Bashar Al-Assad has had a good month. On July 17, he was sworn in for a fourth term, the second election he has won – “won” needs to be placed in stark, black quotes – since the outbreak of the civil war. That same day, 10 children and six mothers from a jihadi detainee camp in northern Syria started a new life in Belgium, the largest number of suspected ISIS members repatriated to a European country since the collapse of the militant group two years ago. The Belgium case is important because it represents the biggest breach of a European “firewall” stopping the return of imprisoned ISIS fighters and their families since the group’s collapse.
It is particularly relevant because Belgium, despite its relatively small population, sent the most European fighters per head of population to the former ISIS proto-state, and also the fourth-highest in absolute numbers. Only France, Germany and the UK sent more, and those are the three countries most vehemently opposed to taking back their citizens from Kurdish-run prison camps in Syria. (Numbers are estimated, but those three countries certainly sent at least half of the 5,000 Europeans thought to have joined ISIS.)
Germany has accepted just three mothers, but France and the United Kingdom – which is fighting a very public legal battle to keep one of its citizens, Shamima Begum, from returning – have only ever accepted orphans. Neither country has ever accepted an adult detainee from the prison camps. France even insists that mothers remain behind in the camps if they want their children repatriated, although it is unclear if any have agreed.
Belgium originally maintained the same policy and accepted only children, but has softened its stance. As Belgium begins to repatriate adults – and there could be as many as 400 of them in northern Syria – pressure on its neighbors to do the same will grow.
Taking back European citizens who joined ISIS is little short of a nightmare scenario for governments. The Belgium case is the thin end of the wedge: in the hierarchy of detainees the public can accept, orphans and mothers with young children are at the top. They are followed, at some distance, by those who claim to have been non-combatants or there under duress, so-called “jihadi brides.”Finally, there are the adult fighters.
Governments worry – not unreasonably – that once the firewall against accepting adults is breached, hundreds of detainees will have to be returned. Even if they are prosecuted, the muddled complexity of every court case will be carried out in full view of the media – every lenient sentence, every acquittal, every lack of remorse will constitute a political firestorm.
The firewall is crumbling in part because of pressure from the United States. When America’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was in Europe for Joe Biden’s first visit last month, he publicly called the refusal of EU countries to take back their citizens “untenable.”
American pressure on European countries to repatriate detainees is one of the policies of the Trump administration that the Biden government has continued. Donald Trump once threatened to “release [ISIS fighters] into the countries from which they came,” if European countries didn’t take them themselves.
At the heart of this is a tussle between European intelligence services and the US military. The former is concerned at the vast cost of monitoring hundreds of fighters, wives and children, most of whom will not be prosecutable because of the degraded standard of battlefield evidence. The latter – the US sent relatively few fighters – are concerned that those left in camps will eventually become a military problem that they will be called upon to fix.
But it is also crumbling because of pressure from Turkey. Starting at the end of 2019, Turkey has taken a harder line on ISIS fighters and their families inside Turkey, deporting those held in its prisons, sometimes with very little warning, to Germany, France, the US and the UK. Once these countries accepted the principle of taking back detainees from Turkey, it became harder to argue they shouldn’t also take detainees held a few kilometers across the border.
For years, European governments have hoped that the problem would go away, or at least be deferred for so long it would become someone else’s problem. But the public stance taken by the United States, and now the repatriation of Belgium citizens, significantly changes the calculation. Sooner or later, most European citizens will have to leave northern Syria.
That is good news for the Assad regime. Since the start of the uprising, the regime has sought to “externalize” the costs of the war against its people. Millions of Syrians have fled and become refugees abroad. Now those who came from abroad to fight in Syria are leaving.
There is also a more sinister political benefit for the regime. With US troops gone from the border, and now European citizens being repatriated, Western countries will have less reason to be concerned about what happens in northeastern Syria. The Kurdish region is one of only two areas of the country beyond regime control. Al-Assad’s war to reclaim it – which he vowed again to do in his inauguration speech – will be easier to conduct once Europe’s unwanted citizens go home.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.