US, European allies clash on militants’ fate in Daesh talks

Coalition members must take back the thousands of foreign terrorist fighters. Pompeo said. (AFP)
Updated 16 November 2019

US, European allies clash on militants’ fate in Daesh talks

  • Senior officials from more than 30 countries pledged greater coordination in the campaign against Daesh

WASHINGTON: The US and its European allies clashed on Thursday over what to do with thousands of militants jailed in Syria, with Washington calling a French proposal to try fighters in Iraq “irresponsible.”

Senior officials from more than 30 countries pledged greater coordination in the campaign against Daesh in a meeting in Washington proposed by France, which has been particularly concerned by President Donald Trump’s decision last month to pull US troops from Syria.

Trump’s move allowed an incursion by Turkey aimed at destroying Kurdish guerrillas, who had led the fight against Daesh and run jails for captured extremists in their effectively autonomous area in northern Syria.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed the Europeans on foreign fighters, telling them, “we’ll hold them to account.”

“Coalition members must take back the thousands of foreign terrorist fighters in custody and impose accountability for the atrocities they have perpetrated,” Pompeo said.

But Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, acknowledged that “there is, candidly, a difference of opinion about the best way to resolve this problem.”

“The United States thinks that it’s inappropriate to ask Iraq in particular to shoulder the additional burden of foreign fighters, particularly from Europe,” Sales told reporters after the one-day meeting.

“It would be irresponsible for any country to expect Iraq to solve that problem for them,” he said.

“We think there should be a sense of urgency to repatriate now while we still can,” he said.

Sales’s comments clearly were directed at France, which has opened talks with Iraq about trying foreign nationals.

European nations such as France and Britain have no desire to see the return of battle-hardened supporters of the ultra-violent group, which has claimed responsibility for a slew of grisly attacks against civilians.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said his government was seeking the “certain and lasting detention” of fighters and noted that the vast majority of prisoners were Iraqis and Syrians.

“For our part, we will continue to say that they should be tried as close as possible to the crimes they committed,” he told reporters.

“Let’s never forget that these women and men who joined Daesh made a fully conscious choice to fight for a terrorist organization,” he said, using the group’s Arabic initials.

European governments have revoked the citizenship of a number of citizens over alleged Daesh links.

Such a step is virtually impossible in the US, although a court Thursday backed the State Department’s finding that one US-born recruit, Hoda Muthana, did not have US citizenship as her father was a diplomat from Yemen.

Trump argues that the US accomplished its military mission in war-ravaged Syria by crushing Daesh, although he has since said that US troops will stay on to secure oil fields.

Pompeo dwelled little on Trump’s decision but said US forces remained positioned to make sure Daesh “will never get a second wind,” using a common acronym for the group.

The United States will continue to lead the coalition and the world on this essential security effort,” Pompeo said.

He scoffed at criticism of Trump’s move, pointing to the October 26 raid by US forces that killed the group’s chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as well as an operation that killed his would-be successor.

“Ask them if there’s a deficit of American leadership in fighting” Daesh, Pompeo said.

The talks came a day after Trump welcomed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House, a rapid turnaround in symbolism just weeks after Trump threatened to destroy the NATO ally’s economy over its incursion.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking alongside Pompeo, acknowledged that there were “differences” among alliance members on Syria, where the situation he said “remains fragile and difficult.”

But Le Drian said France felt reassured by a joint statement’s reaffirmation of a coalition, saying that all members agreed “to avoid unilateral steps without consulting with others.”

The ministers also said they would hold a meeting next year focused on Daesh in West Africa, where the extremists have staged increasingly destructive attacks.


Hundreds of employees fired from Turkey’s Incirlik air base

Updated 25 January 2020

Hundreds of employees fired from Turkey’s Incirlik air base

  • Incirlik Air Base is located in Turkey’s Adana province, near the Syrian border, and it has been a strategic element in ties between Ankara and Washington
  • It has also played a key role for the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) against Daesh in Syria and Iraq in the past

ANKARA: More than 420 people working at a crucial military air base in southern Turkey have lost their jobs, with some analysts considering it symbolic of decreased cooperation levels with the US and as the Pentagon reconsiders Middle East deployments.
Incirlik Air Base is located in Turkey’s Adana province, near the Syrian border, and it has been a strategic element in ties between Ankara and Washington. It has also played a key role for the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) against Daesh in Syria and Iraq in the past, as well as hosting US nuclear warheads.
The Colorado-based company Vectrus System Corporation, which provides day-to-day maintenance and operation services at the base, terminated the contracts of almost half of its employees at the base earlier this month.
“The base surged to support OIR,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Arab News. “The Turkey-based staff for OIR has mostly left. So, the base is going back to its pre-OIR level of people, and that level requires less contractor support.”
Vectrus did not reply to Arab News’ request for comment about its decision to scale back at the base.
Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said the move was largely symbolic as the canceled contracts related to logistical support rather than the US military mission.
“But obviously, it comes against the background of some tensions in the US-Turkish relationship and previous hints by Ankara that it might reconsider the status of the Incirlik base,” he told Arab News. “The Pentagon is reconsidering its deployment across the Middle East and it might be looking to become less dependent on Incirlik without fully exiting this crucial military air base.”
Incirlik air base has been used in the past as a bargaining chip at times of tension between the two countries.
“Turkey may re-evaluate the status of the Incirlik Air Base if the US imposes sanctions,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last month in an interview with pro-government channel A-Haber, referring to the potential fallout from Turkey’s decision to buy an air defense system from Russia. 
Washington has threatened to use its Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act to punish Ankara for buying the S-400 system.
Seth J. Frantzman, who is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, said reports of the US reducing presence at Incirlik, or challenges to the US presence there, have been growing over the last years.
“Whether these reports relate to changes or are just random is unclear and it is important to note that the large interests of the military and history tend to mean the US does not simply walk away from bases, even if it reduces its role slowly over time,” he told Arab News.
The US has invested heavily in the Jordanian Muwaffaq Salti Air Base to expand its presence there.