US and Europe clash over fate of Isil suspects in Syria as Turkey begins deportations

Josie Ensor
British Isil

The US clashed with Europe on Thursday over the fate of Islamic State members detained in Syria, as Turkey drew up a list of a thousand suspects it planned to deport.

European countries are refusing the return of hundreds of fighters and thousands of their family members being held by the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria.

Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, told foreign ministers yesterday they needed to “hold them to account", in a meeting of the international coalition against Isil in DC.

"Coalition members must take back the thousands of foreign terrorist fighters in custody and impose accountability for the atrocities they have perpetrated," Mr Pompeo said.

Britain, which has taken one of the strongest stances against the return of its nationals, has deprived many of them of their citizenship.

Men, allegedly affiliated with the Islamic State group, sit on the floor in a prison in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh Credit: AFP

France, which has also so far refused to accept back citizens who fought with Isil, suggested to the coalition that foreign suspects should be sent to Iraq for trial.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Foreign Minister, who is in discussions with Iraq about trying foreign nationals, said his government was seeking the "certain and lasting detention" of fighters.

Seven French nationals have already been tried in a terrorism court in Baghdad, where they were given death sentences.

"For our part, we will continue to say that they should be tried as close as possible to the crimes they committed," he told reporters.

Nathan Sales, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, acknowledged that "there is, candidly, a difference of opinion about the best way to resolve this problem."

British Isil member Shamima Begum stands is being held by the SDF in a detention camp in Syria Credit: Sam Tarling for The Telegraph

"The United States thinks that it's inappropriate to ask Iraq in particular to shoulder the additional burden of foreign fighters, particularly from Europe," Mr Sales told reporters after the one-day meeting.

"We think there should be a sense of urgency to repatriate now while we still can," he said.

The SDF is currently holding around eight British men, 25 British woman and 60 of their children. Turkey is thought to be detaining a handful, including “Beatle” Aine Davies, who was sentenced to seven and a half years in 2017.

Ankara began a series of deportations of 959 Isil suspects, including more than 30 from Europe.

One Briton was slated for deportation, which is believed to be the 26-year-old man arrested yesterday on suspicion of preparation of terrorism offences after arriving at Heathrow airport on a flight from Turkey. 

It is understood he was caught by Turkish authorities trying to cross into Syria to join Isil earlier this year, by which time was besieged and battling for its existence some several hundred miles away.

A German family of seven was also deported to Berlin. They had been captured before crossing and what been held in a detention centre in the port city of Izmir since March.

Ankara has been signalling for weeks that it intends to send back foreign Isil members to Europe, even if European governments refused to take them back.

“We are not a hotel for Isil members from any country,” said Suleyman Soylu, Turkey’s interior minister.

Mr Soylu has been critical of the UK for stripping British Isil members of their citizenship in order to prevent them from returning home.

“When there is a Daesh member, they cancel his or her citizenship, making the person stateless. Then, they take no responsibility,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group. “That is not acceptable to us. It’s also irresponsible.”