Turkey is open to allowing captured Canadian ISIS members to transit through the country so they can return to Canada for prosecution, a Turkish official said in an interview.
The official told Global News that Turkey was willing to co-operate with the RCMP to repatriate the dozens of Canadians caught by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces during the collapse of ISIS.
“I think we would be positive to that,” said the official. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, the official and a colleague spoke on the condition they would not be identified.
They said Turkey would not deal directly with the Kurdish forces holding the Canadians in Syria but said if the RCMP or Canadian Armed Forces brought them to the border, they would be allowed through.
“With some imagination, I suppose a way could be found,” the official said.
The RCMP has been exploring options for bringing the roughly 30 Canadians held by the Syrian Democratic Forces back to Canada. Turkey is considered the preferred route.
The Liberal government has said it would be difficult to get the Canadians out of Syria because they could be arrested and charged by authorities in neighbouring Turkey and Iraq.
But in a national security podcast released Friday, two experts said Canada’s current policy of inaction was not a lasting solution and the government needed to find a way to get them home.
“There needs to be something done about these Canadians that are abroad,” said Leah West, a former Department of Justice lawyer and now a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto faculty of law.
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Speaking on A Podcast Called Intrepid, she told hosts Stephanie Carvin and Craig Forcese that countries needed to work out a collective solution, “because leaving them in the hands of the Kurds is not sustainable.”
Jessica Davis, a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service analyst and now president of Insight Threat Intelligence, said while returning them to Canada had its own challenges, it had to be done.
“I think leaving them overseas is much more problematic from a threat perspective. There’s a possibility of being released, of being reintegrated into ISIS forces. All of those things just make it worse,” she said.
While the RCMP has been looking into transiting the Canadians through Turkey, it wants to ensure Turkish authorities would not question the detainees or search their electronic devices.
Doing so could taint their prosecution in Canada. Upon their arrival in Canada, the RCMP intends to lay charges when possible or seek peace bonds to restrict their actions.
The RCMP sees Turkey as a better option than Iraq, where foreign ISIS members could face death sentences. An RCMP delegation visited Turkey in March, and officials from the two NATO allies held recent security consultations.
One complication is who would hand the detainees over to Turkish authorities. The coalition holding the Canadians is dominated by the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units or YPG.
Turkey views the YPG as part of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which it considers a terrorist organization.
“We wouldn’t deal directly with the YPG. I don’t see that possibility,” the Turkish official said. “We don’t deal with terrorists.”
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Those currently in detention in Syria include a Canadian who used social media to encourage terrorist attacks in Canada, and another who is believed to have helped produce ISIS execution videos.
Several Canadian women and their children are also among the detainees.
Following the defeat of ISIS in Syria, and the capture of thousands of foreign fighters and their families, the RCMP has ramped up preparations for their possible return of Canadians.
“We need to get ready in case they come back sooner than what we had expected,” Deputy Commissioner Gilles Michaud, who heads the RCMP’s federal policing branch, said in February.
To the extent possible, he said, the RCMP is trying to have charges ready before they set foot back on Canadian soil and is working with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to see what can be used as evidence.