Officials in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the administrative arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)), have reiterated the demand for an independent international tribunal to prosecute ISIS fighters in SDF custody since mid-2019. However, going along this path is fraught with many obstacles and challenges. The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS refuses to push for the formation of such a court, arguing that this is outside the coalition’s mandate. Such a pretext also indicates that Western countries are not serious about taking back fighters belonging to their nationalities.

The Complexities

Toward the end of June, the foreign ministers of the coalition member states held a meeting in the Italian capital of Rome. In its final communique, the ministers acknowledged the detained foreign fighters’ challenge and their family members who remained in Syria. They said they are committed to pursuing effective accountability mechanisms in place in close coordination with the countries of origin of these fighters. There is no doubt that the Western countries’ move to bring back their nationals and try them on their lands and exchange intelligence information would remove the terrorist organization’s threat from the region.

However, an independent international tribunal in northeastern Syria to try ISIS elements would ensure that those involved in terrorism are held accountable. However, the obstacles facing the formation of such a tribunal go beyond the possibility of Western countries’ lack of seriousness or even unwillingness to take back ISIS detainees. These political complications can only be overcome through a political settlement in Syria if the ISIS detainees are entirely rooted out.

However, it seems the coalition countries or the European countries have had no clear policy for the post-ISIS era since declaring victory over it after eliminating its last strongholds in the east of the Euphrates in March 2019. Moreover, the organization’s continued presence in the Syrian desert indicates that the West is apprehensive about confronting the ISIS threat, realizing that it is not easy to bring full closure to the fight against terrorism in Syria in particular. Such an approach also suggests that resolution of this problem will not precede a political settlement as this would require the main stakeholders in Syria to agree on combating terrorism, a subject that Russia and the United States view differently.

Another factor hampering a special tribunal to try ISIS detainees outside Syria is the West’s inability to assume responsibility for ending ISIS in Syria once and for all. Besides, the West has failed to complete the legal arrangements related to the organization’s fighters detained in Syria. There are also no UN resolutions focusing on terrorism in new areas of wars and crises. These maneuvers suggest that such a court could be established on Syrian soil.

The Turkish Hurdle

Besides a final solution to the Syrian crisis, Turkey’s position is also considered an obstacle to a final solution to the ISIS detainee issue. Turkey believes that an international court in northeastern Syria, governed by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, will give the SDF legal and political legitimacy and international recognition.

Hence, if any progress is to be made, the United States should discourage Turkey from obstructing such efforts. Turkey has got involved in the Syrian crisis to serve its interests and thwart any move to form the international court. Ankara does not want to give legitimacy to the SDF, which it considers an extension of the PKK in Syria, which Turkey classifies as a terrorist group. Turkey seeks to exploit the escape of some of the organization’s leaders through its territory before arresting them for getting a voice and a more significant role on this issue.

The Syrian Kurdish parties loyal to Ankara (led by the Kurdish National Council) refuse to give any political role that would legitimize the control of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and behind it the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the SDF in northeast Syria. Moreover, the continued obstruction of the Kurdish dialogue hinders stability in the region and obstructs a court on Syrian soil to try ISIS detainees. 

Russia and the US

Russia has its views on the fight against terrorism and the fate of detainees in northeastern Syria. Moscow looks at it as a card it can use to expand its control in the northeastern regions of Syria and lure the SDF to its side. Russia is also bargaining with the Europeans and the United States regarding detainee trials as it believes that this issue should be part of an integrated package to combat terrorism in Syria. Russia has also launched media campaigns highlighting its efforts to target ISIS sites in the Syrian desert.

Russia will also not accept an international tribunal in northeastern Syria without entrusting the coordination of the arrangements for this court to the central government in Damascus (an option supported by the latter). This would create a new obstacle to the court. Soon, the United States and Europe will reject such a condition and eventually prevent any Russia-US coordination and understanding on this issue.

The most significant responsibility lies with the United States, which is leading the international coalition to combat ISIS. Washington can put pressure on other coalition members to find an appropriate mechanism to deal with ISIS terrorists detained in Syria. This includes sending them back to their countries of origin and prosecuting them or supporting an independent international tribunal in Syria.

The last option is supported by the fact that the organization members fought in Syria and were arrested on its territory. If this option is chosen, the formation of the court must be backed by an international consensus, cover, and sponsorship. In parallel, the outstanding issues in Syria must be addressed to ensure consensus among all stakeholders in Syria, foremost of which is the fight against terrorism, before moving forward with the political process.

Nevertheless, such options may not become a reality without a political agreement between Washington and Moscow in Syria. It seems that the coming period will be appropriate to push the settlement efforts forward, especially after we have seen Russia-US coordination on humanitarian aid. It is time to move to a more sensitive issue, the fight against terrorism. Progress on this front would eventually enhance understanding and coordination between the two sides and help find a balanced political settlement in Syria.

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