For the United States and its allies, one issue is how to prosecute and deal with Westerners who joined ISIS and now want to repatriate. Thousands of civilians, many of them suspected ISIS family members, were evacuated from the last remaining ISIS-held area in January and February. Among them are several high-profile Americans and Europeans.
Hoda Muthana, daughter of a Yemeni diplomat and a so-called “ISIS bride,” joined ISIS in 2014 and the Obama administration revoked her passport in 2016. Now she is demanding to return to the United States from Syria. She is one of an estimated 3,200 ISIS members and their families who are being held in eastern Syria by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main U.S. partner in the coalition fighting ISIS. Citizens from 41 countries have been found among the ISIS members who surrendered or fled the battles to defeat the caliphate.
President Trump demanded in mid-February that European countries take back up to 800 ISIS fighters who are European Union citizens. But the United Kingdom and other countries have balked, seeking to strip U.K.-born ISIS members of their citizenship. Muthana’s family has challenged the Trump administration on its decision to block her return.
How can countries dealing with ISIS members protect the homeland and ensure that these extremists are held accountable for their crimes abroad,? The instinct to leave them in Syria, where ISIS committed the most cruel atrocities, is understandable. Syrians recently found a mass grave containing 3,500 bodies, many of them thought to have been executed by ISIS. It is one of dozens of mass graves of ISIS victims, particularly members of the Yazidi minority. ISIS members should face trial locally for their crimes, but human rights groups have criticized the Iraqi judicial system and the United States has no legal method to transfer ISIS members from Syria to Iraq.
Victims in Iraq, such as Ali Y. Al-Baroodi, a Mosul resident, demand that justice be done. Winning the war is only part of the battle, as we know from the end of previous wars. World War II didn’t end in 1945; it required the Nuremberg Trials and Genocide Convention of 1948, a key component of the foundation of the United Nations. Victims of ISIS, including murdered journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, must not be forgotten, and learning the lessons of ISIS radicalization is imperative.
In Syria, the problem of ending the war against ISIS is confounded by the U.S. intent to withdraw. On Feb. 21, the White House announced that several hundred troops would remain behind as part of an “international stabilization force,” the result of U.S. discussions with the 79-member coalition in Washington, and U.S. requests at the Munich Security Conference for European nations to step up support by sending more troops to Syria.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined post-ISIS policy goals in early February — among them, the need to gain justice for victims, to defeat any ISIS resurgence, and to support Iraq. But the overall Syria strategy is still being put in place and requires more clarity from Washington.
In some ways, the most difficult task of the fight against ISIS lies ahead. When ISIS held territory, it could be battled conventionally. Now the mission is to win peace, stabilize eastern Syria, prevent a resurgence of extremist terrorism, and make certain that military victory isn’t squandered through new conflicts.
Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post. His book, “After ISIS: How the Defeat of the ‘Caliphate’ Changed the Middle East Forever,” is forthcoming this year from Gefen Publishing.