US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, attend multilateral meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel in Riyadh, on June 8, 2023. Image Credit: AP

RIYADH: Riyadh and Washington urged Western governments on Thursday to repatriate citizens who joined the Daesh (Islamic State) group in Iraq and Syria, where thousands still languish in prisons or camps.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said it was “disheartening and absolutely unacceptable” that some wealthy countries had not brought their nationals home.

“To those countries, you must step up, you must take your responsibility,” he told a meeting of the international anti-Daesh coalition that was attended by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The “caliphate”, which Daesh proclaimed across swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014, was declared defeated in 2019 following counter-offensives in both Iraq and Syria.

Thousands of militants and their family members continue to be held in detention centres and informal camps where US commanders have warned they could fuel a Daesh revival.

Despite repeated calls for their repatriation, foreign governments have allowed only a trickle to return home, fearing security threats and domestic political backlash.

$148.7 million for stabilisation efforts for Iraq and Syria

Blinken applauded countries, including Canada, that have brought home their nationals from Syria, urging other nations to follow suit.

“Repatriation is critical” to reduce populations of large informal camps such as Syria’s Al Hol, which houses 10,000 foreigners, including Daesh relatives, he said.

“Failure to repatriate foreign fighters risks that they may again take up arms,” he told coalition partners, pledging $148.7 million for stabilisation efforts for Iraq and Syria.

The anti-Daesh coalition was formed in 2014 following the militants’ lightning advance that saw reports of atrocities multiply as they overran non-Muslim as well as Muslim areas.

Despite its territorial defeat, militants continue to conduct attacks against civilians and security forces in both Iraq and Syria.

The United Nations estimates that Daesh still has 5,000 to 7,000 loyalists across the two countries, roughly half of whom are fighters.

In April, the US-led coalition reported a significant drop in IS attacks in both Iraq and Syria since the start of the year.

Daesh attacks in Iraq dropped by 68 per cent through April, while Syria saw a 55 per cent decrease during the same period, the coalition said.