Kazakhstan has been leading the way in repatriating Kazakh foreign fighters and their families held in Kurdish-controlled prisons and camps in northeastern Syria, with experts debating whether such efforts could be a model for other countries that have citizens held in Syria.
“Kazakhstan has invested substantial government resources and partnered with nongovernmental organizations across the country to provide initial intake support and longer-term follow-on support at 17 regional support centers,” said Gavin Helf, a senior expert on Central Asia at the United States Institute of Peace.
He told VOA that Kazakh authorities have tried to reduce social stigmatization of returnees by issuing clean passports and documents that will allow them to integrate more easily.
Following the military defeat of the Islamic State terror group in March 2019, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured thousands of foreign fighters and their families.
The SDF says it currently holds about 2,000 foreign fighters and 13,000 foreign women and children who are family members of IS-linked fighters.
It is unclear how many Kazakh nationals are still being held in Syrian prisons and detention camps, but some monitor groups say an estimated 1,000 Kazakhs traveled to Syria at the peak of that country’s civil war in 2012 to join IS.
According to Kazakh officials, the Central Asian country so far has repatriated more than 700 Kazakh nationals from Syria, including 33 IS fighters, 187 women and 490 children.
U.S. officials have commended Kazakhstan’s efforts to repatriate and rehabilitate its citizens from Syria.
Chris Harnisch, deputy coordinator for Countering Violent Extremism at the U.S. State Department, said Kazakhstan was the first country to step up after the U.S. government called on countries to take back their nationals held in Syria.
“When they [Kazakh government officials] initiated their first repatriation operation, they didn’t just dip their toe in the water, they said, ‘We’re going to bring back effectively as many Kazakhstanis as we could,’ ” Harnisch said last week during an online event held by the Atlantic Council.
Kazakh officials say their effort to take back these individuals from Syria is based on humanitarian grounds.
“Given the number of women and kids, this is a humanitarian operation,” said Yerzhan Ashikbayev, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister.
“They were without access to their basic needs of food, shelter, clean water, health and education,” he said during the Atlantic Council’s event, adding that the Kazakh women and children were exposed to different types of threats and violations, such as sexual abuse, exploitation and potential recruitment by terrorist groups.
How successful is repatriation?
Experts are split, though, about the effectiveness of Kazakhstan’s efforts after the repatriation of these former IS fighters and their families.
Noah Tucker, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center who has interviewed many of the Kazakh returnees from Syria, says the humanitarian nature of the repatriation could be an important step toward preventing future violent extremism in Kazakhstan.
“Many of these people have been featured in media reporting and documentaries and been allowed to tell their stories about what they saw in Syria and what happened there,” Tucker said, adding that Kazakhstan’s major benefit from these repatriation efforts is the ability to facilitate a smooth reintegration of the returnees back into society.
Other experts, however, say Kazakhstan’s lenient approach in prosecuting some adult returnees and its lack of preventive measures on reoccurrence of radicalism among the returnees could be a challenge for the country in the long term.
“Lack of prosecution and receiving heroes’ treatment after returning from being members of a terrorist organization doesn’t send the right message to the public,” Vera Mironova, a researcher at Harvard University, told VOA, adding that many of the returnees are being used as a propaganda tool by the Kazakh government to project the power of the ruling elite.
U.S. officials said Washington has played an important role in providing Kazakh authorities with assistance for effective rehabilitation programs for the returning individuals.
Analyst Helf said Kazakhstan has taken a very “ideological” approach to the problem, measuring success by external modifications of behavior, such removing the hijab, a veil worn by conservative Muslim women.
“Although they do provide other material and mental welfare support, in Kazakhstan the primary emphasis is on de-radicalization,” he said. “They are weaker on the longer-term issues of trauma-informed care and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], educational accommodations for children with cognitive and emotional learning gaps, and long-term social work and tracking.”
But Steve Weine, a professor of psychiatry at University of Illinois who is involved in Kazakhstan’s reintegration efforts, says a rehabilitation program has been designed in a way that offers mental health care, family support, education and job opportunities for those who have been repatriated from Syria.
The program “is working on all these levels; it’s doing what needs to be done,” Weine said at the Atlantic Council event, adding that reintegration “is not simply an issue of de-radicalizing or separating people from ideology.”
He noted that a successful reintegration process should involve all aspects of resettlement, including housing, employment and public safety.
John Herbst, director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan and Ukraine, said that Kazakhstan’s repatriation program is “enlightened, very smart and it meets all of U.S. interests” regarding countering violent extremism in Central Asia.
According to the Soufan Center, a New York-based research group, more than 5,000 individuals from Central Asian countries have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join IS.
Calls for more repatriation
Kurdish officials in Syria have called on countries to take back their detained citizens, warning that they do not have enough resources to keep IS prisoners and their families in captivity indefinitely, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
Several Western countries, such as the United States, France, Germany, Britain and Finland, and countries from other parts of the world have repatriated some of their citizens.
On Wednesday, France said it had brought home seven children of French foreign fighters held in Syria, bringing the number of repatriated children to 35.