A day after the United States called on its allies fighting in Syria and Iraq to bring their foreign fighters home for prosecution, Canada is insisting it will not put its citizens at risk to answer the call.
“We have heard the request, or the suggestion, from the United States, but at this point, the fact of the matter remains that is a dangerous and dysfunctional part of the world in which we have no diplomatic presence and we are not going to put our diplomatic officers or consular officials at risk,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Tuesday.
Goodale said Tuesday that Canada is still working with its allies in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network (Australia, Britain, New Zealand and the U.S.) to gather evidence that can be used to convict Canadians who went abroad to join ISIS — but he said he would not risk Canadian lives to do so.
“The issue is in part working with our allies to make sure that we are collecting the maximum amount of useable evidence that can be practically available and useable in the justice system to lay charges, to prosecute,” he added.
As the U.S. prepares to withdraw its remaining troops from the region, the U.S. Department of State issued a statement Monday that said the Syrian Defence Forces have taken custody of hundreds of foreign fighters from countries all around the world.
“The United States calls upon other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens detained by the SDF and commends the continued efforts of the SDF to return these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin,” the statement said.
According to Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who has been to Syria to visit camps where foreign fighters are being held, there are currently four Canadian men, three women and seven children in custody in the country.
A spokesperson from Goodale’s office said the government would not confirm Amarasingam’s figures “due to the privacy act.”
All of the children born to Canadian women who left Canada to join ISIS are under the age of five, with several being under the age of one, Amarasingam told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics.
“The behaviour of the parents that have put those children in that situation is absolutely appalling and reprehensible,” Goodale said. “We will examine carefully what can reasonably be done to protect those who are innocent in these circumstances.
“But this is a situation that [ISIS] has created, and to which those who have gone to that part of the world to participate have also contributed, and they need to show to their responsibilities.”
The risk of ignoring America
Amarasingam said that the Syrian Defence Forces are not going to be able to hold foreign fighters in camps indefinitely and the U.S. may fear they’ll escape or be released before they can be returned to their countries of origin.
“Leaving hundreds of jihadist fighters — well-trained jihadist fighters — in a kind of weird limbo state, if the Americans do pull out, is not ideal from a national security point of view,” he told Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos.
Amarasingam said the SDF could strike a deal with the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to turn the fighters and their children over for execution.
“There’s this assumption that bringing them back brings about a whole bunch of complexity, which is true, but I think leaving them leaving them there is just as chaotic as bringing them back,” he added.
Jessica Davis and Amarnath Amarasingam on the logistics of the U.S. call for countries to repatriate foreign fighters and prosecute them at home. 11:34
Jessica Davis, former senior strategic analyst with CSIS, told Power & Politics that Canada has been avoiding bringing home its foreign fighters — but continuing to turn a blind eye to the situation will be more difficult now.
“Despite all of the dynamics around the Trump administration, the Americans are still our number one ally, particularly in the security and intelligence space, so this is the kind of thing that has to be taken very seriously,” she told Kapelos.