He made the comments in a series of tweets on Saturday demanding that Britain, France, Germany and other European allies put more than 800 detained cadres from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS) with their citizenship on trial.
The president issued the warning as a US-backed militia battles the last remaining ISIL combatants in a tiny sliver of territory in eastern Syria.
“The caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them,” Trump said of the war prisoners.
The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them……..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2019
Trump caused widespread concern among US allies in December when he suddenly announced the US would withdraw about 2,000 troops from Syria and that ISIL had already been defeated.
Critics warned the armed group remains a threat and a pullout could lead to its resurgence, with US allies in the region not equipped to handle it alone.
James Jeffrey, the US special representative on Syria, said on Sunday at a security conference in Germany the troop drawdown will not be an “abrupt or a rapid withdrawal”.
“It’s going to be an orderly, step-by-step withdrawal and at each point … we are looking at our underlying goals. Our general principle is, particularly with ground forces, not to keep them on when other people can be doing the job,” said Jeffrey.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed Kurdish-led force, launched an offensive last week to dislodge ISIL from the village of Baghouz – the only area still under its control in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border.
Several hundred ISIL soldiers remain in a one-square kilometre area, with the expectation most will fight to the death.
As the SDF advanced under heavy US air attacks in recent days, thousands of civilians have fled the area, along with defeated fighters trying to escape unnoticed.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said on Sunday the fighting for Baghouz continues and he accused ISIL of holding about 1,000 civilians hostage after retreating into tunnels underneath the village.
Turkey, which regards the SDF’s strongest component the Kurdish YPG as “terrorists”, has threatened to march deeper into northern Syria to drive the armed group back.
Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defence minister, said his country’s internal security from Kurdish armed groups was at stake.
“We have respect for the territorial and political integrity of Syria but the main issue … is the security and safety of the Turkish border and Turkish people,” Akar said at the Munich conference.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned on Sunday the United States would not protect those depending on it, in reference to the Kurdish fighters who control much of the north.
“We say to those groups who are betting on the Americans – the Americans will not protect you. The Americans will put you in their pockets so you can be tools in the barter… Nobody will protect you except your state,” said Assad.
Any foreign troops in Syria will be dealt with as occupation forces, he added, suggesting the Syrian army will return to the area after the American troop pullout.
“Every inch of Syria will be liberated, and any intruder is an enemy,” said Assad.
What to do with ISIL?
Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera that Trump’s remarks on the United States’ ISIL captives were a “recurring theme”.
“The big question is where will they put these fighters,” Nader said.
“If they put them in French prisons, then it will be known that these prisons have become organising cells. The larger European public does not want these fighters to come back … because they are responsible for terrorist acts.”
Germany can take back ISIL fighters captured in Syria only if the suspects have consular access, the interior ministry said on Sunday.
“In principle, all German citizens and those suspected of having fought for so-called IS have the right to return,” said a ministry spokeswoman.
She said Iraq had shown an interest in having some ISIL cadres from Germany put on trial. “But in Syria, the German government cannot guarantee legal and consular duties for jailed German citizens due to the armed conflict there,” she said.
Some 1,050 people have travelled from Germany to the war zone in Syria and Iraq since 2013 and about one-third have already returned to the country.
Though ISIL members are believed to have gone underground as sleeper cells in Iraqi cities, their territorial rule is, for now, almost over.
It ends a project launched from a mosque in Mosul in northern Iraq in 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seized advantage of regional chaos to proclaim himself ruler of an Islamic state in the area.
He set up a governing system with courts, a currency, and a flag that at its height stretched from northwest Syria almost to Baghdad, encompassing some two million people.
According to Nader, the root causes that led to the emergance of ISIL still remain.
“All the political grievances, the ethnic grievances [are still there] and poverty is widespread in this region,” he said.