WASHINGTON — President Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria provoked widespread fears over a future resurgence of the Islamic State. But it may yet have a silver lining: Other countries have signaled they are willing to take back their citizens who joined the terrorist group but are now detained in makeshift camps.
About 850 men and several thousand women and children from nearly 50 countries are being held in northern Syria in detention camps for Islamic State fighters and sympathizers. They have been locked up indefinitely, in ad hoc wartime prisons and refugee camps, by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which is allied with the United States.
Most of those detainees’ home countries have been looking the other way, despite the Kurds’ pleas to relieve them of that burden. But Mr. Trump’s sudden announcement on Dec. 19 that he intended to withdraw American troops soon has since called into doubt the Kurds’ ability to maintain control of the prisons and camps.
That, in turn, has led to concerns that the foreign fighters could escape or be freed and return home to launch attacks — and to a new burst of activity to repatriate some of them.
“Since the Syria withdrawal announcement was made in December, we have detected a new sense of urgency among our partner nations,” said Nathan A. Sales, the State Department’s top counterterrorism official.
There is no indication that Mr. Trump was thinking about how to manage the detainees when he announced the Syria withdrawal. But forcing allies to consider repatriating their detained citizens may be the latest of a handful of examples in which the president’s disruptive approach has managed to shake loose results.
Since taking office, Mr. Trump has repeatedly undermined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in appearing to link commitments of American military support to member states that lived up to obligations on domestic military spending. His suggestion infuriated allies. But several countries have since increased their military spending, accelerating a previously tepid upward trend.
And in the summer of 2017, Mr. Trump’s bellicose talk of raining “fire and fury” upon North Korea may have prompted the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to pause his nuclear and missile tests and begin negotiations to eliminate his nuclear arsenal. The long-term results of those negotiations, however, remain unclear.
Daniel Fried, a former senior State Department official who retired in 2017 and is now a fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that Mr. Trump’s disruptive approach sometimes appeared meant to produce favorable results. At other times, he said, it seemed pointless — as when allies were denigrated.
But in solving the problem of Islamic State detainees, Mr. Fried said, the president’s abrupt order to leave Syria may prove helpful.
“Unintentionally, it may be that Trump’s disruptive style has had a positive impact in forcing countries to face problems that they would rather kick down the road,” Mr. Fried said.
The prospect of repatriating citizens who had joined the Islamic State, and of trying to prosecute or reintegrate them into society, has raised daunting concerns for many allied governments over security, legal and political risks. Not one detainee from the makeshift Syrian camps was returned to their home nation in the last five months of 2018.
But in January, Kazakhstan announced that it had repatriated about 46 of the detainees, including about 41 women and children. Four American officials said Oman and Tunisia also took back some of their citizens from the Kurds. (The United States repatriated a recently captured Texas man for prosecution in January.)
A Tunisian official denied that his government had agreed to repatriate any Islamic State fighters or their families. But several other officials said up to nine people among what was described as a large number of Tunisian detainees have so far been returned.
At a news conference last week in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, a senior Saudi official, said his government was willing to repatriate some 50 Saudi men who are being held in the Kurdish camps.
Several European countries that had previously refused to deal with their detained citizens are now considering repatriating at least some of them. Among those countries is Kosovo, which claims only a few citizens among the Islamic State detainees.
Additionally, reports last month indicated that France is close to deciding whether to bring back about 130 of its detained citizens, including men, women and children. Other European countries with large numbers of detained citizens, including Germany and Belgium, are said to be closely watching how Paris will decide, with an eye toward echoing it.
In a statement to The New York Times, France’s Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs made clear that the withdrawal of American forces from Syria had forced it to deal with the detainees.
“In light of developments in the military situation in northeastern Syria and American decisions, and in order to ensure the security of French people, we are exploring all options in order to prevent these potentially dangerous individuals from escaping or dispersing,” the statement said.
Christopher P. Costa, a former National Security Council senior director for counterterrorism in the Trump administration, said the new willingness by nations is a positive sign for a dilemma that has few good answers.
“States don’t always think that this president is predictable in many ways, so if we can enjoy countries taking on ownership of detainees, that is a good outcome of accelerating withdrawal of U.S. forces,” said Mr. Costa, now the head of the International Spy Museum in Washington.
Countries have different reasons for their reluctance to take back Islamic State detainees.
Most are rooted in security concerns about people who may be difficult to successfully prosecute and imprison with lengthy sentences. Even those who pose little or no security risks may be hard to reintegrate into society because of their ideology or wartime experiences, and children who had been part of ISIS through no fault of their own are likely to be stigmatized.
For democracies, there is scant political support for bringing back such a problematic group, although the Belgian government was recently ordered by a court to repatriate two women and six children. Countries with fragile governments, like Tunisia, worry about the ability to absorb a large cohort of returning extremists.
Additionally, the prospect of repatriating detainees to states with poor human rights records, such as Egypt or China, has raised humanitarian concerns. The large number of detainees from Yemen poses a different problem, given that the civil war in that country could render assurances for their prosecution or resettlement at least difficult, if not impossible.
One American official described preliminary efforts to cajole third countries to resettle some detainees who cannot be returned to their troubled home nations, following a precedent during the Obama administration of resettling many lower-level Guantánamo detainees in foreign states.
For now, that remains a long-term goal. But another official, Mr. Sales, described early signs of progress in persuading some countries to reclaim their own citizens for prosecution — or at least to keep them from returning to the battlefield.
“That message is resonating now in a way it hasn’t in the past, and I think that is because our partner nations recognize there is a narrowing window of opportunity here,” he said. “As long as the U.S. remains active in northeast Syria, we are better able to influence outcomes. That is why I think you are seeing our partners focus on this with a greater sense of seriousness.”