How Syria’s self-administered northeast intends to bring captured foreign Daesh fighters to justice

Men, accused of being affiliated with Daesh, sit on the floor in a prison in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh on October 26, 2019. (AFP)
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Updated 30 June 2023
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How Syria’s self-administered northeast intends to bring captured foreign Daesh fighters to justice

  • As governments drag their feet on repatriations, officials say they will prosecute captured extremists in their own courts
  • Owing to ongoing security threat, date, location of trials remains unannounced

QAMISHLI: The world breathed a collective sigh of relief in March 2019 when Daesh, the extremist group that had brought terror to vast swathes of the region since 2014, was finally defeated in its last territorial holdout of Baghouz, eastern Syria.

The battle for Daesh’s final enclave marked the end of the group’s so-called caliphate, which at its peak occupied an area spanning Syria and Iraq the size of Great Britain.

However, it was soon clear to those who had led the costly ground operation against Daesh — the Syrian Democratic Forces — that the fight was far from over.

Thousands of foreign Daesh fighters and their families were captured during the final battle at Baghouz and transported to prisons in territories administered by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, beyond Syrian government control.

For years, these Daesh fighters remained in a state of legal limbo. Their foreign status, and the fact the AANES is itself considered a non-state actor, made it difficult to determine precisely what to do with them.

On June 10, AANES officials announced they would pursue their own legal avenues of justice by establishing a tribunal to try up to 3,000 foreign Daesh-linked individuals held in their custody before a court of law.

“As a result of the increasing danger and growth of (Daesh) in the region, the presence of these detainees for long periods without trial constitutes a burden and a danger to the region and the world,” Khaled Ibrahim, a lawyer and member of the administrative body of the AANES Foreign Relations Department, told Arab News.

For years, the official policy of the AANES was to pursue the repatriation of Daesh-linked individuals to their countries of origin. However, several of these countries have been reluctant to take back their citizens, citing national security concerns.




Syrian Kurdish Asayish security forces deploy during a raid against suspected Daesh fighters in Raqqa, the jihadist group's former de facto capital in Syria, on Jan. 28, 2023. (AFP)

In fact, the number of repatriations is falling. Last year, 13 countries repatriated 515 foreign nationals from northeast Syria. In the first six months of 2023, about 105 women and children have been repatriated.

According to the Rojava Information Center, a local conflict monitor, some 2,774 foreign Daesh suspects have been repatriated since 2019 — a drop in the ocean given the roughly 13,000 foreign men, women and children still in northeast Syria’s prisons and camps.

Despite years of warnings from the AANES about the Daesh threat, the terrorist group demonstrated just how great a threat it still poses by staging a massive uprising in Gweiran prison in northeast Syria’s Hasakah.

In January 2022, a series of car bombs were detonated at the prison gates while Daesh sleepers outside the prison walls opened fire on guards.

After more than a week of the heaviest fighting the city had seen since its liberation from Daesh in 2015, some 159 members of the SDF, four civilians, and at least 345 prisoners had been killed. Scores of inmates escaped.

“In our prisons, we are holding thousands of the most brutal Daesh fighters. We cannot keep them anymore. It creates a security problem for our region,” Bedran Chiya Kurd, co-chair of the AANES Foreign Relations Department, told a press conference on June 15.

In 2022 alone, Kurd said the SDF and the Global Coalition had carried out 113 anti-terror operations, which resulted in the arrest of 260 Daesh-linked individuals in northeast Syria.

According to the SDF media center, in May this year, the SDF carried out 12 unilateral anti-Daesh operations, four operations in partnership with the Global Coalition and Iraqi Kurdistan-based Counter-Terrorism Group, which resulted in the death of one suspected terrorist and the capture of 21.

“This is evidence that Daesh is trying to revive itself, grow stronger and resume its activities. If we don’t prevent it, it will only be a matter of time before they become active again and threaten the entire region,” Kurd said.

The planned tribunals are not merely designed to punish Daesh combatants, nor to reduce their chances of escaping and rejoining the battlefield.

