A State Department official warned that the large number of non-Syrian fighters currently detained in Northeast Syria would pose less of a risk to global security if they went back to their home countries – including the U.S. – than if they stayed there.
Speaking to the Middle East Institute on Wednesday, acting State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Timothy Betts said there are roughly 4,000 to 5,000 non-Syrian fighters detained in the region, with tens of thousands of their family members in displaced persons camps.
“These staggering numbers point to a serious and ongoing security and humanitarian threat for the region and the broader global community,” Betts said.
Betts acknowledged that this is a “difficult” situation that cannot be solved easily, but he suggested that sending these people to their home countries is the best option.
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“We believe the only durable solution to the challenge we face in Northeast Syria is for each country to take back its nationals from detention facilities and displaced persons camps,” he said, noting that this includes people who fought for ISIS.
Betts argued that sending these people back to their home countries is better than keeping such a large number of them in Syria, where so much fighting has taken place.
“We must find ways to keep committed and experienced fighters off the battlefield,” he said.
Betts added that rather than trying to solve the entire problem at once, it would be worthwhile to start by focusing on three more solvable problems. The first, he said, is repatriating women and children, something that several other countries have been working on, including France, Belgium, Sweden and Germany.
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Betts encouraged efforts such as finding humanitarian efforts and working with other governments to get them to take their nationals back.
The longer the detainees and displaced persons remain in Syria, the more dangerous the situation becomes, Betts said, because it gives ISIS more opportunities to “leverage local support to train and reorganize,” which will result in the terrorist group working harder “to free detainees and recruit in the displaced persons camps.”
Betts recognized the downside to letting detainees and their families come home, pointing out that those who are not convicted of crimes at home can plan future attacks, and those who are convicted can potentially radicalize their future fellow inmates.
Even women and children could pose risks to their communities, he said.
Despite all this, however, Betts warned that “this must be balanced with the alternative: the possible resurgence of ISIS.”
“We believe the balance of risk is far greater leaving our nationals under the same kinds of tenuous circumstances that have led to previous prison breaks than if we developed a secure and structured way to remove them from an area of active conflict.,” he argued.