Syria: SDF calls for help with 'time bomb' ISIL fighters

Abandoning foreign ISIL fighters in Syria would be a 'very big mistake', spokesman for US-backed militia warns.

    The US-backed SDF militia has captured about 800 ISIL fighters in Syria [Felipe Dana/AP]
    The US-backed SDF militia has captured about 800 ISIL fighters in Syria [Felipe Dana/AP]

    Hundreds of foreign ISIL fighters held in custody inside Syria are a "time bomb" for the region and the world, the Kurdish-led, US-backed authorities holding them warned.

    World powers should increase efforts to prosecute detainees belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS) group and rehabilitate their families. Otherwise, they could escape and threaten the West, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Co-Chair of Foreign Relations Abdulkarim Omar said on Monday.

    "It seems most of the countries have decided that they're done with them, 'let's leave them here', but this is a very big mistake," he said.

    Omar added the SDF would not release the fighters despite an earlier claim by US President Donald Trump that they would be freed unless taken in by European countries.

    "We could never do this," he said.

    Omar also warned any attack on the region by Turkey, which has vowed to crush the US-backed People's Protection Units (YPG), which spearheads the SDF, would lead to chaos and potentially allow the detainees to escape.

    'Time to step up'

    Trump suggested the captured ISIL fighters - who number around 800 of nearly 50 nationalities - could be freed unless Europe takes them back.

    The SDF urged the United Nations on Monday to set up a tribunal to deal with fighters and their families.      

    "We have asked the different countries to repatriate their own citizens since there is no recognised legal infrastructure in northern Syria. But there has been no response and the terrorists and their families are still in our camps," Mustapha Bali, an SDF spokesman, told German news agency dpa.

    "We call on the United Nations to establish a special international court for the Daesh terrorist organisation," Bali said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL. 

    Britain, Germany rebuff Trump

    EU foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday to discuss the issues surrounding the repatriation of ISIL members, which has become increasingly urgent as the battle for the group's last redoubt ramps up.

    The United Kingdom and Germany have already expressed doubts over Trump's plan, arguing it would be difficult to implement.

    "It is clearly not as easy as what has been put forward in the United States," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday before the Brussels meeting.

    "These people could only then come to Germany if we can ensure they are immediately put in custody. It's not clear to me how all that can be guaranteed," he added.

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    Maas' comments followed an earlier rebuttal of Trump's stance by the British government, which suggested the ISIL fighters should be put on trial in places where they committed their crimes.

    "Foreign fighters should be brought to justice in accordance with due legal process in the most appropriate jurisdiction ... [and] where possible, this should be in the region where the crimes had been committed," UK Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesperson said.

    The spokesperson added London continued "to work closely with our international partners on this".

    Call for continued support

    European officials complain that dealing with the fate of the detainees has been made more complicated by Trump's abrupt announcement in December that he plans to pull out the 2,000 US troops protecting the area where they are being held.

    The surprise announcement prompted the US military to caution in a report published this month that the group "could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory" if sustained pressure was not maintained.

    Following talks with senior US generals on Monday, SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Kobani called for 1,000 to 1,500 international forces to remain in Syria to help fight ISIL and expressed hope that Trump would halt plans of a total pullout.

    "We would like to have air cover, air support and a force on the ground to coordinate with us," Kobani said.

    The SDF are currently poised to seize ISIL's last holdout, the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz, situated near the Iraqi border on the banks of the Euphrates River.

    SDF spokesperson Bali told the AFP news agency on Monday that ongoing clashes with the group's fighters were "sporadic and very limited", with ISIL using "human shields" to block the SDF advance.

    The SDF "are still working on trying to get civilians out", Bali said.

    Thousands of people have streamed out of the so-called "Baghouz pocket" in recent weeks, but no civilians have made it out in the past three days.

    What should be done with foreign ISIL fighters captured in Syria?

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    What should be done with foreign ISIL fighters captured in Syria?

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies