Some 283 prisoners suspected of being affiliated to Daesh have been released by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) over the weekend as a gesture of “cooperation, fraternity and clemency,” the group said in a statement.
The move was reportedly negotiated with local Arab tribal leaders, after Kurdish militias ascertained that the men in custody had “no blood on their hands”, and had likely been involved in administrative positions with the group.
“They had lost their way … violated the traditions of the Syrian society and the law, and some of them had been deceived … but they remain our Syrian children,” the statement read.
In the aftermath of the US announcing it would withdraw from Syria in December, the SDF discussed plans to release thousands of Daesh members, arguing that it did not have the resources to hold them without US backing.
However the latest release appears to be motivated by local concerns, as the Kurdish militias attempt to build bridges with local Arab tribes, many of whom were coerced into providing recruits for so-called Islamic State.
“The SDF has been working on outreach and deepening their relations with the tribes,” Hassan Hassan, director of non-state actors programme at the Centre for Global Policy, told the Independent. “The problem is when tribes start to intervene to get their relatives out. What do you do? How do you balance between engaging with tribes and at the same time not opening doors to ISIS [Daesh] to return through sleeper cells and half-hearted sympathisers.”
Last month, the Pentagon’s official watchdog released a report, starkly predicting that without sustained pressure, the terror group could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory.
Most of those being released are thought to be members of the powerful Sunni tribes from the Euphrates River area. Hundreds of Daesh fighters have surrendered to the SDF in recent weeks, with their family members and children also fleeing to refugee camps under Kurdish supervision.
The release comes amid an ongoing debate over the fate of Daesh fighters, particularly those of foreign origin; whilst the US, Lebanon, Russia, Indonesia, Sudan and New Zealand have agreed to repatriate their nationals, European nations have wrestled with how to handle suspected militants and their families.
The UK has refused to take back fighters and their families, stripping 19 year-old Shamima Begum, who travelled to Syria as an “ISIS bride”, of her British citizenship last month; Germany is also moving to enact similar legislation.
Switzerland said that it would prefer to have citizens who fought for Daesh tried on the spot rather than be brought home to face criminal charges. However, the SDF currently has no genuine legitimacy or authority to conduct trials, and has emphasised that it cannot hold the militants indefinitely.
Several hundreds have been transferred to Iraq to face trial there. However criticisms over the impartiality of the Iraqi judicial system have intensified; thousands of people have been tried in ten-minute court sessions, during which defendants have no opportunity to disprove their affiliation to Daesh. Hundreds are then sentenced to death, with children as young as nine prosecuted for committing violent acts.
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.”