France’s foreign minister said on Tuesday that he would head to Iraq to discuss the “security” of the prisons in northern Syria, amid fears thousands of foreign ISIS fighters could escape during Turkey’s military operation against Kurdish forces.
“At the president’s request, I will soon go to Iraq to discuss with all sides, including the Kurds, the reality of the security situation and our own security,” Jean-Yves Le Drian told the parliament.
According to Kurdish sources around 12,000 ISIS fighters, including 2,500 to 3,000 foreigners, are being held in Kurdish prisons, and a further 12,000 foreigners - 8,000 children and 4,000 women - are detained in camps in northeast Syria.
Le Drian said “several dozen French fighters” are among those held, while French diplomatic sources have indicated 60 to 70 are being held, along with their wives and children.
The Kurds have warned they will not be able to keep operating the camps after Turkey launched its military offensive against areas they hold in northern Syria last week.
That could allow ISIS fighters to escape, and France has already voiced alarm after reports that nearly 800 relatives of foreign extremists had fled during a Turkish assault against a camp at Ain Issa.
The anti-ISIS coalition led by the United States - and which includes Turkey - appears in tatters after President Donald Trump withdrew nearly all American forces from the Syria border near Turkey.
“The main enemy for all actors in the Middle East... is still Daesh,” Le Drian said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“For us, the anti-Daesh coalition still exists,” he added, saying an urgent meeting of its partners was needed “so that everyone can say today what they plan on doing tomorrow against this main enemy.”
Le Drian did not say when he would head to Iraq, which has sentenced hundreds of ISIS insurgents, including foreigners, caught in Syria to death or life in prison.
France and other European countries have insisted their captured citizens must face trial where they were captured, refusing Kurdish appeals for them to repatriate their citizens to face justice at home.
So far, Paris has taken back only a handful of children on a “case by case” basis since March, when ISIS fighters were dislodged from their last bastion in Syria.