(CNSNews.com) – The United States for months has been urging European countries to repatriate captured ISIS fighters and their families from northeastern Syria, to no avail, and the U.S. is not about to incarcerate them in Guantanamo Bay, President Trump said on Monday.
“We’re not bringing 50, 60, 70 – or even 10,000 people to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “We’re not going to be paying them for the next 50 years – or paying to take care of them for the next 50 years.”
He characterized the European response to Washington’s appeals as another example of allies taking advantage of the U.S., and treating it as a “sucker.”
Trump’s comments came after the White House announced a pullback of U.S. troops in the area, ahead of a planned Turkish military operation against Kurdish fighters who were U.S. allies in the campaign to defeat ISIS.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are dominated by fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), whom Turkey views as terrorists because of links to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) – a radical group which Turkey, as well as the U.S. and European Union, has designated a terrorist organization.
As Trump faced questions on the move, which is drawing strong criticism from many Democrats and Republicans, he recalled his campaign pledges to bring home U.S. troops from what were originally supposed to be limited military engagements.
He also expressed frustration about other countries’ reluctance to repatriate their citizens among the thousands of ISIS jihadists being held by the SDF, along with their family members, following the fall of the Sunni terrorist group’s so-called caliphate.
U.N. officials have put the number of captured fighters and families in the tens of thousands. Many are being housed at the Al-Hol displaced persons camp in northern Syria, where the population swelled from some 10,000 last January to around 73,000 by April.
In its Syria statement on Sunday, the White House said the U.S. had pressed European nations to take back their fighters, but they refused.
“The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer,” it said.
And – in what some analysts saw as a veiled warning to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the implications of a military operation in the area, the statement continued, “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years.”
In his comments Monday, Trump returned to the subject:
“What are we going to do with these 60 to 70,000 people that are – that are being held and being guarded and we can’t release them, and many fighters also?” he asked.
“And I said, ‘I want them to go back to Germany, to France, to different European countries from where they came.’ And I said to the European countries, I said to all of them, ‘Take the people back.’”
“And they said, ‘No, no, no, we don’t want to do it. We don’t want them back,’” Trump said.
“And they’re so used to the United States being a sucker, being a fool,” he continued. “We’re talking about billions and billions of dollars.”
Trump said he had told the Europeans repeatedly to take back their citizens, but “they kept saying no. Maybe they won’t be saying no now, I don’t know.”
Trump said the U.S. had done “a great service” for the world and Europe in particular by leading the effort to defeat ISIS, but that, unfortunately, “they take advantage” of the U.S.
He warned that the U.S. would be watching Turkey, and hoped that the Turks, Europeans and others would do “whatever they’re supposed to do with these captured ISIS fighters and families.”
‘A global threat’
European governments have voiced reluctance to repatriate citizens who joined ISIS’ jihad. Reasons vary, but include concerns that difficulties in obtaining clear evidence of wrongdoing will see suspects dodge conviction and be released back into society.
In France, public opinion runs strongly against repatriating jihadists, although there is considerable support for allowing the French wives and children to return home.
E.U. governments generally want suspects to be tried in the countries where the alleged crimes were committed. Some foreign jihadists, including French nationals, have been put on trial in Iraq, and handed death sentences.
An intelligence report compiled for French lawmakers last year estimated that about 5,000 citizens of E.U. countries traveled to the region to join ISIS, including more than 1,300 from France, 800 from Germany, 800 from Britain, 500 from Belgium, 250 from Spain and 100 from Italy.
Non-E.U. foreign fighters who traveled to join ISIS were estimated to include 4,000-4,500 from Russia or Russian-speaking countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus, 2,000-3,000 from Tunisia, 1,600-1,700 from Morocco, 700 from Indonesia, 600 from Egypt, and 200-300 from Algeria.
Many of those fighters had been killed during the fighting, the report said.
Even before the fall last March of the last foothold of ISIS-held territory in eastern Syria, the U.S. had been urging foreign governments to take back their captured citizens.
“Repatriating these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin, ensuring that they are prosecuted and detained – that’s the best solution to preventing them from returning to the battlefield,” the State Department said in February.
“We view these fighters as a global threat and we seek global cooperation to resolve that threat.”