The United States urged other countries on Monday to bring home hundreds of Islamic State sympathizers captured in Syria, a delicate issue for allies such as France as Washington withdraws troops.
After allies grappled for weeks on what to do with the extremists left in Syria, the United States came down clearly on the side of repatriation.
The United States said that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—which played a major role in crushing the Islamic State group and has warned that it may not be able to guard its jails once U.S. troops leave—had been holding the jihadists “securely and humanely.”
“The United States calls upon other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens detained by the SDF and commends the continued efforts of the SDF to return these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin,” State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement.
President Donald Trump on Dec. 19 stunned Western allies by announcing that the United States will pull its 2,000 troops out of Syria, declaring that the Islamic State movement had been defeated.
In a carefully worded statement, the State Department conceded that the group still had fighters who pose concerns. “Despite the liberation of I.S.-held territory in Iraq and Syria, I.S. remains a significant terrorist threat and collective action is imperative to address this shared international security challenge,” Palladino said.
One of the countries most concerned is France, which has been hit by a series of attacks inspired by the Islamic State group including the grisly November 2015 siege of the Bataclan nightclub. France last week opened the door to bringing back its citizens, after earlier insisting that the jihadists should be prosecuted locally. The French foreign ministry said its goal was to “avoid the escape and scattering of these potentially dangerous individuals” and acknowledged that the situation on the ground was changing with the U.S. withdrawal.
A French security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, earlier said that 130 people could be repatriated. A second French official said the group included 70 to 80 children held with their mothers.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are worried that, without U.S. troops as a buffer, they will be crushed by neighboring Turkey—which equates them with Kurdish separatists at home and had encouraged Trump to withdraw U.S. forces.