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US urges other countries to repatriate citizens held in Syria


FILE - Children gather outside their tents at the al-Hol camp, which houses families of members of the Islamic State group, in Hasakeh province, Syria, May 1, 2021.
FILE - Children gather outside their tents at the al-Hol camp, which houses families of members of the Islamic State group, in Hasakeh province, Syria, May 1, 2021.

The United States is urging other countries to follow its lead in repatriating their citizens from detention centers and displaced persons camps where former followers and supporters of Islamic State have been held since the collapse of the IS "caliphate" in 2019.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday the U.S. had repatriated 11 U.S. citizens from northeast Syria, including five minors.

"This is the largest single repatriation of U.S. citizens from northeast Syria to date," Blinken said in a statement.

U.S. officials say nearly 50 U.S. citizens have repatriated from Syria in recent years, but it's not clear how many Americans are being held in northeast Syria.

"As a part of this operation, the United States also facilitated the repatriation of six Canadian citizens, four Dutch citizens and one Finnish citizen, among them eight children," Blinken said.

Since the military defeat of the Islamic State terror group in 2019, thousands of foreign fighters and their families have been detained in camps and prisons in areas under the control of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. Among those held by the SDF are thousands of Syrian and Iraqi nationals who lived under IS when the group ruled parts of Syria and Iraq starting in 2014.

According to Kurdish officials in northeast Syria, around 43,000 people currently live in several detention camps in the SDF-held area. Most of them are Syrian and Iraqi, but several thousand come from at least 60 foreign countries.

Thousands of Iraqis have left the camp in coordination with Iraqi authorities. Significant numbers of Syrians have also left in arrangements between the SDF and Arab tribal leaders.

FILE - Kurdish forces patrol al-Hol camp, which houses families of members of the Islamic State group in Hasakeh province, Syria, April 19, 2023.
FILE - Kurdish forces patrol al-Hol camp, which houses families of members of the Islamic State group in Hasakeh province, Syria, April 19, 2023.

While many other countries have been taking back women and children affiliated with IS who are held in two detention centers in northeastern Syria, U.S. officials urge them to step up such repatriation efforts.

"The only durable solution to the humanitarian and security crisis in the displaced persons camps and detention facilities in northeast Syria is for countries to repatriate, rehabilitate, reintegrate, and where appropriate, ensure accountability for wrongdoing," Blinken said, reiterating the U.S. commitment to help other nations that wish to repatriate their nationals from northeast Syria.

Colin Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Center, said the recent U.S. "repatriation is significant, but I'm not entirely hopeful that it will spur other countries to step up or accelerate their own efforts."

"In many countries, including in the West, repatriation remains an unpopular issue politically and something that politicians believe could make them vulnerable," he told VOA. "This is especially true in some European countries where far-right populism has become dominant over the past several years."

Rights groups say living conditions have been deteriorating in al-Hol camp, one of two major camps in northeast Syria. The detention camp has witnessed a growing number of security incidents that have resulted in the deaths of many civilians.

Local tribunal

Authorities in the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria say while a full repatriation of foreign nationals in their custody doesn't seem possible at this time, there is a need to establish a special tribunal for IS foreign fighters in northeast Syria.

Aaron Zelin, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called this proposal "a non-starter."

"It's never going to happen. I don't know why people in the Autonomous Administration continue to push this," he told VOA in an interview. "It's not a recognized territory in the international stage, nor do people want their own citizens being tried by other judges that may not be trained on these issues, especially since they're not recognized."

Clarke said the Kurdish proposition to have local trials for IS foreign fighters "is a good case in the hypocrisy of the situation."

"On the one hand, some countries will protest this and allude to concerns over human rights issues, but at the same time refuse to repatriate these individuals back to their countries of origin," he said.

Potential IS resurgence

With 900 American troops on the ground, the U.S. has been assisting SDF fighters in combating remnants of IS in eastern Syria. But in recent months, militants affiliated with IS have stepped up attacks against the SDF and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in eastern and central Syria, respectively.

There are fears that an IS resurgence in eastern Syria would impact the situation in the detention camps in the region.

"I think people are underplaying the fact that it's not very stable there, and there's a lot of moving parts," Zelin said. "The U.S. isn't going to stay there forever, and to think otherwise is a bit naive."

He said Turkey, which views the SDF as a terrorist organization, would attack the Kurdish group if the U.S. leaves Syria, further complicating the issue.

"What's going to happen to the prisons? Turkey's not going to guard them. The Assad regime isn't going to care what happens to them. IS will be able to break people out of not only the IDP camps, but also the prisons, as well."

This story originated in VOA's Kurdish Service.

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