US asks nations to repatriate jihadists as it leaves Syria

Shaun TANDON
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A man in the northern Syrian town of Kobane walks amid tombs during the funeral of a fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces killed in an offensive by the Islamic State movement

A man in the northern Syrian town of Kobane walks in a graveyard during the funeral of a fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces killed in an offensive by the Islamic State movement (AFP Photo/Delil SOULEIMAN)

Washington (AFP) - The United States urged other countries Monday to bring home hundreds of Islamic State fighters captured in Syria, a delicate issue for allies such as France and Britain as President Donald Trump withdraws troops.

Washington drew a line on the jihadists two days before foreign ministers from Europe and the Middle East gather in the US capital for talks on how to fight the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, once the US military presence ends.

US allies have been grappling for weeks with what to do with foreign fighters detained in the war-ravaged country by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who have warned that they may not be able to guard their jails once US troops leave.

"The United States calls upon other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens detained by the SDF and commends the continued efforts of the SDF to return these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement.

"Despite the liberation of ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIS remains a significant terrorist threat and collective action is imperative to address this shared international security challenge," Palladino said.

Another US official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that northeastern Syria had become a "very fluid space."

"As events unfold, there are any number of scenarios under which positive control of some of the individuals currently in custody could change," the official said.

He voiced concern that jihadists could then leave Syria for "other, more permissive places around the world from which they could seek to carry forward the fight."

- Fears in Europe -

Trump stunned Western allies on December 19 by announcing that the United States would pull its 2,000 troops out of Syria, declaring that IS had been defeated.

One of the countries most concerned is France, which has been hit by a series of IS-inspired attacks including the grisly November 2015 siege of the Bataclan nightclub in Paris.

France -- which along with Britain maintains a small deployment of special forces in Syria -- last week opened the door to bringing back its citizens, after earlier insisting that the jihadists should be prosecuted locally and not step foot back in France.

The French foreign ministry said its goal was to "avoid the escape and scattering of these potentially dangerous individuals" and acknowledged that the situation on the ground was changing with the US withdrawal.

A French security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, earlier told AFP 130 people could be repatriated. A second French official said the group included 70 to 80 children held with their mothers.

Britain has meanwhile been grappling with what to do with the two surviving members of a quartet -- nicknamed "The Beatles" for their accents -- who were notorious for videotaped beheadings.

Britain has shown no interest in bringing home the Kurdish-jailed pair, Alexanda Amon Kotey and El Shafee el-Sheikh, amid reports they were stripped of their nationality.

A report last year said the United States was willing to take them in its military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- an option that would be deeply controversial in Britain, partly due to the US practice of the death penalty.

- Talk of security zone -

The SDF are worried that, without US troops as a buffer, they will be crushed by neighboring Turkey -- which equates them with Kurdish separatists at home and encouraged Trump to withdraw US forces.

Shortly after Trump's announcement, the SDF warned it would pull back from the battle against IS if Turkey attacked and may redeploy its prison guards.

Wednesday's 79-nation conference in Washington is expected to look further at ways to avoid what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a comment that angered Turkey, warned could be the "slaughter" of Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have discussed a "safe zone" which Ankara wants on Syrian territory. European allies are cool to the idea and the Kurdish fighters want the zone to be directly on the border with coalition forces on the Turkish side.

Foreign ministers will also hear at the conference from Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, a member of the Yazidi minority in Iraq who was abducted and raped, like thousands of women and girls, by jihadists.

Since obtaining freedom, Murad has campaigned for accountability over the atrocities and urged Iraq and other countries to investigate the fate of Yazidi who remain missing.