Europe, Turkey and a ticking time bomb
Next month’s NATO summit will be a tense gathering, perhaps one of the most tense since the organization’s founding at the end of the Second World War. European members are likely to demand answers for America’s haphazard policy in Syria, saving a stern finger-wagging at Turkey for its incursion into civil war-torn Syria. These actions by the organization’s two largest militaries are at odds with the group’s core tenets of collective security, defense cooperation and the coordinated pursuit of grander geopolitical goals.
NATO is now faced with an unprecedented crisis since Washington abandoned an ally and crucial counter-terrorism partner, the Kurds, to an exasperated Ankara on a warpath aimed at kneecapping Kurdish ambitions for a proto-state on its southern border. Furthermore, Turkey has not only defied precedent in purchasing a $9 billion Russian missile defense system, incompatible with NATO systems, it is currently running joint patrols with the organization’s largest geopolitical rival in Syria.
Before that gathering on Dec. 3, there are major storm clouds already brewing, further casting the group’s solidarity in jeopardy.
Turkey announced this week that captured Daesh fighters, now languishing in Turkish prisons, will be repatriated to their countries of origin as soon as next week. Initially, officials in Ankara reported that there were some 242 Daesh fighters from 19 different countries being detained by Turkish authorities. However, an announcement by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan raised that number to 1,149 former members, including women and children. The conflicting numbers may just be a characteristic of the ongoing chaos or a Turkish ploy to raise the urgency of the announcement for an as-yet announced goal.
Nonetheless, the announcement has caught Europe flat-footed. Consensus settled on simply revoking the citizenship of the Daesh-bound disaffected, hoping they would be subject to Iraqi or Syrian justice and detention. After all, Daesh’s crimes and illegal activities happened on their soil and European courts will have no purview to try any alleged crimes within their own countries and levy any form of incarceration.
However, Syria is still embroiled in a civil war that has severely incapacitated its institutions while Iraq is still plagued with post-civil war domestic instability and ongoing protests. In short, both countries lack the capacity to prosecute and imprison Daesh fighters as Europe hopes.
Granted, the repatriated could still end up on terror watch-lists, but European counterterrorism agencies will still have to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that these former Daesh fighters pose a danger to society. Anything short of conclusive evidence demonstrating that a particular group of the repatriated were involved in plots against their native homeland, while in Syria or Iraq, will likely be thrown out by most European courts.
Unfortunately, Daesh long grew beyond the shadow of its leadership and while the camps and prisons stand, it remains very much alive.
The reality is, most of the repatriated may not face justice at all after their return. They become ticking time-bombs that reintegrate into communities, curbed only by over-stretched clandestine counterterrorism operations that can only monitor potential threats. Already, many agencies are warning that conditions during the five-year Daesh reign as well as at the camps has rendered former fighters (including their families) incapable of peacefully reintegrating. It will also be political suicide to do so since public opinion leans heavily on the side of keeping them as far away from the homeland as possible.
There is an additional dimension that is likely to be Europe’s angle of attack in their criticism of this move by Ankara. Many of the Daesh-bound flew to Istanbul and took long-distance buses headed into Syria, including women and girls. The argument here is that since Turkey was slow-footed in curbing these transitions, they essentially facilitated the growth of Daesh and must now take responsibility by absorbing some of its remnants. In addition, Turkey created this crisis by launching an incursion into Syria, targeting Kurdish positions, some of them which held Daesh prisoners — a fact known to Ankara. This begs the question, why did Ankara not have a plan or program to deal with Daesh detainees after forcing the Kurds (and US forces) to retreat?
The question is important because if Europe rejects the repatriation of former Daesh fighters and families, does that mean they will be released? If so, with their citizenships revoked, the most likely course of action of any released detainees would be to settle in the gaping cracks still prevalent in Syria and parts of Iraq.
There is the likelihood of a resurgent and far more dangerous Daesh, incensed by the death of its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi at the hands of US forces as well as their defeat and detention at the hands of a perceived mortal enemy, the Kurds. It is not difficult to imagine who will be targeted by remnants of the group — and there is a possibility that Ankara is counting on it, given their animosity towards the Kurds, which has already led to sporadic killings and whispers of an ongoing ethnic cleansing operation.
Turkey controls areas that have Daesh prisons at Kobane, Qamishli and Derik as well as a camp that holds suspected Daesh members’ families at Roj. If Ankara is really determined to empty these facilities as purported, Europe’s slow-footed response to questions about repatriation will certainly bear some of the responsibility for this crisis. Indeed, there are no easy solutions since detaining repatriated Daesh suspects or their families will simply create more problems than solve them, given that the European jails will facilitate further radicalization — especially in France where a disproportionate number of the incarcerated are Muslim. Turkey’s ham-fisted approach is also fraught with dangers because if former detainees successfully re-launch a more secretive, potent terror organization capable of targeting the US and Europe, it would risk alienating Ankara even further from its allies.
Ultimately, the situation is an impossible matrix — a frustrating catch-22 that has potential losses for all involved. No one wants a return of Daesh, yet Turkey’s announcement establishes the conditions for it. At the same time, there is little incentive to find a permanent solution for thousands of detained suspects and their families — even though conditions at the camps have led to more violence, prison breaks and escape attempts.
To the world at large, defeating Daesh and taking out its leadership was a crucial undertaking, a very welcome “success.” Unfortunately, Daesh long grew beyond the shadow of its leadership and while the camps and prisons stand, it remains very much alive. Even more, as long as Syria and Iraq remain unstable, Daesh still has potential to re-emerge and thrive — albeit in a different, far more lethal form than the proto-state it attempted to carve out of Iraq and Syria.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell