Politics·Analysis

Canada's failure to repatriate former ISIS fighters and families leading to 'inevitable' crisis: experts

Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria have warned they'll have to limit the guarding of ISIS prisoners as the U.S. prepares to stand aside in the event of Turkish invasion of the region - leaving the fate of dozens of Canadian detainees up in the air.

As many as 32 Canadian men, women and children may be held in Syria

Members of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) are shown in a 2018 file photo. Turkey has warned of a military incursion into northeast Syria to push back the YPG from the border. Now, the Trump administration says it is pulling U.S. troops from Syria, which could leave Turkey free to move against the Kurdish forces. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

Canada and other Western countries that have failed to repatriate citizens who fought for the Islamic State and now are detained in northern Syria, may soon face an even deeper conundrum about what to do about them, experts warned Monday.

The Trump administration has signalled it is prepared to stand aside in the event of a Turkish invasion of the region, which would be aimed at dislodging the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), a U.S. ally in the war against ISIS.

Stark criticism from Republicans in Congress forced U.S. President Donald Trump to temper earlier tweets by saying he would stop Turkey from going too far with an incursion, but the gyrations have created turmoil among policymakers and allies.

Since the fall of ISIS, the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the YPG, have been holding approximately 11,000 ISIS detainees, including 2,000 foreign fighters, in more than two dozen camps.

There are as many as 32 Canadians (six men, nine women and 17 children)  in two camps in northeastern Syria, according to research by Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen's University's school of religion, which was published in Policy Options magazine last summer.

In the face of a Turkish military offensive, they could soon be free.

Was bound to happen

"Something like this was bound to happen," said Michael Nesbitt, a senior fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. "There was always a risk something like this would happen and if we didn't take action [to repatriate them] national security could be put at risk...I'd be worried about the Canadians, where they end up."

Over the weekend, the Kurds indicated they will pull military forces away from detention facilities and refugee camps in order to fight Turkish forces, said John Dunford, a Syrian expert at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

Over the last year, there have been four documented cases of detained ISIS fighters organizing riots or small-scale escape attempts at camps in Syria and northern Iraq. 

Dunford said these incidents were not co-ordinated or sophisticated, but that may be about to change, because ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has ordered his followers to step up efforts to free those who've been captured.

"There is concern given the vulnerability of some of these facilities," Dunford said. "Some of them are literally schoolhouses that have been converted. Even just the threat of a Turkish offensive into northern Syria, we could see an abandonment of those facilities."

Prisoners could walk away

The consensus among defence and security experts is that the Kurds would let the prisoners go, leaving detainees and their families free to either return home, or rejoin the insurgency.

Dunford said, in his estimation, getting back into the fight is the most likely scenario for prisoners who could be released.

Some former Canadian ISIS fighters and their families have indicated they want to return home, but the Liberal government has said it's too difficult and northern Syria is too dangerous for Foreign Affairs staff.

In this 2017 photo, Kurdish soldiers from anti-terrorism units, background, stand in front of a suspected Islamic State member at a security centre in Kobani, Syria. Foreign fighters from Canada and other Western nations detained by the Kurds may go free if Turkey moves against Kurdish forces inside Syria. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

"Canada has been unwilling,"said Nesbitt, who noted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointedly called on Canada at the end of August to take back its citizens detained in Syria.

"We don't have a political party that has said it would deal proactively with these fighters. Usually, it's leave them there — or some such policy. And now, we're seeing the repercussions of that."

Heated debate in the Commons

The fate of former Canadian ISIS militants and their families has been the subject of heated debate on the floor of the House of Commons and Conservatives have been fundraising off the notion, accusing the Liberals of welcoming home jihadist fighters.

Nesbitt wouldn't comment on the politics, but said the result of policy inaction has boiled down to this: "Who knows where they are going to go? At the very least, we no longer have control over them."

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said earlier this year as many 60 foreign fighters have returned to Canada, but only a small number of them had travelled to Syria, Iraq and Turkey. 

Most, he said, had travelled elsewhere.

It has been suggested that gathering evidence overseas to prosecute them — at least to a standard acceptable to Canadian courts — would be difficult.

"I simply do not know what our rationale has been in following this course," Nesbitt said.

Kurds betrayed?

Much of the political narrative in Washington on Monday revolved around the notion that the withdrawal of U.S. forces was a betrayal of the Kurds, who were seen as being among the most capable fighters against ISIS.

But Ben Friedman, the policy director of Defense Priorities, another Washington-based strategic institute, said the policy of extracting the U.S. from the Syrian civil war is not wrong, but the execution has been horrible.

"My view is that we have the right end in wanting to withdraw," Friedman said during a conference call with reporters, "but we have completely bolloxed up the means of doing that."

The Trump White House signalled early last winter that it wanted out of Syria and Friedman said the time in between should have been used to prepare the Kurds for that eventuality.

Canada restricted its operations against the Islamic State to Iraq and never ventured into Syria.

WATCH - From The National, Harrowing scenes inside Syria's Idlib province:

Syria’s Idlib province is an area where the government hasn’t stopped fighting the rebels. CBC's Chris Brown travelled with the Russian military to get a rare glimpse inside Idlib. 2:01

About the Author

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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