President Trump brushed off reports Monday that hundreds of ISIS family members had escaped a Kurdish-run camp in northern Syria, a day after the U.S. announced it was pulling out all its troops, sparking a dramatic wave of upheaval in the conflict.
On Sunday, the U.S. triggered a series of whirlwind developments by announcing it was pulling out its remaining 1,000 troops still deployed in northern Syria as soon as possible, as the brutal cross-border Turkish offensive against the Kurds began to threaten U.S. military positions. The announcement heralded the sudden collapse of five years of U.S. strategy in Syria, with a full U.S. withdrawal expected to be completed within days, according to officials.
Within hours, the abandoned Kurds announced they had struck an unlikely deal with the Syrian government, inviting regime forces into Kurdish-held town towns as an “emergency measure” to repel the Turkish invasion. By Monday, Syrian government forces had advanced deep into Kurdish-held territory in the north of the country, opening a new phase in the nearly nine-year conflict.
The fierce assault by Turkish airplanes, ground troops, and their proxy militias has sparked fears of a deepening humanitarian crisis, as hundreds of thousands of civilians flee their homes. Amid the escalating violence, concerns are growing that hard-won gains against ISIS will be lost, as the terror group’s 12,000 imprisoned fighters and their families potentially take advantage of the chaos to escape Kurdish custody.
Those escapes have already begun, according to Kurdish officials. Kurdish authorities said 785 “people affiliated with foreign ISIS fighters” escaped a camp at Ain Issa Sunday, after an ISIS cell attacked the guards and opened the gates. The UK-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said about 100 people had escaped, citing sources in the camp, which holds relatives of ISIS fighters along with internally displaced people.
On Friday, five ISIS captives also escaped during a Turkish attack on a prison in Qamishli, Kurdish officials said.
But on Monday, Trump brushed off the reports, echoing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s claim that the Kurdish reports were part of a bid to draw the U.S. back into the conflict.
“Kurds may be releasing some to get us involved,” he tweeted. “Easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly.”
Trump downplayed the threat of ISIS jailbreaks last week, saying at a press conference: “Well, they're going to be escaping to Europe.”
According to reports, U.S. efforts to transfer 60 high-value ISIS prisoners into American custody have faltered amid the swiftly deteriorating conditions on the battlefield, with only two British suspects, members of the so-called “Beatles” execution cell, transferred successfully. The Washington Post reported that a number of Kurdish-run detention facilities were now unguarded as their focus shifted to repelling the Turks.
ISIS has claimed at least two attacks since the start of the Turkish offensive — a car bomb in Qamishli and an assault on a military base outside Hasaka.
Syrian troops head north
Following their abandonment by their key backer the U.S., which left them outgunned and at the mercy of a brutal Turkish offensive, the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria said Sunday it had been forced to reach an agreement with the Syrian government to deploy along the border to counter the Turkish invasion.
Under the Russian-brokered deal, Syrian government forces are being invited into towns and cities in the north that have been under the control of an autonomous Kurdish administration for years, in a bid to repel Ankara’s forces. Assad’s troops advanced quickly to the border region: on Monday, government forces entered the northeastern town of Tel Tamer, within 12 miles of the border.
The deal with the regime represents a major shift in allegiance for the Kurds, which with the military support of the U.S. has run an autonomous administration in the north spanning territory it recaptured from ISIS.
While a senior Kurdish official, Badran Jia Kurd, told Reuters that his administration would negotiate political issues with the Syrian government later, the sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces is a huge win for Assad and his Russian backers, cementing their grip on a huge swathe of the country that has been beyond their control since Assad’s forces withdrew to fight rebels in 2012.
The prospect of direct fighting between Syrian and Turkish forces has deepened fears of a looming humanitarian crisis in northern Syria. The United Nations says up to 160,000 civilians have been displaced so far, and it expects the number to rise as government forces enter the battle.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 50 civilians and more than 100 Kurdish fighters have been killed on the Syrian side of the border. The Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Forces said it had lost 56 fighters, while Turkey claimed it had killed 440 Kurdish fighters.
Turkey said 18 of its civilians had been killed by cross-border fire, while four of its soldiers and 16 fighters from its allied militia in Syria had been killed so far.
Turkey says it is carrying out the operation to drive Kurdish forces, which it considers indistinguishable from Kurdish separatists fighting an insurgency in Turkey, from the border region, which it intends to repopulate with 2 million Syrian refugees.
Cover: This picture taken on October 14, 2019 shows smoke rises from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, from the Turkish side of the border at Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa, on the sixth day of Turkey's military operation against Kurdish forces. (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)