Trump says EU must take back Isis fighters captured in Syria
US president prepares to claim the end of the caliphate in northwest Syria
Some EU countries have said they are preparing to take back former jihadists captured in Syria. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/The New York Times
Donald Trump has told the EU it must take back its 800 Islamic State fighters captured in Syria by US-backed forces and put them on trial. The US president’s call came as he prepared to claim the end of the caliphate in northwest Syria with the fall of the final town held by the militant group.
Some EU countries, notably France, have said they are preparing to take back their former jihadists, but the UK has been more resistant: it says the fighters held by the west’s Syrian Kurd allies can only return if they seek consular help in Turkey. The UK government says it faces a dilemma, especially concerning the wives or children of British fighters, and a major challenge either to prosecute the fighters or prevent them from undertaking terrorist acts in their homeland.
Mr Trump tweeted: “The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 Isis fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them.
“The US does not want to watch as these Isis fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go. We do so much, and spend so much – Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing. We are pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory!”
Diplomats gathered at this weekend’s Munich security conference repeatedly warned that the capture of Isis-held territory does not mean an end to the Isis ideological and terrorist threat; they point to the way in which Isis forces are already regathering in Iraq, notably Mosul. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say they have cornered the remaining Isis militants in a neighbourhood of Baghuz village near the Iraqi border. Foreign fighters and families have featured prominently among those who have fled the village, which had been been a collection point for extremists who had fled other towns and villages across Syria and Iraq. It is thought to be the last redoubt of zealots who had fought in numerous clashes across both countries.
Mr Trump’s remarks mask an intense transatlantic debate under way between politicians and military over how to handle his unilateral decision to withdraw its 2,000 troops in northwest Syria. The US military, and Arab states, have been pressing the Trump administration to delay the move to give more time for an agreement to be reached on how the mainly Kurd SDF are to be protected from a potential Turkish incursion once US forces leave.
The Turkish defence minister, Hulusi Akar, met his US counterpart, Patrick Shanahan, on the sidelines of the Munich conference to press his plan for Turkey to establish a safe zone, saying the Kurds in the SDF are indistinguishable from the Kurdish PKK fighting a separatist terrorist war inside Turkey. The Kurdish leadership is resisting the move, fearing it will lead to either a massacre or displacement of the Kurds.
Akar said: “PKK terrorists do not represent our Kurdish brothers. There is no difference between the PKK and the YPG,” Akar told senior US officials during his meetings. He said clearing the Turkey-Syria border area from the PKK and its Syrian branch YPG has been a top priority for Ankara, in order to ensure the security of Turkish people. “A 440km-long (273-mile) safe zone in east of Euphrates should be cleared of the terrorist YPG group and should be patrolled by the Turkish forces,” he stressed. But senior Republican senators such as Lindsey Graham have acknowledged that the SDF has borne the brunt of fighting Isis, and there would be long-term implications for the US reputation in the Middle East if it was seen to desert its allies at this stage. – Guardian