Foreigners who joined Daesh face almost certain death in Raqqa

Members of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces gather near the main traffic circle in Raqqa on Friday. (AP)
Updated 21 October 2017
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Foreigners who joined Daesh face almost certain death in Raqqa

PARIS: The forces fighting the remnants of Daesh in Syria have tacit instructions on dealing with the foreigners who joined the extremist group by the thousands: Kill them on the battlefield.
As they made their last stand in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, an estimated 300 extremists holed up in and around a sports stadium and a hospital argued among themselves about whether to surrender, according to Kurdish commanders leading the forces that closed in. The final days were brutal — 75 coalition airstrikes in 48 hours and a flurry of desperate Daesh car bombs that were easily spotted in the sliver of devastated landscape still under militant control.
No government publicly expressed concern about the fate of its citizens who left and joined Daesh fighters plotting attacks at home and abroad. In France, which has suffered repeated violence claimed by Daesh — including the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris — Defense Minister Florence Parly was among the few to say it aloud.
“If the (Daesh) jihadis perish in this fight, I would say that’s for the best,” Parly told Europe 1 radio last week.
Those were the orders, according to the US.
“Our mission is to make sure that any foreign fighter who is here, who joined ISIS (Daesh) from a foreign country and came into Syria, they will die here in Syria,” said Brett McGurk, the top US envoy for the anti-Daesh coalition, in an interview with Dubai-based Al-Aan television.
“So if they’re in Raqqa, they’re going to die in Raqqa,” he said.
The coalition has given names and photos to the Kurdish fighters to identify the foreign terrorists, who are seen as a threat back home and a burden on their justice systems, according to a commander with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The commander said his US-backed fighters are checking for wanted men among the dead or the few foreigners among the captured.
An official with the powerful People’s Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the SDF that also runs the local security and intelligence branches, said foreigners who decided to fight until the end will be “eliminated.”
For the few prisoners, the Kurds try to reach out to the home countries, “and we try to hand them in.
But many would not want to take their (detainees),” he said.
No country will admit to refusing to take back citizens who joined Daesh, including women and their children. But few are making much of an effort to recover them.
In Iraq, hundreds of Daesh fighters have surrendered or have been taken into custody, and their families have been rounded up into detention camps. The men are put on trial and face the death penalty if convicted of terrorism charges — even if they are foreigners. One Russian fighter has already been hanged.
France, which routinely intervenes when citizens abroad face capital punishment, has said nothing about its terrorists in Iraq. More French joined Daesh, than any other European country.
Foreigners captured by Kurdish forces are in a more precarious position because the SDF does not answer to Syria’s regime and has no state of its own. A Syrian woman whose French husband surrendered to Kurdish authorities in June said she had no access to him and didn’t know where he was 50 days after they separated. She denied her husband was a Daesh fighter.
The camps for displaced civilians from Raqqa contain only foreign women and children. As for the fate of any French citizens there, France’s Foreign Ministry had a short response: “Our priority today is to achieve a complete victory over Daesh.”
German diplomats say all of the country’s citizens are entitled to consular assistance.
As the final battle in Raqqa drew to a close, Parly estimated a few hundred French fighters were still in the war zone. For Germany, about 600 men were unaccounted for.
At its height, between 27,000 and 31,000 may have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh, according to an analysis by the Soufan Group. Of those, about 6,000 were from Europe, with most from France, Germany and Britain. A majority had immigrant backgrounds and was heavily targeted by the group’s propaganda, which highlighted the injustices they faced at home. One study found that fewer than 10 percent of the Western fighters were converts to Islam.
As many as a third of the Europeans may have returned home. Many are jailed immediately and awaiting trial in backlogged courts, but others are freed and under surveillance.
Raqqa’s foreign holdouts are generally acknowledged to be midlevel Daesh recruits, and most are believed to have little information about the group’s inner workings. US Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the coalition, said he had no information about any “high-value targets” among around 350 fighters who surrendered in Raqqa in the last days, including a few foreigners.
But for their home countries, they pose a risk.
“The general sentiment in northern Europe is we don’t want these people back, but I don’t think anyone has thought about the alternatives,” said Pieter Van Ostaeyen, an expert on the Belgian terrorists.
Among the complications are how to prosecute any returnees and how to track them if and when they leave custody.
“You can see why almost the preferred resolution is that they don’t return,” said Bruce Hoffman, head of Georgetown University’s security studies program and author of “Inside Terrorism.”
“What worries me is I think it’s wishful thinking that they’re all going to be killed off,” he added.
Wishful thinking or not, Parly said it’s the best outcome.
“We cannot do anything to prevent their return besides neutralize the maximum number of terrorists in this combat,” she said.


