US-backed Syrian forces hand over IS fighters to Iraq

Iraqi and foreign IS fighters have been transferred to Iraq from Syria. It was unclear if European IS fighters and family members were among those shipped to Iraq.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on Thursday handed over more than 150 Iraqi and foreign Islamic State (IS) fighters and their families to Iraq, according to Iraqi military sources and a local mayor.

Ten trucks transported the IS fighters and their families to Iraq, where they are in a "safe place" and being investigated, an Iraqi security official said. 

Read more: Mosul: Where demons, women and 'Islamic State' met 

"The majority of them are Iraqis and the convoy was under maximum security protection headed to the Jazeera and Badiya military headquarters," said Ahmed al-Mahallawi, mayor of the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim.

The transfer comes as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have swept down the Euphrates River Valley and confined IS to a final sliver of territory near the porous Iraqi-Syrian border.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

The Shammar tribe

The Shammar tribe's militia, the Al-Sanadid forces, control swathes of land in north-eastern Syria, close to the Iraqi border. Until recently, they were part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and at present the Shammar belong to the Kurdish-led civilian leadership in northern Syria.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Friday prayers

In the compound of Shammar leader Sheikh Humaydi Daham al-Hadi, tribesmen from the surrounding villages attend Friday prayers. Former IS members are also known to be in attendance.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Tribal connections

Former IS members fled the group after hearing the Sheikh’s call to defect. Once accepted by the Sheikh, the detainees are transferred to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), where they are imprisoned and subsequently put on trial. Only then, are they allowed to re-join the tribe.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Tucking in

Guests eat a traditional lamb and rice meal. According to Sheikh Humaydi, the Shammar do not take in former IS fighters. However, the Shammar communications official Abdulhamid Al-Askar contradicted that and claimed Al-Sanadid forces have also incorporated former fighters.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Mediation efforts

In the evening, the Sheikh hosts guests and mediates between local disputes. "This national conflict will end one day, but the religious one will continue," said Sheikh Humaydi. "We have the same goal as the west — the fight against terrorism; now we’re mediating between the former IS fighters, and those who suffered under the group."

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Cross-border tribal network

Shammar tribesmen greet guests from Iraq. "There are those [in Syria] who joined IS only because of pressure from their leaders," said Sheikh Humaydi, "and because we have tribal influence, they come back to us."

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Strict hierarchies

Once they defect, former IS members blend back into the rural and strictly hierarchical society. Shammar leaders, on the other hand, maneuver to position themselves as crucial peacemakers in the region. According to the Sheikh, British and US delegations have recently paid a visit.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Staying incognito

Abu Hassan did not want to reveal his real name for fear of IS reprisals. He claims to have never fought for IS, and only joined the group in 2015 to be able to continue working as a school teacher. "We thought IS would bring justice, as we suffered so much under the [Assad] regime," he said in an interview during which the Sheikh’s son and two Sanadid militiamen were present.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Successful rearguard action

Bandar Humaydi, commander of Al-Sanadid Forces and the son of Sheikh Humeydi, led a successful defense against IS fighters in 2014/15, when their village was almost completely surrounded by advancing IS forces.

Former 'IsIamic State' militants return home to northern Syria

Games without frontiers

Shammar youths and under-age Sanadid militiamen play a chaotic game of football; a decrepit train track connecting Syria and Iraq lies abandoned nearby. At present, hundreds of IS members have taken the tribal route out, according to the Sheikh, although the exact numbers are not disclosed.

Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi has said Iraq will accept all Iraqi IS members and their family members.

President Donald Trump has called on US allies and other countries to take back several thousand IS fighters and their families in Syrian Kurdish detention.

It was unclear if European IS members were among those handed over to Iraq. A transfer to Iraq could enable European countries, including Germany, to identify their citizens and repatriate IS members to face justice at home.   

cw/rt (AP, Reuters)

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