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Kurds Determined to Try IS Foreign Fighters in Syria

FILE - Prisoners that are said to be Islamic State fighters by Syrian Democratic Forces(SDF) fighters, are pictured north of Raqqa city, Syria, March 8, 2017.
FILE - Prisoners that are said to be Islamic State fighters by Syrian Democratic Forces(SDF) fighters, are pictured north of Raqqa city, Syria, March 8, 2017.

Syrian Kurdish officials seem firm on moving ahead with their plans to put captured Islamic State (IS) foreign fighters on trial in Syria, despite little international support.

Nearly one year after declaring the physical defeat of IS’s so-called caliphate in eastern Syria, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led military alliance backed by the U.S., says it is ready to try IS foreign fighters through its local judicial system.

“Since all evidences, witnesses and victims [of IS fighters] are present in our region, we have proposed to hold their trials here.” said Kamal Akif, a spokesperson for the foreign relations office at the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria.

“We have been discussing this issue with all sides,” he told VOA.

The SDF holds about 12,000 IS fighters, including 2,000 foreign fighters who hail from about 50 countries. There are also about 12,000 foreign women and children affiliated with the terror group that are held in detention camps in eastern Syria.

Many of the countries IS fighters come from have largely declined to take them back. Thus, the SDF hopes its new proposal would garner enough support from countries such as the U.S., France, Britain and Germany.

“So far we have received positive vibes from our international partners,” Akif said, adding that they “could soon begin practical matters” related to trying IS foreign fighters.

Other Kurdish officials have said that proceedings would get under way as soon as this month.

International reluctance

Western governments, however, have been reluctant to approve this move.

“We believe that foreign terrorist fighters need to be returned to their home countries,” Ambassador James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy to Syria, told reporters in February.

“The policy should be, as we have done with some eight people brought back, is to put them on trial,” he said.

A small number of Americans who had joined IS in Syria have been sent back to the U.S. to face terrorism charges, according to U.S. officials.

But there are no official estimates of American IS fighters currently held by the SDF in Syria.

The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism has reported 80 U.S. citizens or residents who traveled to Syria or Iraq to join IS and other extremist groups since 2011.

Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, says without action from the international community toward an implementable alternative, the Syrian Kurdish forces will likely proceed with their approach.

“Western countries still appear to remain firmly against the repatriation of foreign fighters, at least in large quantities,” she told VOA.

“Aside from whether any conviction or sentences will be recognized outside of the SDF administration, it also remains a question the extent to which the SDF has the will, the attention, and the resources to carry this out for such a large number of fighters as the landscape in Syria is ever changing,” Thomas said.

Legal obstacles

Despite controlling nearly one third of Syria’s territory, the SDF-led administration is not an internationally-recognized entity. And this, experts said, would perhaps make it tricky for local Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria to carry out such trials.“

What makes this even more complicated is that the SDF autonomous administration doesn’t have formal relations with the Syrian regime, which is at least recognized internationally,” said Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher specialized in Islamist militancy.

He said that “what the SDF is trying to justify is that these foreign fighters have committed crimes on Syrian territory, therefore it is totally legal to try them for such crimes inside Syria.”

But Kurdish official Akif stressed that, “We want these trials to be in accordance with international law and standards.”

For example, unlike in neighboring Iraq, the Syrian Kurdish administration said it will not impose the death penalty on IS detainees.

SDF-run courts also have been convicting Syrian IS fighters and acquitting those who were found not involved in perpetrating violent acts.