June 14, 2023 - 7:00am

If you’ve forgotten all about the war against Isis in Syria, then you’re not alone. European governments, thousands of whose expatriate jihadists are being held in squalid and overcrowded jails in Northeastern Syria, have been happy to ignore the issue of their captive citizens until now. For that exact reason, after four years of pleading for European aid, the region’s Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration, or AANES, has announced that it will begin mass trials of the Isis suspects within days.

As an AANES statement released over the weekend declared, since 2019 “AANES appealed and repeated its calling on the international community to fulfil its responsibilities in finding solutions to the issue of Isis elements in its custody,” to no avail. Consequently the AANES will begin “public, fair and transparent trials in conformity with international and domestic laws on terrorism” while “we call on the international community to respond to our demands for the formation of an international court.” 

The problem has two fundamental causes, both difficult to resolve. Back in 2019, when Isis made its last stand in the remote Syrian town of Baghuz, the US-backed AANES’s SDF military forces temporarily halted its successful campaign to evacuate surrendering Isis families, and were surprised by the thousands disgorged from the seemingly empty desert. As well as genuine humanitarian concerns, the AANES presumably believed that managing the detainees would confer political favour from the West, including international recognition for their statelet and the security advantages of a sustained Western presence to fend off the ever-present Turkish threat. 

But neither of these materialised, due to the second problem: under current laws, without specific evidence of wrongdoing, European governments, whose citizens make up around one quarter of the 10,000 Isis prisoners, would find it difficult to prosecute their wayward citizens. Flying Isis members home and then promptly releasing them would not only constitute a major security risk; it would also anger European voting publics. 

So far, countries like Britain have dealt with the problem through the double strategy of removing citizenship from those with dual nationality (a useful precedent, established in the face of significant domestic opposition, it would be desirable to keep) and ignoring the rest. Additionally, while providing the AANES with military support against Isis, European governments have remained wary of granting the PKK-linked administration meaningful diplomatic recognition. But for the AANES government, this legal and diplomatic limbo is no longer tenable, hence the announcement of trials which, in reality, are beyond its financial, logistic and security capabilities to hold.

How should the problem be resolved? There’s a strong moral case for European governments to take responsibility for their citizens without taking on the risks of repatriating them. At the very least, European governments should send legal observers to oversee the trial process, lessening the risk of successful future challenges by their lawyers at home.

But more ambitious options are available. Still tenuously supported by its American patron, the AANES is fearful of further Turkish invasions. A European ground presence in Northeastern Syria, though in reality dependent on continued American military support, would do much to allay Kurdish anxieties.

An international effort to fund and build secure, humane, modern jails in Northeastern Syria, perhaps staffed by European-trained locals, would be a relatively low-cost, high-impact temporary solution, and a form of moral restitution to Syrians who suffered at the hands of our expatriate citizens.

A modern European jail network in Syria would be an efficient compromise between the Kurdish desire to achieve justice without the financial burden of securing these dangerous prisoners, and the natural European wish to keep them far away from our shores as long as possible.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.