“It’s important for the rights of victims, for the rights of our people who suffered, and for the rights of those who paid a heavy price,” Kurd said.

“We gave more than 13,000 martyrs in this fight, and have thousands of veterans who were injured and disabled. It’s important to seek justice for these people.”

However, Kurd added, the pursuit of justice would not interfere with the desire of the AANES to adhere to international standards.

“It’s been almost five years that these people have been held in detention. Holding people without trial is not legal and does not comply with international standards,” he said.

Although the trials would be “very transparent and fair,” Kurd said many of the details were still yet to be determined. There is no set date for the process to begin and, due to security concerns, the location of the trials will not be published.

Although lawyers representing the detainees will be allowed to travel to northeast Syria to defend their clients, the logistics behind this process are yet to be explained. It was also unclear whether detainees without their own lawyer would be provided one by the AANES.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether foreign women, who did not serve in combat roles, will be tried. Given that women and children make up two-thirds of the foreign Daesh detainees, their exclusion from the process would significantly reduce the number of individuals on trial.

In a statement issued soon after the June 10 announcement, the AANES did not state outright that they would prosecute women, instead considering them “victims.”

However, in the June 15 press conference, Kurd said that some women might be tried if there was sufficient evidence to suggest they had committed crimes.

It was made clear, however, that the death penalty would be off the table, as the punishment is illegal under the AANES Social Contract, which acts as its constitution.

The AANES already has an anti-terror court system, which had tried about 8,000 Syrian nationals, Sipan Ahmed (whose name was changed for security reasons), a prosecutor at the People’s Defense Court of Qamishli, told the Rojava Information Center in a 2021 interview.

While there are currently no details on precisely what punishments are likely to be handed down during the upcoming trials, Ahmed said AANES law 20-2014 set out sentences for particular crimes — 15 to 20 years for rape, 10 to 20 years for human trafficking and 15 years to life for murder.

Punishments for Daesh membership currently range from one year for low-level roles in the group’s activities to life sentences for being among its leadership or handing out execution orders.

The status of both the detainees and the AANES itself, therefore, posed a litany of legal challenges, Themis Tzimas, a lawyer and international law expert, told Arab News.

“The autonomous administration is neither a state, nor internationally recognized. It constitutes a de facto, illegally, semi-seceded part of a sovereign state. It possesses no legal authority justifying the conduct of a trial on its de facto controlled territory and by its authority,” Tzimas said.

However, due to the lack of formal diplomatic relations between the AANES and the Syrian government, Kurd said there was currently no mechanism in place to hand foreign detainees over to Damascus.

And while Tzimas believes an international, ad hoc tribunal could be a solution to the various legal quandaries brought up by such a trial, Kurd said the AANES had not received any offers of assistance from either foreign states or international legal bodies.

Contrary to popular belief, a non-state actor independently trying foreign nationals in this way is not unprecedented in the history of international law. Trials carried out by the unrecognized Russian-backed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk are one such example.

Katerina Asimakopoulou, a legal expert with a master’s in public international law, told Arab News that other such cases might give precedent to the AANES courts, and that its unofficial status might not be the roadblock it first appeared.

Asimakopoulou referenced a 2017 case in which a Swedish court convicted a former Syrian rebel fighter for violations of international law after a video surfaced showing him taking part in the execution of Syrian regime soldiers.

The defendant, Omar Haisan Sakhanh, attempted to use the defense that those Syrian soldiers had been tried and sentenced by a court set up by the opposition Free Syrian Army.

While the court eventually convicted Sakhanh, it also accepted that the FSA, a non-state actor, was allowed to establish its own courts.

Other non-state armed groups, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador, have all carried out trials under their own court systems, according to Asimakopoulou.

She added that in 2018, the French government declared it had no interest in trying French Daesh members in its own courts, preferring instead that they be tried by the AANES.

“It’s a very ambiguous matter, actually,” she told Arab News. “According to a state-centric view, yes, there is no legal authority for non-state armed groups to establish courts.

“However, international practice and jurisprudence has shown that, once such a court is indeed established, its decisions will be judged depending on whether they provided the so-called fundamental guarantees of a fair trial.”
 


