France Family Wants to Repatriate their Grandchildren from Syria
“The question is whether to repatriate jihadists who left France, burned their French passports, and headed off to associate with Islamist fundamentalists, to become barbarians and strike our country".
In northern France, Lydie and Patrice Maninchedda have been waging an uphill battle, sustained by local media, to repatriate their three grandchildren from Syria. They have never met the children, ranging from one to five years. Nor has the couple seen their daughter, Julie, since she left with her then-husband to join the Islamic State group in 2014.
Then came an anonymous message last month that Julie was dead — and the grandchildren, now orphans, were detained in a Kurdish camp for internally displaced people.
“It is overwhelming to find them,” Patrice Maninchedda told France Bleu radio, of the three, who are considered by law to be French nationals. “Like all grandparents, we want to see our grandchildren. They need to be reintegrated into a normal life and family.”
The Maninchedda’s hopes may be realized sooner rather than later. The planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria prompted the French government to announce it was considering repatriating dozens of citizens now detained by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeastern part of the country.
While some are hardened jihadists or their wives, roughly three-quarters are children under the age of seven, according to French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet.
With the Islamic State group all but territorially vanquished in Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump urged European nations to repatriate captured fighters and put them on trial at home — a demand rejected for now by the French government, while Germany said doing so would be difficult.
“At this stage France is not responding to the demands” of Trump, Belloubet told France 2 television, saying Paris would consider repatriating French IS fighters on a case-by-case basis. But reports suggest French officials have agreed to repatriate French orphans now in Syria, although those children who are still with their parents are more problematic, and would need parental consent to be separated.
Similar dilemmas are faced elsewhere in Western Europe, from which nearly 6,000 nationals left to join IS ranks, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, at King’s College London. Many died in battle, and more than 1,700 have returned, it estimates.
Repatriating both the fighters and their children is politically explosive. Critics worry it will be difficult to prove in court crimes committed on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, and that the children raised under Islamic State occupation could grow into dangerous adults.
Shaping public opinion too are the 2015 Paris attacks, which involved some returnee fighters.
“The question is whether to repatriate jihadists who left France, burned their French passports, and headed off to associate with Islamist fundamentalists, to become barbarians and strike our country,” said far-right leader Marine Le Pen in an interview.
“And the answer is no,” she added of the adults. “They should be judged in the places where they committed the atrocities. It’s the very least one can do, out of respect for the victims.”
Le Pen did not offer an opinion on the fate of the minors, describing them simply as “instrumentalized.”
Yet by not taking action, others argue, France risks having jihadis and their families disappear into a turmoil-torn region, posing a potentially serious security threat later on.
Even for children, the challenges of repatriation are massive, experts say. While some may have been sheltered from the fighting, many others are likely brainwashed by jihadi ideology. Still others may have witnessed or participated in horrific acts. Their background may come to haunt them — and France — later on.
“They are children, they aren’t guilty of crimes committed by their parents. And from a humanitarian point of view we must welcome and take care of them,” said sociologist Gerald Brunner, of the Jean Jaures Foundation — even as he warned that dealing with the returnees would be “difficult.”
‘We’d be right to imagine the worst, that they could commit a terrorist act on our territory,” Brunner said, adding, “authorities cannot avoid posing this question.”
Until recently, the preferred option was to do very little for the minors — unless their families pressed French authorities for action, said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist and expert on radical Islam.
“The French government—and one can generalize this to most of the Europeans—they don’t want them back,” Khosrokhavar said, in an interview last year. “Because they are afraid of them, and they know there will be problems.”
Today, repatriation claims involving children are growing, adding to the pressure. In Britain, 19-year-old Shamima Begum is asking to return home with her newborn, four years after joining Islamic State in Syria as a schoolgirl.
