It would be immoral for Canada to leave its ISIS members in Syria

Let’s begin by acknowledging the pungent barnyard smell that accompanied Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s previous explanation for why his government wouldn’t be bringing Canadians suspected of belonging to ISIS home for prosecution.

Northern Syria, where several Canadians, including women and children, are currently detained by the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is a dangerous place, Goodale said, and Canada won’t put its consular officials at risk by sending them there.

That the area is currently crawling with Western journalists speaks to its tolerable risk level. And, of course, Canada does send diplomats into dangerous environments. The death of Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry in Afghanistan in 2006 is tragic proof of that. He’s not the only Canadian diplomat killed or injured on duty abroad, but most — thanks to training, rigorous security protocols and luck — return home safely.

Goodale has also argued that Canada isn’t obligated to help ISIS fighters come home anyway. “It should be noted that while every Canadian citizen, no matter how reprehensible, has the legal right to re-enter Canada, the government of Canada has no legal obligation to facilitate their return,” he said in a January speech. This week, in an interview with Global News, the RCMP indicated it is nevertheless preparing for Canadian ISIS members’ return. 

The problem with Goodale’s sort of talk is that it violates the spirit of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election campaign mantra that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.” If that were true, ISIS members should expect Ottawa to expend the same efforts on them as it does on other Canadians who find themselves in sticky situations abroad.

Goodale’s obfuscation is pragmatic. It’s just not moral (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The real reason why the Trudeau government wouldn’t want to repatriate Canadian members of ISIS and their families is because they recognize the public relations disaster it would be if these men and women were to come home and escape meaningful prosecution — which is a possibility, given the difficulty in compiling evidence from Syria and Iraq that would stand up in a Canadian court. Returning ISIS members might also pose a security risk, necessitating resource-heavy surveillance.

So Goodale’s obfuscation is pragmatic. It’s just not moral.

The immorality is not in denying ISIS members a Canadian homecoming. Allowing killers and sex slave-owners a comfortable life in Canada is not justice in the cosmic sense, even if it may be legally unavoidable.

What’s immoral about leaving Canadian ISIS members in Syria is that it makes our citizens a problem for the Syrian Democratic Forces to sort out. The men and women of the SDF, lest we forget, were Canada’s allies, fighting ISIS on the ground while we bombed them from the air (before we pulled our CF-18s from that fight). American, British and French special forces also fought side-by-side with the SDF on the ground in Syria.

One of the SDF’s contingent groups, the YPG, helped rescue Yazidis besieged by ISIS on Mount Sinjar in 2014. That same militia, with allied Syrian and Iraqi ones, broke the siege of Kobani in 2015, when almost everyone thought the city was lost. They’ve been the most steadfast and successful force fighting ISIS in northern Syria. They’ve suffered thousands of casualties as a result.

Now, with ISIS mostly defeated, America and its allies will leave the SDF to make whatever peace it can with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and with Turkey, which opposes their presence along its border and will work to disrupt any efforts the SDF make to carve out an autonomous region there. Abandoning the Kurds is a longstanding Western tradition. But must we really add to this betrayal by sticking them with the worst of Canada?

And what exactly do we expect the SDF to do with our citizens they now house and feed? Detain them indefinitely? Release them to potentially menace others in Syria, or perhaps in Europe, should they manage to cross into Turkey and travel on from there? Hand them over to Assad’s security forces, with its history of torture and industrial-scale murder? How are any of those options moral or pragmatic?

Whether we like it or not, Canadian ISIS members are our responsibility. We need to bring them home to deal with them as best we can.

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.