Israeli strikes target Lebanon’s Baalbek for first time since Gaza war

Updated 26 February 2024
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Israeli strikes target Lebanon’s Baalbek for first time since Gaza war

  • The strikes are among the deepest into Lebanon since the Israel-Hamas war began more than four months ago
  • Israel’s air force carried out three airstrikes on the outskirts of the village of Buday, near Baalbek, targeting a convoy of trucks

BEIRUT: The Israeli military said Monday its air force was striking targets of the militant Hebollah group “deep inside Lebanon,” where residents reported explosions near the northeastern city of Baalbek.
The strikes are among the deepest into Lebanon since the Israel-Hamas war began more than four months ago. They come a day after Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant vowed to step up attacks on Lebanon’s Hezbollah even if a cease-fire is reached with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Lebanese security officials said Israel’s air force carried out three airstrikes on the outskirts of the village of Buday, near Baalbek, targeting a convoy of trucks. Buday is a Hezbollah stronghold. There was no immediate word on casualties.
A Hezbollah official confirmed that three strikes hit near Baalbek. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
The Israeli army said further details will follow.
The airstrikes near Baalbek came hours after Hezbollah said its fighters on Monday shot down an Israeli drone over its stronghold in a province in southern Lebanon. Anotehr missile fired by Hezbollah toward the drone was intercepted by Israel, and landed near a synagogue in a town close to Nazareth in northern Israel. There were no injuries or damage.
Hezbollah has been exchanging fire with Israeli troops along the border since the Israel-Hamas broke on Oct. 7.
The strike on Baalbek, because of its location deep inside Lebanon, is the most significant one since the early January airstrike on Beirut that killed top Hamas official Saleh Arouri.
Hezbollah, which has been exchanging fire with Israel throughout the war in Gaza, has said it will halt its nearly daily attacks on Israel if a cease-fire is reached in Gaza.


Palestinian Prime Minister Shtayyeh resigns

Updated 26 February 2024
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Palestinian Prime Minister Shtayyeh resigns

  • Move comes amid growing US pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to shake up Palestinian Authority
  • Shtayyeh says he is resigning to allow broader consensus among Palestinians following Israel’s war on Gaza

RAMALLAH: Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Monday he was resigning to allow for the formation of a broad consensus among Palestinians about political arrangements following Israel’s war against the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.
The move comes amid growing US pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to shake up the Palestinian Authority as international efforts have intensified to stop the fighting in Gaza and begin work on a political structure to govern the enclave after the war.
His resignation must still be accepted by Abbas, who may ask him to stay on as caretaker until a permanent replacement is appointed.
In a statement to cabinet, Shtayyeh, an academic economist who took office in 2019, said the next stage would need to take account of the emerging reality in Gaza, which has been laid waste by nearly five months of heavy fighting.
He said the next stage would “require new governmental and political arrangements that take into account the emerging reality in the Gaza Strip, the national unity talks, and the urgent need for an inter-Palestinian consensus.”
In addition, it would require “the extension of the Authority’s authority over the entire land, Palestine.”
The Palestinian Authority, formed 30 years ago under the interim Oslo peace accords, exercises limited governance over parts of the occupied West Bank but lost power in Gaza following a struggle with Hamas in 2007.
Fatah, the faction that controls the PA, and Hamas have made efforts to reach an agreement over a unity government and are due to meet in Moscow on Wednesday. A senior Hamas official said the move had to be followed by a broader agreement on governance for the Palestinians.
“The resignation of Shtayyeh’s government only makes sense if it comes within the context of national consensus on arrangements for the next phase,” senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.


UAE floating hospital begins operations at Al-Arish to treat Palestinian patients

Updated 26 February 2024
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UAE floating hospital begins operations at Al-Arish to treat Palestinian patients

AL-ARISH: A floating hospital provided by the UAE, anchored in Egypt’s Port city of Al-Arish, commenced operations on Sunday to provide treatment for injured Palestinians.

