Following the announcement by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) that it plans to begin putting some of the estimated 2000 foreign ISIS fighters in its care on trial, Medya News is convening an expert panel to ask whether and how the proposal can work with support from international powers.
The panel discussion, to be held via Twitter Spaces at 7PM CET on Wednesday 12 July, will bring together Human Rights Watch Associate Crisis and Conflict Director Letta Tayler, former International Coalition to Defeat ISIS spokesperson and Newlines Institute Senior Non-Resident Fellow Myles Caggins III, and co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) Saleh Muslim, a leading Syrian Kurdish politician.
The AANES’ military wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led the defeat of ISIS on the ground as the key local partners of the US-led International Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The SDF lost around 11,000 fighters in the process, but was able to secure ISIS’ territorial defeat in early 2019. Since then, the SDF and associated security forces have been holding third-country national ISIS fighters from around the world, with the current population estimated at around 2000 individuals, alongside around 10,000 Syrian and Iraqi ISIS fighters. The situation is further complicated by the presence of tens of thousands of ISIS-linked women and children, including at least 10,000 third-country nationals, many of them highly radicalised and posing a further security threat.
Following ISIS’ defeat, break-out attempts have been commonplace, most notably a 2022 uprising which cost hundreds of lives, while Turkish attacks against North and East Syria (NES) have also allowed ISIS to break out en masse. More broadly, the presence of so many foreign ISIS members constitutes a major security, financial and humanitarian burden for the impoverished, internationally-unrecognised region, with radicalisation continuing apace in over-populated, poorly-resourced camps and prisons.
The continued detention of ISIS members without trial has been widely condemned for failing to adhere to international legal norms, denying ISIS members their right to a trial and their victims the right to a just and enduring settlement. The US continues to advocate for the repatriation of foreign ISIS fighters to their home countries to face trial, but only four percent of all foreign fighters detained in NES have been repatriated, with many countries preferring to allow their nationals to remain incarcerated in NES despite the admitted security, humanitarian and legal issues this poses.
As such, the AANES has announced it plans to imminently begin trying foreign ISIS fighters in local courts which have already tried thousands of Syrian ISIS affiliates, providing the highest standards of justice of any regional political actor. Around 10% of those tried in AANES terror courts have been found innocent, with many others serving out their sentence or being released under regular amnesty programmes. Critics say the AANES legal system is flawed and is not recognised by the international community, while for its part the AANES continues to advocate for international engagement, support and monitoring to enable it to bring ISIS to justice, with officials arguing that years of inactivity are only contributing to the terror group’s ability to organise, launch continued attacks, and plan its revival.
The Medya News panel will ask whether the time has come for the West and the US to take a more dynamic approach in actively supporting the AANES proposal, or any other alternative; how and why the international community can extend support to ensure the trials reach the highest possible standards; and what form a long-lasting, durable solution to the crisis presented by foreign ISIS fighters detained in NES might look like.
Join our expert panel on Twitter Spaces via this link at 1PM ET / 6PM BST / 7PM CET.