In the Face of Western Discomfort, Syrian Democratic Forces Trade ISIS Prisoners

The Islamic State (ISIS) is not defeated but it is diminished. The fates of those who fought and are fighting for ISIS similarly exist in two states.

Many ISIS members have been captured on the battlefield and these fighters, some from foreign countries unwilling to have them back, languish in jails administered by local forces. Keeping them is a burden. So, too, is dealing with the lapses of Western countries that are refusing to prosecute those who travelled to fight for ISIS. It can, however, have its uses.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led militia that controls a large portion of north-eastern Syria and serves as the primary proxy of the global coalition fighting ISIS, holds many ISIS militants as prisoners.

They are both locals and foreigners. Recently, the SDF captured two British foreign fighters, Alexandaa Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, who had formed part of a cell of black-clad executioners dubbed the ‘Beatles’.

The United Kingdom has been stalling any attempt to have these fighters extradited and tried in Britain. There are legal obstacles to proving crimes committed openly but for which evidence is hard to gather in the Syrian war zone. However, Britain and some other countries also operate on the hope that their foreign fighters might become someone else’s problem and no longer trouble their home states and domestic politics.

It is not surprising that, in such a situation, the SDF and other regional partners may use these fighters to advance their own aims.

The Telegraph reported that from February-June, the SDF struck three deals with ISIS remnants to exchange former ISIS fighters and their families for captured SDF soldiers. February’s deal involved 200 fighters, some of whom were French and German foreign fighters. Another in April included French, Belgian and Dutch fighters, in addition to women and children.

Speaking by telephone, Haid Haid, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), said: ‘More information is needed to verify that existence of the deal and to know … whether this is a one-off.

‘In general, the SDF has previously brokered deals with ISIS fighters that would mainly allow them to escape in exchange for surrendering their areas. A similar deal may not come as a complete surprise.’

Haid noted that the SDF doesn’t have the capacity or resources to secure prisoners indefinitely. Thus, such a deal would allow the SDF to have back some of its fighters, in exchange for prisoners who will be trapped and killed later, he said.

The coalition pleaded ignorance when questioned about these prisoner exchanges but it is unlikely that the process, which included extensive mediation by local tribes, could be carried out without the coalition and its constituent nations learning what was happening.

The SDF struck a deal with ISIS in Raqqa, which allowed the militants to evacuate their fighters and their families as the battle reached its final and bloodiest stage. This spared the SDF forcing a hard denouement. It made tactical sense but it did not match up to coalition and SDF rhetoric of defeating ISIS fully and preventing it from ever again holding territory.

When the Raqqa deal was reported after an investigation by the BBC, the coalition, per Haid, responded: ‘We are aware of the deal but we are not part of it’.

This option of stressing deniability is possible for prisoner exchanges but it does not solve the problem of what to do with ISIS fighters. The coalition does not want to deal with ISIS prisoners but in no way wants them free.

Shiraz Maher, a lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London, tweeted: ‘Western governments have a lot of blame here – they’ve shown a complete unwillingness to prosecute these guys. Everyone buried their heads in the sand.’

Condemnation of SDF actions would not invalidate the tactical advantage the SDF sees in such exchanges.

All the while, coalition countries can be assailed with charges of hypocrisy. Not only did coalition nations fail to deal with their foreign fighters; they are unlikely to elicit sympathy for appearing shocked that the SDF has acted in this way.

This knowledge runs both ways. If coalition nations criticised the deals more aggressively, the SDF has information that might be useful in embarrassing its critics.

The SDF and other local partners, such as Turkey, know the details of coalition troop deployments east of the Euphrates. More important, SDF leaders know how coalition countries deal with foreign fighters: targeting them specifically with special forces on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, drawing up ‘kill lists’ for aerial strikes and, if such people are caught, refusing to extradite and prosecute them at home. This information could be embarrassing if it had wide circulation.

This suggests that, at least so far as dealing with ISIS prisoners is concerned, the coalition’s reasonable concerns can be diminished dramatically with legitimate charges of real hypocrisy.

This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

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