DAMASCUS – A coalition of 74 countries that contributed to the defeat of the Islamic State terror organization’s so-called caliphate has called on Tuesday for captured militants to be tried for their crimes while the hunt for its leader, the self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, continues.
Major General Christopher Ghika of the United Kingdom, spokesman for the military combined joint task force known as “Inherent Resolve,” said his forces had been surprised by the number of people who left the last enclave where the now-disbanded caliphate had concentrated its forces in Baghuz, in the province of Deir ez-Zor in northeast Syria.
“We’ve been really surprised by the numbers coming out of the MERV, out of the final Daesh pocket,” Ghika said to EFE in a telephone briefing.
He acknowledged that al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts were not known.
“I’m afraid I don’t know where he is. If I did know, we would do something about it,” Ghika said, adding that al-Baghdadi was becoming increasingly less relevant.
“He had his moment of prominence in 2014,” Ghika said, adding al-Baghdadi was now just another militant “whose relevance decreased with every day that goes by.”
The coalition has called for those responsible for crimes to face justice and ruled out that they could be freed by the Syrian Democratic Force, the armed alliance that fought against IS in the north and northeast of Syria with the support of the international coalition.
“The SDF, our partner force, have done a really excellent job in screening the fighters and the families, to separate the fighters from the non-combatants,” Ghika said. “And the fighters are being held in SDF prisons,” he added.
The general said the fighters were being held in accordance with international humanitarian law and the prisons had been inspected by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the organization tasked with watching over the life and dignity of the victims of the war.
He acknowledged that in the longer term, the alliance will probably need to seek an international consensus on how to proceed in holding the captured militants to account.
It is something that could be done in the region or elsewhere, a matter that was open to discussion, he said.
“The basic premise is that foreign terrorist fighters and the policy on what to do with them must be the preserve of sovereign national governments,” he said, referring to those fighters who had come from other countries.
The United States’ intentions in Syria were clear in that it was to maintain a force in the northeast of the country so as to help and partner the SDF to prevent the resurgence of the IS.
Such a presence would ensure there would be a continuing effort against the terror organization so it could not form a safe haven from which to threaten the security of the region.
The general said that there were tens of thousands of activists as well as adherents or followers, but declined to specify exactly how many.
“The prisoners are not going anywhere,” Ghika said.
In terms of the terror organization’s finances, the British official said they had been totally degraded compared to four years ago thanks to the IS’s inability to trade with products such as oil or obtain income from extortion as they have done.
“If you were to examine their financial position compared to say four or five years ago, you would find that it was substantially reduced. In other words, this is going in the right direction,” he said.
It was expected that many followers of the collapsed so-called caliphate to return to their homes, he said.
The terror organization had caused a crisis in Syria that had displaced seven million people in five years, he said.
“We need to engage different groups, different organizations, to show the evil in Daesh’s (IS’s) narrative; to show a better way of life,” Ghika said. “We need to have regional voices engaged in this so that we can bring out in the open and lay bare the emptiness and the evil of Daesh’s narrative which will at least go some way to countering those tens of thousands of supporters and persuading them that they are pursuing and supporting an empty group.”