The initiative is a part of the UAE’s “Gallant Knight 3” humanitarian operation.

The 100-bed hospital has operating rooms, an intensive care unit, radiology section, laboratory and pharmacy, state news agency WAM reported.

A 20-year-old Palestinian man was the first to undergo surgery at the hospital. He was treated for a gunshot wound to the shoulder and injuries caused by shrapnel.

Doctors repositioned his shoulder, and he will require a follow-up operation to repair nerve damage.

The floating hospital was established in cooperation with the Department of Health - Abu Dhabi and AD Ports Group. It is being staffed by 100 medical workers who are skilled in anesthesia, general surgery, orthopedics, and emergency medicine.

Dr. Falah Al-Mahmoud, director of the hospital, said the facility would help alleviate the suffering of Palestinians.

Dr. Falah Al-Mahmoud, director of the hospital, said the facility would help alleviate the suffering of Palestinians. (WAM)

 


Palestinian Prime Minister Shtayyeh resigns

Updated 26 February 2024
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Palestinian Prime Minister Shtayyeh resigns

  • Palestinian PM says ‘new political measures’ needed amid Gaza war
  • The move comes amid growing US pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to shake up the Palestinian Authority

RAMALLAH: Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Monday he was resigning to allow for the formation of a broad consensus among Palestinians about political arrangements following Israel’s war against the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.
The move comes amid growing US pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to shake up the Palestinian Authority as international efforts have intensified to stop the fighting in Gaza and begin work on a political structure to govern the enclave after the war.
His resignation must still be accepted by Abbas, who may ask him to stay on as caretaker until a permanent replacement is appointed.
In a statement to cabinet, Shtayyeh, an academic economist who took office in 2019, said the next stage would need to take account of the emerging reality in Gaza, which has been laid waste by nearly five months of heavy fighting.
He said the next stage would “require new governmental and political arrangements that take into account the emerging reality in the Gaza Strip, the national unity talks, and the urgent need for an inter-Palestinian consensus.”
In addition, it would require “the extension of the Authority’s authority over the entire land, Palestine.”
The Palestinian Authority, formed 30 years ago under the interim Oslo peace accords, exercises limited governance over parts of the occupied West Bank but lost power in Gaza following a struggle with Hamas in 2007.
Fatah, the faction that controls the PA, and Hamas have made efforts to reach an agreement over a unity government and are due to meet in Moscow on Wednesday. A senior Hamas official said the move had to be followed by a broader agreement on governance for the Palestinians.
“The resignation of Shtayyeh’s government only makes sense if it comes within the context of national consensus on arrangements for the next phase,” senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.


Yemen’s Houthis announce first civilian death in US-UK strikes

Updated 26 February 2024
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Yemen’s Houthis announce first civilian death in US-UK strikes

  • One person was killed and eight wounded a day after US and British forces said they fired on 18 targets
SANAA: Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militia have reported the first civilian death in US and British air strikes after the latest round of joint raids over the weekend.
One person was killed and eight wounded, the Houthis’ official news agency said late on Sunday, a day after US and British forces said they fired on 18 targets across the country.
The US-British strikes were in response to dozens of Houthi drone and missile attacks on Red Sea shipping since November, which the rebels say are in solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza war.
“The American-British aggression on the district of Maqbana in the governorate of Taiz has left one civilian dead and eight wounded,” the Houthis’ Saba agency said, citing a statement from the rebel-run health ministry.
The Houthis, who control war-torn Yemen’s most populated areas, have previously reported the death of 17 of their fighters in the Western strikes targeting military facilities.
The Houthi attacks have had a significant effect on traffic through the busy Red Sea route, forcing some companies into a two-week detour around southern Africa. Last week, Egypt said Suez Canal revenues were down by up to 50 percent this year.
Washington, Israel’s vital ally, gathered an international coalition in December to protect Red Sea traffic. It has launched several rounds of strikes as well as four joint raids with Britain, which began last month.
The Houthis initially said they were targeting Israel-linked shipping in the Red Sea and adjoining Gulf of Aden, but then declared that US and British interests were also “legitimate” targets.