Ten years on, amid a worldwide pandemic, Syria’s brutal civil war has faded into the background of global consciousness. But its grim realities carry on — one of them being what foreign governments should do about their citizens that are now languishing in Syrian detention camps after having gone to join the Islamic State (ISIS).
Behind the terror group’s medieval bloodlust always laid a sophisticated state-building enterprise. Combining a deft digital-media operation with the administrative capacity to wage war, trade oil and collect taxes while at the same time providing jobs, health care, utilities, municipal services and basic education, ISIS promoted its so-called caliphate as a modern paradise of fundamentalist Sunni Islam.
The opportunity to live under strict Sharia law — and be martyred for dying to defend it — drew over 20,000 foreign fighters from more than 90 countries around the world, including dozens from Canada. But since ISIS was driven from its last Middle East stronghold in early 2019, loyalists in the region have been rounded up and held in more than 20 violent and overcrowded desert detention camps in northeastern Syria, run by a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish-led militia groups.
The camps contain a complicated and volatile mixture of displaced Syrians, Iraqi refugees and ISIS fighters and their family members, including thousands of foreigners. Among them are at least eight Canadian men and 35 women and children. The largest of these sites, al-Hol camp, contains 60,000 people. Close to 50 residents have been murdered there in the last few months, while hundreds of children have died, and continue to die due to malnutrition, dehydration or preventable illnesses.
Kurdish authorities have warned that they don’t have the resources to manage the detention centres indefinitely. The number of guards at al-Hol camp alone has dropped from 1,500 to 400, and mass prisoner releases to ease overcrowding have begun. Last October, 631 former ISIS fighters were given amnesty and released, and another 253 had their sentences halved.
The Liberal government has provided travel documents to help two orphaned Canadian children return to Canada after they were released due to persistent efforts by their extended families; the most recent release occurred in March. Otherwise, various ministers have routinely invoked Canada’s shuttered embassy in Damascus and Syria’s continued instability as diplomatic barriers, both to facilitating the release of Canadian citizens held in the camps and gathering enough evidence to successfully prosecute them for any alleged crimes they may have committed.
Yet Canada is not facing exceptional circumstances. Human Rights Watch released a report last year saying the Canadian government is flouting international law by allowing its citizens to be left in camps without being charged for any offenses. This despite 20 other countries — including the U.S. and many European nations — all having found ways to repatriate hundreds of their own citizens from the same camps. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently said it is "absolutely essential" Canada bring home women and children uninvolved in crimes. A senior Kurdish minister told CBC Canada is ignoring its responsibility for its people.
The Trudeau government is no doubt aware of all this, yet is also surely weighing the potential for political backlash, especially with a possible election looming. Expert opinion on Canada’s legal obligations to Canadian citizens being held in Syria is mixed; public opinion is not. One survey commissioned by CTV found nearly 60 per cent of respondents supported repatriating orphaned children back to Canada, but over 70 per cent approved stripping the citizenship of adults that travelled to join ISIS.
However, the longer individuals are kept detained in squalid conditions, the greater the chance they themselves will be radicalized. Indeed, this is one factor that enabled the rise of ISIS in the first place — Syrian jihadists, alienated Iraqi civilians and officers from Saddam Hussein’s purged Baathist regime were left alone to network and conspire together in American-run detention centres for years during the U.S. occupation of Iraq in the late 2000s.
Rights groups argue the victims of ISIS deserve to be provided closure through enforcing justice on foreign fighters complicit in past atrocities. Rehabilitation and reintegration should also be attempted, if possible. Another option is to help assist setting special courts on Syrian soil to have foreign fighters alleged to have committed crimes as part of ISIS be tried where the offenses were committed.
Either way, when it comes to what to do with Canadians who travelled abroad to fight for ISIS, the status quo is becoming increasingly untenable. And the clock is ticking.
Kyle Hiebert is a researcher and analyst based in Winnipeg, and the former deputy editor of the Africa Conflict Monitor.