The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) handed over more than 150 Iraqi and other foreign Daesh fighters to Iraq earlier this morning, as controversy as to the fate of foreign fighters rages on.
The handover was the first of several, two Iraqi military sources told Reuters, under an agreement brokered to transfer a total of 502 fighters.
“The majority of the fighters are Iraqi,” said a military colonel whose unit is stationed at the Syrian border. “But we have a few foreigners.”
The mayor of Iraqi border town Al-Qaim, Ahmed Al-Mahallawi, confirmed the news and said some fighters’ families were also transferred.
“Early this morning, ten trucks loaded with Daesh fighters and their families were handed over by SDF forces to the Iraqi army,” he said. “The majority of them are Iraqis and the convoy was under maximum security protection as it headed to the Jazeera and Badiya military headquarters.” Both bases are located in the Anbar province.
Around 800 foreign jihadist fighters who joined the so-called Islamic State, including many Iraqis, are being held in Syria by the SDF. More than 2,000 family members are also in camps, with dozens more arriving each day, as the terror group loses its last stronghold in the country to the international coalition.
The news of the transfer comes amid ongoing debate as to the fate of men and women who travelled to join Daesh, particularly those who came from Europe. Whilst the US, Lebanon, Russia, Indonesia and Sudan have agreed to repatriate their nationals, European nations have wrestled with how to handle suspected militants and their families.
Last week, US President Donald Trump urged European governments to take back fighters to ease their security burden on the SDF, however few have moved to claim them.
So far, only France has confirmed that it will repatriate some 130 suspected Daesh fighters who are currently detained in Syria, having agreed in October to repatriate the children of militants. However the UK has refused to take back fighters and their families, this week stripping 19-year-old Shamima Begum, who travelled to Syria as an “ISIS bride”, of her British citizenship, rendering her essentially stateless.
Germany also qualified their agreement to take back militants, stating that it would only be facilitated if the suspects captured in Syria had consular access. Switzerland also said on Tuesday that it would prefer to have citizens who fought for Daesh tried on the spot rather than be brought home to face criminal charges.
Baghdad has tried hundreds of Iraqi Daesh fighters, and some foreigners who joined the terror group in Iraq, a less controversial issue due to the country having a functioning legal system. The SDF currently have no genuine legitimacy or authority to conduct trials, and has emphasised that it cannot hold the militants indefinitely.
However Human Rights Watch has condemned Iraq’s approach to foreigners, particularly women and children, accused of affiliation with Daesh, accusing them of proceeding with rushed trials “without sufficiently taking into account the individual circumstances of each case or guaranteeing suspects a fair trial.”
Most foreign women are being sentenced to death or life in prison, with the courts also prosecuting foreign children, ages nine and up, on similar charges, and sentencing them in some cases to up to five years in prison for alleged membership of Daesh, and up to 15 years for participating in violent acts.