The United States wants detained foreign fighters being held by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to be turned over to face justice in their home countries. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is expected to raise the issue during a meeting in Italy with other members of the coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria.
Mattis arrived in Rome for talks on the war against the Islamic State terrorist group and what to do with thousands of detainees being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the SDF. Hundreds are foreign fighters and Mattis is expected to tell Defense Ministers from the coalition fighting the IS they must take responsibility for the foreign fighters from their countries.
Foreign fighters will not be the only issue discussed at the Rome meeting with 13 of his coalition counterparts. He said the battle to eradicate IS is ongoing.
"There are numerous discussions about what's next," he said. "As we go forward, first mission: finish off IS' physical caliphate. That is still under way. The fight is not over against ISIS. It's not over. It goes on. There's been tough fighting in the last week with ISIS."
Speaking on the plane that carried Mattis to Rome, Kathryn Wheelbarger, the principal deputy assistant defense secretary for international security affairs said the key goal is to keep the fighters off the battlefield. She added that at one point the SDF was capturing as many as 40 militants a day.
The issue of detained foreign fighters has become even more prominent after the SDF announced it had captured two notorious British members of an Islamic State cell known as the Beatles and known for beheading hostages.
Wheelbarger said Britain has so far refused to accept them, claiming their visas were revoked and the U.S. Justice Department is reviewing the cases and is unlikely to be moving quickly. Another U.S. official said Guantanamo Bay is not being considered for The Beatles.
Mattis said one of the main issues to be discussed is the recovery effort in the areas that were occupied by ISIS. This will include ensuring that explosive devices are found and eliminated, getting schools re-opened, and making sure clean water is available to avoid disease outbreaks.
After the Rome meeting, the U.S. defense chief travels to Brussels. There, he will attend a defense ministerial meeting that he hopes will be an opportunity to strengthen the NATO alliance, which remains crucial in another ongoing conflict.
"It is engaged in fighting now, as you know, in Afghanistan," he noted. "Afghanistan will be a key part of the discussion there in Brussels."
Mattis's final two European stops will be in Germany — first, Stuttgart to visit with the United States' European and Africa commands based there. His last stop will be at the Munich Security Conference.