Few takers for Hezbollah offer to repatriate Syrian refugees

Syrians prepare to leave their refugee camp in the city of Arsal in Lebanon's Bekaa valley on the eastern border with Syria. (AFP)
Updated 20 July 2018
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Few takers for Hezbollah offer to repatriate Syrian refugees

  • A number of refugees from the town of Flita were reluctant to return after hearing of revenge incidents
  • “Hezbollah’s mission in Syria has not yet been completed and as long as the threat of terrorists lingers there, Hezbollah will stay no matter the number of fighters”

BEIRUT: More than 11 days have passed since Hezbollah opened reception centers in Bekaa, a southern suburb of Beirut, and southern Lebanon where Syrian refugees can apply to return to their home country. However, the number of applicants so far has been rather small.
Many of the refugees had one simple question for the Hezbollah officials at the centers: “Will you take us to the Lebanese-Syrian border and dump us there or will you take us to our houses, which you helped destroy, inside Syria?”
Hezbollah opened the repatriation centers in response to the Iranian position, which was later confirmed by Hossein Jaberi Ansari, the Iranian president’s special envoy to Beirut. He said: “One of our top priorities at this stage is the issue of Syrian refugees and ensuring their safe return to their homeland. We cannot discuss a final solution to the Syrian crisis unless refugees are back in their homeland, cities and villages.”
On July 23, about 1,200 people will return from the Lebanese town of Arsal, near the border with Syria, to their homes West Qalamoun.
Arsal Mayor Basil Al-Hajjiri said that the return of this group, the third batch of refugees to go home, comes within the framework of a reconciliation with the Syrian authorities, and in coordination with Lebanese General Security.
He added that it had been initiated by the refugees themselves.
“Most of those refugees do not have identification papers to travel outside Arsal and they acted before Hezbollah urged them to submit applications through the party’s centers, and prior to Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil’s call,” said Al-Hajjiri.
“They have agreed to return in light of the developments in the areas surrounding their homes. Neither Hezbollah nor minister Bassil can make them return if they were not fully convinced of their ability to go back to their homes under safe circumstances.”
A source responsible for Hezbollah’s refugee application center in Hermel said it had received telephone calls from Syrians in Wadi Khaled, northern Lebanon, saying it was difficult for them to get to Bekaa to register but that they want to return to their hometown of Talkalakh, having fled the fighting there.
A Hezbollah official said: “Communicating with those refugees requires certain arrangements on which we are currently working.”
But what guarantees can Hezbollah offer refugees who wish to return?
The official said: “Hezbollah’s mission in Syria has not yet been completed and as long as the threat of terrorists lingers there, Hezbollah will stay no matter the number of fighters.”
The Hezbollah source in Hermel confirmed that they do not provide any reassurances or guarantees to refugees about what might await them upon their return to Syria.
“We take individuals’ and families’ names and promise to secure the transportation of all their belongings, but if their houses were destroyed, we cannot promise to rebuild them,” he said. “We collect applications and submit them to the concerned committee.”
Asked how Hezbollah can reassure refugees of their safety even though the party’s fighters are still operating inside Syria in support the regime against the opposition, the Hezbollah official said: “People fought and reconciled throughout the history of mankind. A reconciliation must take place and I believe it is what refugees want.”
He fears that if the Syrian refugees remain in Lebanon, they may cause a demographic change, pointing out that each of the families that had registered at the center included at least 10 members.
Former member of Parliament Nawar Al-Sahili, who heads the committee formed by Hezbollah to oversee the return of Syrian refugees, said the number of registered families so far does not exceed 150.
“We want to send people back to safe areas, not ones that are still undergoing security developments; repatriation does not include returning to Idlib or Deir Ezzor, for instance,” he said, adding that “the applications will be handed over to the Syrian authorities to be approved.”
As for what awaits refugees who return to Al-Qusayr and its countryside, given that most of them are dissidents who took part in anti-regime demonstrations, Al-Sahili said: “We must find a solution for this issue.”
Arsal Mayor Al-Hajjiri said the information he has been given suggests the return of refugees to Al-Qusayr has been postponed by the Syrian authorities and Hezbollah.
“There is great destruction and people want guarantees that can only be provided by those controlling the territory,” he said.
Al-Hajjiri added that a number of refugees from the town of Flita were reluctant to return after hearing of revenge incidents. He believes the return of refugees to Al-Qusayr and its countryside will require not only a reconciliation but a general amnesty.
He pointed out that the road to West Qalamoun is safe but there is a need for a diplomatic route, which remains impassable for now.