The mother of a Canadian woman held in a detention camp for family members of ISIS militants in northeast Syria for four years wants to know why her daughter remains there, after another Canadian woman was released with the help of a former U.S. diplomat just over a week ago.
“You know, I’m happy for her,” the mother told CBC News by telephone in a rare interview. “I’m happy for her family. But why has this woman been rescued and my daughter and her two little children are still in that terrible place?”
Sara — CBC is not using her real name in order to protect the identity of her family — says her daughter knows she made a terrible mistake when she left home to travel to ISIS-held territory in 2014.
She had been trying to help her daughter escape ISIS since before the fall of the so-called caliphate in 2019.
But as her daughter tried to flee ISIS-held territory in 2017, eight months pregnant and with a toddler in tow, she was picked up by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fighting ISIS and placed in a detention camp for ISIS families near Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq. The camp houses more than 700 families of suspected ISIS militants.
At the time, Sara said, she fully expected Ottawa would repatriate her daughter to Canada to face whatever justice deemed appropriate.
When that didn’t happen, she travelled from Canada in 2018 to the Al Roj camp in the Syrian Kurdish enclave known as Rojava — more formally the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).
“I met Rojava senior administration people,” Sara said. “They told me that they would not release anyone without the co-operation of the Canadian government.
“They have been saying this all the time for several years. Now they have released a woman, and the Canadian government says that they were not involved? How is this possible?”
Her confusion is understandable.
Mother, daughter released with assistance
The Canadian woman released into the care of the former U.S. diplomat, Peter Galbraith, just over a week ago made headlines in March when he helped get her four-year-old daughter out of the camp to relatives in Canada.
At the time, she said she was unwilling to condemn her daughter to life in a prison camp, no matter how wrenching the decision.
Galbraith, who claims good relations with Global Affairs Canada while insisting he is acting privately, returned to the region late last month to help the four-year-old’s mother.
In an interview with CBC News last week, Galbraith offered up a “repatriation document” furnished by a senior Syrian Kurdish official stating that after “investigations,” there was “no sufficient evidence” to link the Canadian woman with any crime or terrorist acts in the region.
It contained no conditions for her release and specifically stated that the woman in question was being handed over to Galbraith as per her own wish.
“How did he do this alone?” Sara said. “Other families and people in the camp say Peter Galbraith did this with the co-operation of the Canadian government. I need to know if this is true.”
Canada’s policy flawed, critics say
In an interview on Monday, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, Marc Garneau, denied Ottawa’s involvement.
“There is no relationship between Peter Galbraith and Global Affairs Canada — certainly none that I’m aware of,” he told CBC News.
“He may have notified us of his intentions to help in both of these cases and to get the little girl and then the mother out of the camps,” Garneau added.
“But they were his initiatives, and he was informing us that they were going to be allowed to leave the camp and that they would end up in Iraq.”
Queries by CBC News to AANES as to why it had shifted from its previous insistence that Canadians would only be released with approval from the federal government have so far gone unanswered.
Critics say it combines to discredit an already flawed policy from Ottawa when it comes to dealing with Canadians accused of ISIS crimes or membership abroad, adding to the arbitrary nature of their detention.
“None of it makes sense,’ said Leah West, a former lawyer with the federal Justice Department, a national security expert and an assistant professor in international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“Why is he special? Why’s she special?”
At least eight Canadian women, including Sara’s daughter, and some 24 Canadian children remain in the camp. An estimated five to eight Canadian men accused of being ISIS fighters are held in prisons.
“I just don’t understand why [Galbraith] has the capacity to get women out of the camp without Canadian authorities being involved,” West said.
‘We’re losing control of the situation’
Galbraith is the son of the late Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith and a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia.
He boasts strong ties to Iraqi and Syrian Kurds and has also been instrumental in reuniting several Yazidi mothers with their children after they were freed from bondage as ISIS slaves.
But the apparent ease with which Galbraith convinced the Syrian Kurds to investigate and release the Canadian woman he helped — with no clear evidence that other detainees were being offered the same — has fuelled concern among those who say Canada is abandoning its obligations under humanitarian law.
“So what do you need to do to remove these people [from the camp]?” West asked.
Galbraith is on the record as saying he believes the woman he helped poses no threat to society and has the ability to rehabilitate.
He also said she was given special consideration for helping authorities and due to potential threats against her because of that assistance from radical ISIS supporters in the camp.
Other women in the camp have also offered to assist authorities, according to West and Sara, speaking of her own daughter.
“We’re losing control of the situation,” West said. “We’re losing control of the ability to know where Canadians are, to manage their return, to bring prosecutions if we want to.
“The arbitrariness of all this is so antithetical to what we think about when we think about the rule of law and Canada’s commitment to human rights.”
Garneau seemed to suggest it wasn’t a given that the woman helped by Galbraith would automatically wind up back in Canada.
“The mother is in Iraq. She’s not back in Canada. She’s in Iraq,” he said.
When the woman was released from the camp, Galbraith escorted her across the border to Canada’s embassy office in Erbil, northern Iraq.
Embassy officials won’t comment on her case for privacy reasons, but Galbraith said he believes her hope is to return to Canada to be reunited with her daughter.
In March, in an interview with CBC news at the camp, the woman said she was aware many Canadians were not sympathetic toward her plight.
But she also said she had undertaken a de-radicalization program at the camp and that she didn’t know what more she could do “to show how remorseful I am.”
Global Affairs Canada has said that while Canadian diplomats couldn’t travel to northeastern Syria for security reasons, Canadian citizens seeking consular assistance who are able to be present themselves at a Canadian embassy would be offered consular assistance.
Garneau insisted that offering consular assistance was “quite different” from bringing someone back to Canada.
“We have said that we are very concerned about extremist travellers. We’ve been entirely consistent. We’re perfectly aware of the fact that there are young children there who have absolutely nothing to do with the conflict,” Garneau said.
“But the adults are not there simply because they were innocent people travelling through the region. There’s a reason for it, and that’s why it’s complicated.”
Responsibility lies with Ottawa, mother says
But pressure on Ottawa to repatriate its detainees — and not to leave them with no hope of a legal process and a burden on the Syrian Kurds, who helped defeat ISIS in the first place — is growing.
Not least from the Kurdish leadership itself.
They’ve been begging countries to take back their foreign nationals for years. There are an estimated 60,000 ISIS women and children from more than 50 countries in a much larger — and more dangerous camp — called Al Hol.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on partners in the fight against ISIS to take their foreign terrorist fighters home, “to prosecute where appropriate and to rehabilitate and reintegrate where appropriate.”
“It’s something of tremendous importance in terms of making sure we’re getting people off of and away from the battlefield,” he said at a meeting in Rome.
Sara said she never once considered asking a third party or someone like Galbraith to retrieve her daughter and granddaughters from the camp.
That responsibility, she believes, lies with Ottawa.
“In my mind, I have like, I trust my government you know? I trust my government.”
Even now, she said, with all of the questions she has, she’s trusting Canada will bring them home.
“Yes. Really,” she said. “Because I must.”