'A ticking time bomb': Anti-ISIS allies debating next steps after U.S. withdrawal

"Success," Winston Churchill supposedly said, "is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm." That could be the motto of foreign ministers in the anti-Islamic State coalition as they gather Thursday in Washington.
A Syrian Kurd holds his hand on the barbed wire fence that marks the Turkey-Syria border on the outskirts of Kobani, seen from the Turkish side of the border outside the village of Yumurtalik, on Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. (Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press)

"Success," Winston Churchill supposedly said, "is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm." That could be the motto of foreign ministers in the anti-Islamic State coalition as they gather Thursday in Washington.

Representatives of 30 nations, including Canada, are meeting at the insistence of the French.

The gathering comes after U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew American special forces troops from northeastern Syria this fall, clearing the way for a Turkish military incursion and imperilling relations with the Kurds, who have shouldered the bulk of the fighting against the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will not attend, as the newly re-elected Liberal government is in the process of finalizing cabinet appointments, but a senior official is slated to be there.

The recent killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the major bright spot in a chaotic situation — maybe the only one.

The foreign fighter problem

"All in all, we believe that we have good news to present to the coalition," said a senior U.S. State Department official, speaking on background ahead of the meeting.

One of the major points of contention will be the refusal of Canada and other western nations to take back their citizens who fought for ISIS, along with their families, many of whom are in Kurdish prisons after the collapse of the caliphate. 

The American official said the U.S. government intends to "be as forward-leaning as possible to get these people back to their home countries."

An elderly Syrian Kurd woman holds a bottle of water after crossing the border between Syria and Turkey near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, on September 20, 2014. Several thousand Syrian Kurds began crossing into Turkey on September 19 fleeing Islamic State fighters who advanced into their villages. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

The Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria, aimed at reducing the Kurdish presence along Turkey's southern border, and the subsequent involvement of the Russian military have created ripples of instability, ramping up fears that ISIS prisoners could either be set free — or escape.

"It is a ticking time bomb to simply have the better part of 10,000 detainees, many of them foreign fighters, and tens of thousands of family members in a situation that is not all that secure," said the U.S. official.

The death penalty problem

The position of many European governments is that former ISIS extremists should be tried in the regions where their crimes took place, and where evidence can be gathered.

It is a proposition that makes many of those same nations uncomfortable, given that the Kurds, the Iraqis and the Syrians are ill-equipped to host international war crimes trials, according to a senior diplomatic official with intimate knowledge of the file told CBC News.

The Iraqis might be able to pull it off.

"The problem Canada has acutely, and others share, is that there are a whole series of legal political constraints that means we are not prepared to turn people over to a process that would end in the death penalty or any other kind of abuse," said the diplomatic official, who was granted anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions. 

"The Iraqis are pretty clear they are not in the business of making concessions to their laws for foreign fighters. They say, 'Why would we treat foreigners more leniently than our own citizens?'"

'There's a very good chance they'll walk'

The option of bringing them home is equally unpalatable to the nations in the anti-ISIS coalition.

"The Europeans are equally clear," said the official. "They don't have the legal and prosecutorial mechanisms to properly process them.

"So, you bring them back to Europe, there's a very good chance they'll walk."

There are a number of other Gordian Knots for coalition countries to untangle. For instance: how do they continue to hunt down the remnants of ISIS amid a toxic mix of heavily-armed Syrian, Russian, Kurdish, American and coalition troops operating in the same confined region?

One idea would be for the coalition to hold territory east of the former ISIS capital of Raqqa. But there's a problem with that idea: a significant chunk of that territory is still ISIS heartland and ripe for a resurgence. Holding ground there would require help from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces — who feel betrayed by the American withdrawal and the Turkish onslaught.

There are also nuts-and-bolts questions that need to be answered on Thursday, said the unnamed diplomatic official. "Can we practically retain a presence in the northeast that is safe. How many soldiers are we talking about deploying? What are their rules of engagement? Do we need to maintain air cover?"

President Trump has directed that anti-ISIS operations continue on the ground in northeastern Syria, and that includes partnerships with local forces, the American State Department official said.

"If we do not have a local partner, we cannot operate in northeast Syria against ISIS," he said. "We've made that very clear to coalition partners and others."

Whether that's a practical approach remains to be seen, and will be a subject of discussion Thursday. 

The sense among allies is that Russia intends to break the already strained coalition relationship with the Kurds, the diplomatic official said.


Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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