European foreign fighters in Syria: The cost of inaction

Repatriation remains the most effective way for EU member states to assess each case, prosecute jihadists where necessary, and interrogate returnees to learn more about ISIS methods and plans.

For months, European governments have struggled to come up with a policy on the hundreds of their citizens who travelled to join the Islamic State group (ISIS) in the Middle East and were then captured by local forces. Reluctant to bring their nationals home but lacking an alternative plan for dealing with them, EU member states simply put off the decision. Turkey’s incursion into north-eastern Syria and US troops’ withdrawal from the region have highlighted the cost of this delay in the starkest terms. Suddenly, European countries face the prospect of losing track of their foreign fighters and ISIS supporters, as the area in which detainees are held becomes a battlefield.

When the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took over the last parts of ISIS-held territory in early 2019, they were forced to detain tens of thousands of the group’s followers. Among them were several hundred men, and a larger number of women and children, from European countries. As the SDF did not have the capacity to process such a huge number of captives, it held them in a series of improvised prisons and vast, overcrowded refugee camps. In the last six months, the Kurdish administration has called repeatedly for more international help in dealing with these people. But European countries have done almost nothing to take responsibility for their citizens: Italy has taken back a single fighter, while other EU member states have repatriated only small numbers of children.

European countries’ avoidance of any steps to take charge of their foreign fighters is particularly striking in light of the fact that President Donald Trump had already expressed his desire to withdraw US troops from Syria. His announcement in December 2018 that he would pull US troops out of Syria sparked a flurry of discussions in at least some EU member states about options for repatriating their detainees, due to the instability the withdrawal would create. But, as Trump appeared to step back from his decision, the sense of urgency faded. European voters strongly opposed the repatriation of ISIS members, while some European governments worried about the difficulty of prosecuting all returning jihadists or otherwise monitoring them at home.

The SDF’s detainees are spread across the part of north-eastern Syria the group has controlled since rolling back the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate. The SDF holds fighters in a range of facilities, the largest of which are reportedly in the towns of Hasakah and Dashisha. The group has detained women and children in three large camps at al-Hol, al-Roj, and Ain Issa. Most foreign women and children are in a special annexe in al-Hol, but a few Europeans are in the other camps (including Shamima Begum from the United Kingdom, who attracted wide publicity after giving a newspaper interview earlier this year, and is now in al-Roj).

As the Turkish incursion unfolds, it is unclear what will happen to the prisons and camps that contain these foreign fighters and ISIS supporters. But, even in the last few days, the operation has had a significant impact on the situation. An outbreak of fighting around Ain Issa, the camp nearest to the border zone invaded by Turkish troops, appears to have allowed large numbers of women and children to escape the facility. The United Nations has expressed “grave concern” for the welfare of those who fled the camp, which holds a mixture of ISIS-affiliated families and other refugees. If Turkish forces capture European ISIS followers, Ankara will likely try to send many of them back to their home countries. There have also been reports of small numbers of men escaping from makeshift prisons.

European countries have done almost nothing to take responsibility for their citizens.

The fighting has not yet reached the larger prisons or al-Hol. But the SDF announced that it would reduce the level of security at al-Hol. And the camp has seen mounting unrest in recent weeks, with the hardline ISIS supporters who allegedly control sections of the camp meting out harsh punishments to those they deem faithless. Even before the Turkish incursion, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called on his followers to focus on freeing detainees from prisons and camps. His group is likely to profit from the security vacuum created by the Turkish military’s battles with the SDF and pro-regime fighters – and will benefit even more if it can release its detained followers. If Turkish forces move into areas that contain the remaining prisons and camps, they are unlikely to take over the facilities in an orderly manner. There will almost certainly be a breakdown in security that allows more prisoners to escape.

In recent weeks, European countries have worked on a plan to transfer detained ISIS followers to Iraq for prosecution. According to Belkis Wille of Human Rights Watch, one option they discussed was the creation of a special chamber in the Iraqi judicial system that would exclude the death penalty. But, in the short term, it is implausible that European countries will either carry out this plan or repatriate detainees. European planning for large-scale transfers has included a major role for US troops, who are now out of the picture. There is no security organisation capable of overseeing a controlled transfer of prisoners – particularly given that the SDF has other priorities, to put it mildly.

If the situation stabilises and the Kurds retain independent control over the camps, European countries will have another chance to remove their citizens. The Kurdish authorities have made clear that they lack the resources to continue holding prisoners. They want to shift responsibility for them as soon as they can. But plans to move alleged ISIS members to Iraq are incomplete and, in any case, likely to raise serious concerns about inhumane treatment and a lack of due process in the country. Recent protests and state violence in Iraq could also hinder such operations.

Despite its political and legal challenges, repatriation remains the most effective way for EU member states to assess each case, prosecute jihadists where necessary, and interrogate returnees to learn more about ISIS methods and plans. Given that conditions in Syria could continue to deteriorate, European countries should seize any opportunity to remove their foreign fighters – and thereby reduce the chance that they will re-emerge as threats down the line.

But the rapidly shifting situation in north-eastern Syria raises another possibility. As negotiations between the Kurdish authorities and the Syrian government continue, Damascus could emerge as the arbiter of the detainees’ fate. A regime with a well-documented history of torturing and killing prisoners would have control of many hundreds of European citizens, including large numbers of children. Some in Europe might be tempted to welcome developments that made President Bashar al-Assad responsible for dealing with a problem they have long sought to evade. Yet, given Assad’s cynical instrumentalisation of extremist fighters in recent decades, this could have an uncertain and dangerous outcome. Assad may choose to use these foreign fighters and their family members as a bargaining chip, further weakening Europe’s position on this highly sensitive issue.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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