US, it is even more intense in Iraq and Syria where Trump will, presumably, release these prisoners. Where will he do so, where will they go to and how is this risky venture to take place? What are the details?
The Iraqi National Security Council has held meetings in this regard, as there are thousands of “Iraqi Mujahideen” and their families awaiting deportation. There have been confirmed reports that hundreds of fighters have escaped with large sums of money from Daesh’s last strongholds in eastern Syria and western Iraq. The Council has put in place plans to deal with the returnees from Syria, but it is difficult to predict whether they will be efficient or effective.
Sources in Damascus and Hezbollah, and to a lesser extent Moscow, are talking about American plans to redirect the prisoners to other fronts and battlefields, but the rumours do not stop at the existence of an “implicit agreement” between the leaders of the “Mujahideen” and US intelligence, arranged through the Syrian Democratic Forces. Such a deal guarantees safe passage for these fighters in exchange for handing over valuable information as well as all gold and monetary assets in their possession.
Most importantly, there are rumours that a large number of these fighters are still spread across the Syrian and Iraqi deserts, which poses a security threat not only to Syria and Iraq, but also to Jordan. This means that the task of eliminating Daesh is not yet finished and that the security threat posed by the organisation is still clear and present, despite the fact that its military and strategic threat was reduced by stripping it of its hold on Syrian and Iraqi territory and destroying its state structures and “caliphate”.
Jordan is part of a group of countries which “exported mujahedeen” to Syria and Iraq. Some of its citizens have been killed in the fighting but some returned and are now serving varied sentences in Jordanian prisons. They may leave these prisons soon after serving their time, but many of their colleagues are still in Syria, awaiting deportation or being handed over. Their fate in some cases is linked to the fate of Idlib and the fighting over the city. Have we put into place the necessary plans and programmes to deal with returnees from Syria? Can these plans guarantee that their threat will be contained and not damage Jordan’s security and stability?
These questions are not in the public realm; perhaps they are being debated behind closed doors. We simply don’t know, even though this is of great concern to the citizens of Jordan. Raising awareness is critical if we are to benefit and not simply engage in a damage limitation exercise.
Furthermore, estimates of the number of fighters we are talking about vary widely. Again, we simply don’t know how many were killed and how many are still awaiting repatriation due to a lack of official transparency. Suffice to say that their number must be large enough to pose a serious threat to security and stability.
These fighters have wives and children who grew up under the terrorist Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate or the terrorist Julani emirate. What will we do with the families of these fighters? How will they be rehabilitated and integrated into Jordanian society? What is the potential for this and the challenges it will pose? Are we ready to deal with the Jordanian returnees from Syria and their families? There are too many questions needing urgent answers.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Addustour on 21 February 2019
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.