Syrians displaced by the conflict brace for winter in tents in IDP camps near Raqqa. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP
OTTAWA - The father of a British-Canadian dual national held by Kurds in Syria pleaded Tuesday for Ottawa's help to rescue him and at least 18 other Canadians, amid concerns that some of them pose a security risk.
Jack Letts, 23, has been held in Syria for 18 months, his father John told reporters in Ottawa.
"I need your help to save my son's life," said Letts, who appeared at a press conference with Alexandra Bain, director of Families Against Violent Extremism.
They said nine Canadians including the younger Letts as well as at least 10 of their children -- some taken to Syria, some born in the war zone -- are currently being held by Kurdish authorities on Syrian soil.
Bain said they face a cold winter ahead, are given little to eat, are not provided an education and tuberculosis has started to spread in the camps.
"These people need to be brought home to Canada and they need to be brought home now," Bain said.
The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said it will not risk sending officials to Syria to negotiate for their release, citing security concerns.
Ottawa has also raised concerns about the collection of evidence in conflict zones to prosecute returnees under Canadian terrorism laws.
"We are aware of Canadian citizens being detained in Syria," foreign ministry spokesman Stefano Maron told AFP.
"Given the security situation on the ground, the government of Canada's ability to provide consular assistance in any part of Syria is extremely limited," he said.
"Canada is engaged in these cases and is providing assistance, to the limited extent possible," including verifying their "whereabouts and well-being," Maron added.
The families of detainees and their supporters were to meet later Tuesday with senior Canadian foreign ministry officials to pitch their proposal for a brokered return.
Letts and Bain said the human rights organization Reprieve would travel to camps in northern Syria to help facilitate their return, but only if Canada agrees to supply the returnees with travel documents.
To alleviate public concerns about repatriating Canadians with possible terror links, Bain said returnees would agree to "voluntary security arrangements," without elaborating on the terms.
Reprieve has previously helped repatriate an American from Syria under similar circumstances, Bain noted.
The reason for Letts' presence in Syria is somewhat unclear.
British media have suggested he is fighting for extremist groups, but his father said he was "not a violent jihadist" though he might have been "naive and wrong" to go to Syria.
Canadian officials had been trying to secure Letts' return home but suddenly halted their efforts in May, the father said.
"They just said there's nothing we can do because it's too dangerous," he told reporters, holding back tears.
The father suggested pressure on Canada from Britain, which has refused to take Jack back, or the upcoming Canadian election in 2019 may have factored into the decision.