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Civilians flee amid Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras Al Ain in the Hasakeh province along the Turkish border on October 9, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Turkey’s military invasion of northern Syria raises some serious questions about the future status of up to 90,000 captives affiliated with the Daesh [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] who are currently being held by Kurdish-led forces.

The principal objective of the Turkish offensive, which has been dubbed “Operation Peace Spring” by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is to clear Kurdish fighters from their bases along the Syrian border with Turkey. Relations between Ankara and Kurdish separatist groups in northern Syria have been strained for decades, and Erdogan believes that, by establishing what he terms a “safe zone” in northern Syria, he can strengthen Turkey’s defences against Kurdish terror groups that have used the area to launch attacks.

The offensive has been mounted at a time when the US-led effort to destroy the Daesh in Syria is winding down, with President Donald Trump keen to end America’s military involvement ahead of next year’s presidential elections.

Yet, at a time when there is already evidence that the Daesh is regrouping following its recent defeats in Iraq and Syria, concerns are being raised in Western security circles that the Turkish action means the Kurds may no longer be able to continue guarding captured Daesh fighters, with the result that some may be able to escape and rejoin their terrorist comrades, thereby allowing Daesh to rebuild its strength.

It will certainly be hard, now that the security of captured Daesh fighters can no longer be guaranteed, for European governments to persist with their current policy of abandoning the fighters to their fate.

- Con Coughlin, defence editor of The Daily Telegraph

Although the majority of Daesh fighters and their dependents are held in areas outside the area affected by the Turkish offensive, such as the Al Hol detention camp located in eastern Syria, the concern is that Kurdish fighters will be redeployed from guarding Daesh detainees to help defend the Kurdish-controlled enclave. Mazlum Abdi, the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, has already announced that some of his forces tasked with securing the Daesh prisoners were leaving for the border to do battle with the Turkish military.

The Turkish offensive certainly places European countries like Britain in an awkward position, particularly with regard to the estimated 2,000 foreign Daesh fighters that are said to be held in the camps. These include several hundred who have links to Britain, such as Shamima Begum, who travelled from her home in East London to become a Daesh bride and has had her British citizenship revoked by the Home Office.

European obligation

The UK, in common with many other European countries, is refusing to repatriate citizens who went to fight with Daesh, a policy that has caused dismay in Washington, where the Trump administration believes its European allies have a moral obligation to deal with the detainees. At one point earlier this year an exasperated Trump threatened to dump the foreign fighters on the borders of the European countries from which they originated.

The prospect of some of these fighters being allowed to go free as a result of the Turkish incursion should certainly help to concentrate the minds of European politicians whose policy has essentially been to wash their hands of the Daesh fighters’ fate.

While EU officials will argue that tightened border controls will help to prevent Daesh fanatics returning home, the notion that captured fighters, some of whom are accused of committing barbaric crimes, will be allowed to go free is not an option any Western government can countenance.

more on the topic

American officials have already taken a lead by transferring two of the so-called “Beatles” captured while fighting for the Daesh into US custody to prevent them escaping amid the current chaos on the ground in Syria.

London-born Alexanda Kotey, 35, and El Shafee Elsheikh, a 31-year-old Briton born in Sudan, now face trial in the US on terrorism charges, which include the torturing and murder of Western hostages held during the caliphate’s short-lived existence.

Renewed pressure from Washington

Britain and other European countries are likely to come under renewed pressure from Washington to take similar action against their nationals held in Daesh camps. It will certainly be hard, now that the security of captured Daesh fighters can no longer be guaranteed, for European governments to persist with their current policy of abandoning the fighters to their fate.

It might save them the trouble of having to put Daesh captives on trial in their home countries. But if their failure to act results in Daesh being able to rebuild its terrorist infrastructure, they will face even greater challenges in future years.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.