Differences between key nations over Islamic State foreign fighters

15.11.2019

There remain serious differences between major nations over how to handle foreign fighters from the Islamic State group who are being held by forces in the Middle East, a top U.S official conceded after a ministerial gathering.

"These fighters remain a significant risk," said Nathan Sales, a U.S diplomat working on counter-terrorism told reporters. "Candidly, there is a difference of opinion about the best way to solve this problem."

Sales was speaking after ministers from around 30 countries met in Washington as part of the global coalition to defeat Islamic State. 

Notably, there are a large number of Europeans among the thousands of fighters, with no sign of progress on a repatriation agreement. Many of these fighters are being guarded by Kurdish forces in Syria. The U.S recently withdrew from parts of northern Syria, paving the way for a destabilising Turkish military operation targeting the Kurdish-led forces which remain allies of Washington. 

Sales insisted that it was not "viable" to ask Iraq and Syria to continue to detain foreign fighters.

James Jeffrey, the top U.S envoy to the coalition, said that the U.S remained unhappy about the Turkish invasion of Syria, as well as signs the Syrian government and Russia were moving into areas Washington abandoned. "Our success is threatened," he said, stressing the need to "close ranks" and co-operate. 

U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opened the meeting of ministers with a demand for nations around the world to take back the thousands of foreign fighters held in Iraq and Syria. He stressed that the coalition also needs to focus on the Islamic State presence in the Sahel region and West Africa.

Pompeo said the recent deaths of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his deputy show there is no U.S leadership vacuum.

"The fight against IS is a long term test of will," Pompeo told a room of representatives from about 30 countries. The U.S will "continue to the lead the coalition and the world on this essential security effort."

Pompeo said U.S troops remain in Syria to prevent the remaining Islamic State militants from recapturing oil fields.

Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said this week that there are still some 600 troops in Syria, despite President Donald Trump's announcement of a complete withdrawal to end the "endless wars."

Trump has faced a tremendous domestic backlash for green-lighting the Turkish invasion, which targeted Washington's Kurdish allies. Kurdish forces in Syria continue to accuse Turkey of violating a U.S-brokered ceasefire which came into effect several days after Ankara's cross-border operation kicked off. 

Jeffrey said Turkey pledged not to change the ethnic make-up of the areas it seized and that only refugees originally from north-eastern Syria would be sent back, on a voluntary basis, to the territory.    (dpa)

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