US Defense Spending Bill Could Authorize Funds for ISIS Detainees

By Lacy MacAuley

An important bill that was passed last week in the US Senate will impact North and East Syria. The bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), contains several provisions that involve Syria, including an impactful section that authorizes funding for facilities and repatriation efforts for ISIS detainees currently being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is the military whose soldiers defeated the ISIS “caliphate” earlier this year, in partnership with the US military and the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

This funding and other international support is critical to enabling the SDF to process detainees in a timely, humane manner, and provide access to restorative programs so that former ISIS fighters and their families can re-integrate into their home communities, rather than falling back into ISIS ranks.

The ISIS detainee funding authority is not included in the US House version of the bill, however, leaving onlookers to wonder how the two versions will be reconciled.

The NDAA is the bill approved each year to authorize funding for the US military. The bill directly shapes US foreign policy in relation to the US Department of Defense (DOD). The House must pass its own version of the NDAA, then reconcile that version with the Senate version in order for the bill to become US law. The House Armed Services Committee approved its version of the bill on June 12, 2019, and the House is expected to debate it and vote on it after members return from their July 4th break.

The section of the Senate bill on ISIS detainees authorizes funding for “Supporting the temporary detention and repatriation of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria foreign terrorist fighters in accordance with the laws of armed conflict and the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees…” as written in Section 1221(a)4 of the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, page 522.

There are currently about 5,000 former ISIS fighters and about 70,000 of their wives, children, and family members in SDF-run detention centers and camps. SDF is a regional fighting force whose country is recovering from years of war, and are not receiving international aid to process these detainees. The longer these detainees remain in limbo in temporary facilities, concentrated together with nothing to do but plan and discuss the return of the ISIS “caliphate,” the more likely it is that these detainees will re-join ISIS.

The NDAA will become US law. And if the Senate version is passed as it is currently written, it is nearly certain that there will be more funding coming from the United States to fund the ISIS detention centers.

Also included in the NDAA is a requirement for the DOD to produce a regular unclassified report every 90 days for Congress on how money is used, especially in relation to the “vetted Syrian groups and individuals” — meaning the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and its military wing the SDF. This report will include who the AANES is, the weapons and assistance given to the SDF, the governance of the AANES, US stabilization and reconstruction activities, and the status of the ISIS detainees. It also creates new requirements regarding the DOD notifying Congress 15 days in advance of providing assistance, such as providing the SDF with small arms.