– The writer is an associate professor and member of the Turkish Gendarmerie and Coast Guard Academy's Department of International Security and Terrorism
By Serhat Erkmen
ISTANBUL (AA) – Turkey's anti-terror operation against PKK/YPG terrorists in northern Syria has triggered and dislodged many dynamics in the region. Of course, the first of them was ending the project of the creation of a PYD-led state in the region. However, the impact of Operation Peace Spring is not limited to this issue. Some of the other significant developments are the U.S. withdrawal from the region, the advance of the Damascus administration’s army and Russian troops, and the reduced presence of some European countries in the region, pushing Iran to reconsider its moves. While such a fast-paced process is being experienced, there is another critical phenomenon which is sometimes discussed but remains in the background in the discussions. This phenomenon is what will happen to the Daesh/ISIS militants and their families who are in the areas controlled by the PKK/YPG?
If the fight against terrorism requires global cooperation, the countries can at least overcome the problem by taking responsibility for their citizens and regulating their legal processes.
Readers may recall that the PKK/YPG, which seized the regions controlled by Daesh/ISIS with support from the U.S., made critical gains in this process. At the forefront of these gains was the portrayal of the terror group itself as an indispensable actor in the fight against Daesh/ISIS. Due to this generated perception, when the name “YPG” is mentioned, many people in the West think this organization is an ally of the West against the Daesh/ISIS threat. Although the propaganda machine works professionally and systematically, whenever the YPG is in a tight corner, it threatens the West by saying "we will release the Daesh/ISIS militants," and this strategy started to form a positive environment for them.
However, as those who closely follow the field can observe, whenever there is a benefit for the YPG, it followed a different policy such as letting the evacuation of Daesh/ISIS convoys from Raqqah, and providing assistance to bring them to the border of Turkey and helping them cross into Turkey illegally. Yet, the issue of the Daesh/ISIS militants who are currently remaining in Syria has shifted to another level.
During the rise of Daesh/ISIS, tens of thousands of people from many parts of the world joined the organization. Although some claimed that the number of Daesh/ISIS members is somewhere between 3,500-4,000, some studies suggest that participation from European countries in the organization is around 5,000.
Following the statements by U.S. President Donald Trump saying that Europe does not want to take back its citizens who joined Daesh/ISIS in Syria and it avoids responsibilities in the issue, recent developments show that this issue will come to the agenda again. In fact, the issue of Daesh/ISIS militants in Syria is not that complicated. Tens of thousands of people from all around the world joined the organization during its growth period. A significant number of these people either died or returned to their countries. According to recent reports, the number of Daesh/ISIS militants in Syria who hold a European passport ranges between 850 and 1,000. Most of them are women and children in the camps controlled by the YPG. However, the fact that there are men who joined Daesh/ISIS as militants cannot be ignored. Some of the camps are located either close to or within the Operation Peace Spring area. But the real issue is that the YPG uses these camps and the presence of Daesh/ISIS as a trump card. Simply, the YPG/PKK threatens everyone under the pretext of Turkey's anti-terror operation by saying "we can’t control the camps, you can do whatever you want." As a result, the YPG/PKK is trying to increase its importance by claiming as a threat that some Daesh/ISIS militants will be released and they will go back to their countries. As a matter of fact, shortly after the beginning of Turkey's anti-terror operation, the YPG/PKK tried to create a basis for its propaganda by sharing some images and videos. Although it is obvious when the security footage is monitored that the prisoners escaped with inside help, the generated perception focuses on their possible threats. This is so obvious that a rising number of Daesh/ISIS militants are spreading everywhere by leaving the camps.
So what will this situation cause?
First of all, let us remember that recent capture of approximately 200 Daesh/ISIS members in Turkey. In other words, whenever Daesh/ISIS militants arrive in the regions under the control of Turkey, the judicial process is implemented for them as part of anti-terrorism measures. But the issue is more complicated. Turkish citizens who joined Daesh/ISIS are tried by the Turkish judicial system. However, the approaches of other states to this issue are contradictory. Despite the tendency of the Central Asian Turkic republics and Russia to receive their citizens, the vast majority of European countries avoid doing the same thing. While the Balkan countries, which have a small number of citizens in Daesh/ISIS, have taken their citizens from these camps and started their judgement and socialization process, the rest of Europe approaches the issue differently. Some European countries such as the U.K., France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium have a different opinion about Daesh/ISIS militants like "let them die in Syria or remain in prison in Iraq forever.”
The main concern of European countries is that if Daesh/ISIS militants return to their countries, they will be free due to the gaps in the legal process or be released from prison after short-term punishments. Although terrorist attacks in Europe have decreased within the last two years, countries think that this situation may cause a rise in terrorism. However, most of the people in the camps in Syria are women and children; in other words, there is no terrorist threat in the short term. However, European countries are aware what kind of radicalization process has been created due to events in Syria. One need not be an expert to understand that describing thousands of people as part of the same organization and condemning people to live in poor conditions without any rehabilitation program will strengthen their loyalty to Daesh/ISIS. For this reason, most of the European countries intend not to accept Daesh/ISIS militants from Syria if the militants have a second passport or if the countries can somehow prevent the militants from entering their country.
However, many of those people were known before they joined the organization. In the other words, European countries have an approach that tries to get rid of the responsibility for radicalized people by making them into the problem of another country. If the fight against terrorism requires global cooperation, countries can at least overcome the problem by taking responsibilities for their citizens and regulating their legal processes. The West needs to work harder on this issue. Otherwise, future generations will face the consequences of the mistaken belief that this issue may melt away in the deserts of Iraq or Syria.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.
*Writing by Fahri Aksut