The tragedy of ISIS fighters’ families left behind in Syria

Women and children are seen in a refugee camp in al-Hol, Syria, on June 2, 2019. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post)
Women and children are seen in a refugee camp in al-Hol, Syria, on June 2, 2019. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post)

Western disregard for the families of Islamic State fighters at the al-Hol refugee camp in northeast Syria is “unacceptable”, said the Swiss official who monitors compliance with international humanitarian law.

In a telephone interview Friday, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee for the Red Cross, sharply criticized the unwillingness of some Western countries to repatriate their nationals or explain their status at al-Hol. He had just returned from a five-day visit to Syria to investigate conditions at the refugee camps and prisons there that house the remnants of the shattered ISIS caliphate.

The avoidance of responsibility by many European governments for their nationals at al-Hol is especially disturbing, given that many of these countries denounced the United States for holding al-Qaeda members and other detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Conditions for thousands of Islamic State fighters and their families detained in Syria are far worse, but the European governments mostly remain silent.

European politicians are mum on the issue because it’s politically expedient. Repatriation of former Islamic fighters and their families is deeply unpopular in Europe, where right-wing politicians have fed public anxiety about migrants, especially Muslims.

France and Sweden, for example, have been hard-nosed in rejecting most repatriations. A February report by the United Nations child rights committee argued that “France has the responsibility and power to protect the French children in the Syrian camps against an imminent risk to their lives by taking action to repatriate them”. A 2021 study of Sweden’s “strict policy” on repatriation was headlined: “A European Guantanamo for Swedish children in Syria?”

“Each time I go to al-Hol, the situation becomes more unacceptable”, Maurer said after finishing his third trip there. The acres of ragged tents at the sprawling camp shelter about 57,000 people from more than 60 countries, and 90 percent of them are women and children, according to ICRC calculations.

Most of the residents are Syrian or Iraqi, but U.S. officials say that about 8,000 are related to “foreign fighters” from other countries. Only 25 of the 60 countries from which the refugees originally came have repatriated their nationals, according to a 2021 study by Human Rights Watch.

Maurer said he was troubled by the refusal of many countries to consider allowing families to return to their homes, or to clarify whether they are prisoners or refugees. “There is no status definition or accusation of crime that would lead to any due process”, he said. “That’s unacceptable to me as a guardian of the Geneva Conventions”.

Maurer said that foreign governments need to address the human rights issues of the camp’s residents. “Either you are a POW, or you are a civilian”, he said. “If you are a civilian, you should have access to a decent life”. Maurer noted that when countries in the Middle East have agreed to take refugees back, they have often been successfully rehabilitated, and that he plans to share these “positive experiences” when he meets with government official over the next few months.

The al-Hol camp exists in the netherworld of northeast Syria. The Syrian Kurdish militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces maintains security at the camp and in the surrounding region, with support from the U.S. military. “The Kurdish authorities say they are making their best effort, but they feel abandoned by the international community”, Maurer said.

I have a personal sense of the human misery within the camp, after a visit to al-Hol last month with Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, head of the U.S. Central Command. “The world needs to know what’s going on here”, he told me after we toured the camp.

Since that visit, Kurilla has discussed the issue with State Department officials and others in Washington, and with some foreign military leaders, according to his spokesman, Col. Joe Buccino. He said that Kurilla plans to visit the al-Hol camp and the prisons that house Islamic State captives in northeast Syria again soon to raise awareness about the issue.

At a time when Europeans are loudly backing a new campaign for Western values against Russian invaders in Ukraine, they ought to take responsibility for the detainees and refugees from the previous battle that Western nations waged, against Islamist radicals. There should be laws of war, now and always.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin.

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