In neighboring Belgium, a court ordered the government in December to repatriate half-a-dozen children and their mothers detained by Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
In France, fewer than 70 children had returned as of a year ago out of up to 700 in Iraq and Syria, according to different estimates. Most are under the responsibility of a court outside Paris. Some are placed in foster care; others taken in by their families. Those over 13 who participated in fighting can be detained, according to media reports.
Now, as France is pressed to bring back the rest, experts say there is no easy answer or blueprint to deal with them.
“The ideal would be to give them the opportunity to live with their mother and of course follow them psychologically and institutionally in order to deradicalize the mother,” said Khosrokhavar, the Islamist expert. But so far, there seems little appetite for repatriating parents en masse.
Sociologist Brunner suggests applying other examples of indoctrination — including children brainwashed by religious cults — in dealing with the IS minors.
“Nobody is ready for this kind of situation,” he said. “Nobody knows exactly what to do. The only we know is we can’t do nothing.” (VOA)
Islamic State militants have increased their terror activity in recent weeks in Syria, carrying out deadly attacks against Syrian regime troops and U.S.-backed forces.
Since early December, the terror group has conducted at least three major attacks on Syrian government forces and their allied militias in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, local sources said.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has reporters across the country, recent attacks claimed by IS against Syrian military forces have killed at least 30 soldiers and wounded more than 50 others.
Last week, at least three fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in what local military officials described as a suicide attack carried out by IS militants in the province of Raqqa, IS’s former de facto capital before it was freed in 2017 by the SDF and its U.S.-led allies.
‘Threat to our forces’
IS “terrorists still pose a threat to our forces, especially in the eastern part of Syria,” an SDF commander told VOA.
“They have been able to regroup and reorganize in some remote parts of Deir el-Zour, where there is a smaller presence of our forces or any other forces,” said the commander, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.
He added that despite the declaration of the physical defeat of the terror group in March 2019, IS “still has hundreds of sleeper cells that have the capability to wage deadly attacks on civilians and combatants alike.”
In the town of Tabqa, in western Raqqa, local news reports this week said a suspected IS sleeper cell assaulted a family, killing three of its members, including a child. The reports did not say why the family was attacked, but IS has in the past targeted people whom it suspected of having ties to or working for the government or U.S.-backed local forces.
While most of the recent activity has been in areas IS once controlled as part of its so-called caliphate, the militant group has been particularly active in Syria’s vast desert region.
The Syrian Observatory reported at least 10 IS-claimed attacks in December that originated from the mostly desert eastern part of Homs province in central Syria.
Despite the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October in a U.S. operation in northwestern Syria, IS still represents a major threat in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, experts say.
“As ISIS returns to its original decentralized structure, members of the group are trying to show ISIS still poses a threat, even after the defeat of its caliphate and the recent death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, using another acronym for IS.
Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamist militancy, echoed Thomas’ views.
“IS is now living a period of stability, so to speak. After the death of Baghdadi, their objective is clearer now. They try to stay focused on carrying out assassinations, ambushes and suicide attacks, and they have been successful at that,” he told VOA.
Kinno said IS “really believes in a recurrent cycle of violence, so for them the territorial defeat they experienced this year is just a phase of their ongoing jihad.”
U.S. President Donald Trump in October announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria, which was followed by a Turkish military offensive against U.S.-backed SDF fighters in northeast Syria.
Some experts say the U.S. troop pullout allowed IS to regroup, and thus its terror attacks have increased.
“The U.S. decision sent a signal to [IS] that the U.S. is not interested in a long-term presence in Syria,” said Azad Othman, a Syrian affairs analyst based in Irbil, Iraq.
IS “now feels that its low-level insurgency in Syria could be even more effective as long as the Americans don’t have a significant military presence in the country,” he told VOA.
The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said in a report in November that “ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”
“The withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. troops has also affected the fight against ISIS, which remains a threat in the region and globally,” Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, said in the report.
But the U.S. has decided to keep about 500 troops to secure oil fields in Syria to prevent IS militants and the Syrian regime forces from accessing them. (VOA)