We must help Syrians bring ISIS to justice

The Kurdistan region wants to prosecute ISIS suspects, but it must not be made to bear this burden on its own

Women walk inside the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp in the al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria on January 25, 2020, where families of Islamic State (IS) foreign fighters are held.  / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN
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Syrian Kurdish authorities have announced they will begin to put foreign ISIS members on trial next month, and have asked for the international community to aid them in the prosecutions. Almost one year after the fall of ISIS’s last bastion in Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who rule the country’s north-east, still hold 12,000 suspected ISIS members and their families in makeshift camps and prisons.

Syrian Kurds are in a delicate situation. They cannot hold suspects and their families indefinitely, but neither can they unilaterally return thousands of foreign fighters to face justice in their home countries. Nor can they try them all in Syria.

Despite their claims that trials will begin with or without foreign assistance, the stark reality is that such assistance is necessary in the broader fight against terrorism. Syrian Kurdish authorities simply do not have the financial means and technical expertise to undertake the endeavour on their own.

As things stand, the People’s Court of North and East Syria does not have defence lawyers nor the means to process appeals. Adding to their woes is the refusal of western countries that are part of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS to repatriate their own suspect nationals in spite of the SDF’s pleas. The UK has even gone as far as stripping ISIS members of citizenship to evade responsibility for its home-grown terrorists.

The SDF and other Syrian groups cannot be made to carry this burden on their own, not least because thousands of foreigners have been radicalised abroad and should be held accountable for their deeds in the countries where this radicalisation happened.

The SDF also has limited control over the region — a situation that has been further exacerbated by the Turkish invasion of north-east Syria that started in October. Ankara considers the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish group and the main component of the SDF, to be a terrorist organisation affiliated with its own insurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and has forced them out of the so-called safe zone it controls on the border. The SDF sought protection from Syrian president Bashar Al Assad to escape Turkey’s onslaught. Many terrorists who were held by the Kurds have taken advantage of the chaos to escape custody and regroup. Nearly 1,000 suspected terrorists fled Ain Issa camp in one day, and hundreds more could escape if tensions rise further.

Not only is co-operation necessary to help protect innocents from ISIS. It is also a key step in honouring the memory of survivors

Holding fair trials also requires a stable environment where the rule of law is respected and the administration will not change hands overnight. Syria’s ongoing civil war has made such conditions impossible.

Failing to bring terrorists to justice, and failing to help their captors detain them as humanely and as efficiently as possible, would reverse the hard-earned gains of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and its partners. It would also put the world at increased risk of terror attacks. The international community must work together to avoid such a catastrophe. Not only is international co-operation necessary to help protect innocents from an ISIS resurgence. It is also an important step in honouring the memory of fallen victims and survivors, and allowing their families closure.

Yesterday, the trial of Hashem Abedi, the brother of the man behind the Manchester Arena bombing in the UK, continued in London. The trial took four years to materialise, yet its outcome is still as relevant today as it was at the time of the bombing. The families of 22 victims deserve to know the truth about the deaths of their loved ones, and to seek justice for them. So do the many victims of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS lost its last territory in Iraq in late 2017, but corruption, an overall lack of funds and a shaky legal framework for terrorism suspects has failed to bring justice or curb terrorism. Convicted ISIS members were handed a death sentence after hasty trials, while others managed to escape and regroup at an even higher rate than in Syria, where war is ongoing. All countries should learn from these mistakes and do everything possible to ensure that justice is served.