Trump gives Europe an ultimatum over ISIS fighters, deepening a growing rift

Take back ISIS fighters captured in Syria, or America will simply release them, the US president threatened.

Men believed to be Islamic State fighters and their families leave the IS' embattled holdout of Baghouz on February 13, 2019 
Men believed to be Islamic State fighters and their families leave the IS' embattled holdout of Baghouz on February 13, 2019 CREDIT: FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump demanded that Europe take back hundreds of ISIS fighters captured in Syria, in the administration’s latest move that appeared likely to worsen relations between the United States and its formerly staunch allies across the Atlantic.

“The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall,” he tweeted late Saturday.

Trump’s tweet ended in an ultimatum. “The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them,” the president wrote.


And in a follow-up tweet, Trump added, “The U.S. does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go. We do so much, and spend so much – Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing. We are pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory!”

He issued the threat as the United States prepares to withdraw from Syria, where U.S. led forces have been engaged in an air campaign since September 2014.

In December, Trump announced suddenly that he had ordered the return of 2,000 U.S. troops, claiming the country had “won against ISIS” and suggesting U.S. presence in Syria was no longer necessary.


“Our boys, our young women, our men — they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now,” he said at the time. “We won, and that’s the way we want it, and that’s the way they want it.”

The decision was condemned by both the Pentagon and State Department. Not long after the announcement, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced his resignation, writing in a letter to the president that he no longer agreed with Trump’s military strategy.

“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” he wrote. “We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.”

Trump, reportedly furious over the letter, abruptly announced days later that Mattis would be forced out at the end of the month and that Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan would take over in acting capacity on January 1.

Trump’s tweet on Sunday has further strained the already tense relationship between the United States and Europe, which is concerned about the threat posed by U.S. withdrawal from the region.

Though ISIS has weakened significantly in recent years — U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say the group is now confined to a controlled area of just 700 square meters — U.S. withdrawal could destabilize the tenuous situation and leave its partners in the region exposed and unable to contain imprisoned fighters, NBC News noted.


If the United States chooses to release its own prisoners — many of whom were radicalized in Europe and fled to Syria to join up with ISIS — it could cause additional fracturing between longstanding allies.

The government of Britain immediately issued a warning Sunday, telling Trump it would prevent the prisoners’ return.

“We have a range of tough measures to stop people who pose a serious threat from returning to the U.K., including depriving them of their British citizenship or excluding them from the U.K.,” Home Secretary Sajid Javid said in a statement, adding that it was his duty to “ensure the safety” of the country and saying he would not allow anything to “jeopardize” that security.

The Trump administration has faced increased pushback from European allies more broadly in recent days.

At the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected calls from Vice President Mike Pence for France, Germany, and the U.K. to follow the United States’ lead and withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal, which Trump abandoned in May last year, amid heavy criticism.

“The only question that stands between us on this issue is, do we help our common cause, our common aim of containing the damaging or difficult development of Iran, by withdrawing from the one remaining agreement? Or do we help it more by keeping the small anchor we have in order maybe to exert pressure in other areas?” she said.

Merkel also questioned Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, asking, “Is it a good thing to immediately remove American troops from Syria, or will it not strengthen Russia and Iran’s hand?”

Pence pushed back on those questions later, stating in his own speech, “The time has come for our European partners to stop undermining U.S. sanctions against this murderous revolutionary regime. The time has come for our European partners to stand with us and with the Iranian people, our allies and friends in the region.”