Fate of ISIS’s foreign fighters not answered in kill-them-all rhetoric
British MP Rory Stewart’s comments that jihadists should die in the Islamic State’s collapsing caliphate sharply divided public opinion and, in raising the question of what ultimately must be done with foreign fighters, started a debate continued in many divisive media commentaries.
However, for a theatre in which the West and its proxies remain part players in an ensemble cast, what such pronouncements might actually mean on the ground is not clear.
Stewart, speaking to BBC radio, said: “We have to be serious about the fact these people are a serious danger to us and, unfortunately, the only way of dealing with them will be in almost every case to kill them.”
Stewart is far from alone in such sentiments. They have been echoed by French Defence Minister Florence Parly and Brett McGurk, the US special envoy to the anti-Islamic State (ISIS) coalition.
While the West has been clear in signalling its determination to destroy ISIS, it cannot be ignored that the Western-backed Kurdish-led coalition has yet to encounter foreign fighters aligned with ISIS in any significant number.
There are thought to be about 40,000 foreign fighters engaged with ISIS in Syria and Iraq; 5,600 of those are said to have returned home within the last two years, the Soufan group reported. The report estimated the number of British fighters at 850, some of whom are presumed dead. France is said to have contributed 1,910 fighters to ISIS and Russia nearly double that.
“The reality is that no country wants its foreign fighters back,” said Nadim Houry, director of Human Rights Watch’s terrorism and counterterrorism programme, “and if they can conveniently ‘disappear,’ well, so much the better.”
However, for Human Rights Watch, questions over individual accountability and due process, as opposed to collective punishment, take precedence.
For countries such as Tunisia, ill-equipped to deal with the return of hundreds of fighters, the concern is real. “Look, their fear is legitimate. The fear any society might have from these returning fighters is a real concern and we, the international community, have a responsibility to share that,” Houry said.
There are no figures for how many foreign fighters have been killed in battles in Raqqa and its environs. However, many observers agree that ISIS’s Praetorian Guard of foreign fighters has yet to be encountered by Western-backed forces in significant numbers.
Similarly, there are no figures for how many foreign fighters the Syrian regime and its allies might have encountered in conflict zones across the country. The fate of those captured by the regime is also unknown.
“We don’t really have any numbers for foreign fighters held by the regime,” Houry said. “However, given what we know of Damascus, they’re unlikely to be being treated well. Most will be tortured, some will be held to be traded with other countries or groups and the rest, we just don’t know.”
As for the Russian fighters engaged with ISIS in Syria, few in Russia are aware of them. “The takeaway for Russians who follow the news on state television or other state media is that Moscow is (successfully) fighting terrorism in Syria, in support of a democratically elected president,” Eva Hartog, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times, said via e-mail. “They are also fed a narrative that Washington is supporting terrorist groups that carry out heinous attacks on civilians.”
“Polls show Russians generally support [President Vladimir] Putin’s foreign policy,” Hartog wrote. “Having said that, Russia’s involvement in Syria is very abstract to most Russians: They don’t know how much it costs, what the exact figures or death toll are and are not yet being asked to make personal sacrifices.”
Given the chaos of Syria, any appropriately unflinching pronouncement by a Western leader on the fate awaiting foreign fighters with ISIS is likely to play well at home. However, for the Syrian regime and its allies, facing ISIS on a number of fronts and in greater numbers, the rules of the game are different.
Simon Speakman Cordall is a section editor with The Arab Weekly.