DUBAI — Islamic State fighters are seizing a chance to escape and regroup as U.S.-allied Kurdish forces turn their attention from guarding thousands of captive extremists to defending themselves from Turkey’s assault.
More than 800 suspected IS detainees escaped the Ayn Issa camp in northern Syria on Sunday, Kurdish forces said in a statement, five days into Turkey’s military incursion into norther Syria.
Jelal Ayaf, co-chair of Ayn Issa camp, told local media that 859 people “successfully escaped” the section of the camp holding foreign nationals. He also said attacks were already being carried out by “sleeper cells” that had emerged from inside the camp, which holds IS prisoners, internally displaced persons and families or affiliates of IS fighters. While some escapees could be recaptured, he described the situation in the camp as “very volatile.”
CNBC could not independently verify the numbers.
At least 10,000 Islamic State prisoners are in camps across northeastern Syria, according to Kurdish and U.S. officials. About 2,000 are foreign fighters and the rest Iraqi and Syrian. As Turkish jets bombard the area, many of the personnel responsible for containing those prisoners are being forced to the front to defend themselves or their families, Kurdish forces say.
‘They are forced to defend their families’
The news comes as the Turkish military expands its offensive into Syria, which began shortly after President Donald Trump announced a U.S. troop withdrawal from the Turkish-Syrian border area and handed responsibility for the area — and the IS fighters within it — to Ankara. Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as a security threat and indistinguishable from a separate Kurdish group that has waged a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey.
Trump’s move triggered swift condemnation from Republicans and Democrats for what critics say is leaving the Kurdish forces to fend for themselves alone against a Turkish onslaught aimed at clearing them from the region. The Syrian Kurds suffered heavy losses fighting alongside the U.S. in the counter-IS campaign.
Kurdish forces and activists say more than 100 people have died from Turkish artillery fire and airstrikes, while some 130,000 people have already been displaced, according to the UN.
Trump has defended his decision as part of his drive to end U.S. engagement in Middle Eastern wars, but security experts and aid groups warn of an IS revival and a humanitarian disaster.
Gen. Mazloum Kobani, commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, told NBC News in an interview last week that guarding the IS prisoners in Syria is now a “second priority.”
“All their families are located in the border area,” he said of the Kurdish forces normally tasked with securing the detention camps. “So they are forced to defend their families.”
“This is a very big problem,” Kobani told NBC. “Nobody has helped in this regard.”
In a move that highlights the Kurds’ desperation, the Syrian Democratic Forces — the predominantly Kurdish collection of U.S.-backed militia groups that battled IS and have come to govern northern Syria — announced they have struck a deal with the Iranian- and Russian-backed government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“An agreement has been reached with the Syrian government — whose duty it is to protect the country’s borders and preserve Syrian sovereignty — for the Syrian Army to enter and deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border to help the SDF stop this aggression” by Turkey, the Syrian Democratic Forces said in a statement Sunday.
In December, regional experts Dana Stroul and Soner Cagaptay warned in a report that this “‘Assad option’ would ensure renewed Sunni Arab support for violent extremist groups, likely leading to ‘IS 2.0.'”
This risk, combined with IS prison breaks, threatens to completely reverse the hard-fought gains against IS by the U.S.-led global coalition — gains Trump has celebrated as a landmark achievement of his presidency. Since Trump’s pullout announcement on Oct. 6, IS has claimed responsibility for at least three suicide bombings against Kurdish forces in Syria’s Raqqa, the extremist group’s former de-facto capital.
“The SDF can barely maintain its presence at the camps with ISIS detainees now, and a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria would make it impossible for the SDF to keep watch over them,” Nick Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told CNBC. The facilities include the sprawling Al-Hol IDP camp, which houses 70,000 refugees and IS family members.
“A Turkish invasion of northeast Syria [is] an existential crisis for the SDF, and it would need to devote all of its resources to defend the Syrian-Turkish border regions.”
Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to downplay the seriousness of the IS jailbreaks, with Trump saying last week that the issue would be Europe and Turkey’s responsibility, and suggesting Monday that the Kurds might be releasing prisoners “to get us involved.” Erdogan dismissed the reports as “disinformation” designed to to provoking the West.
Trump has also threatened to “totally destroy” Turkey’s economy with sanctions if it goes too far in its attacks — a threat that apparently hasn’t convinced the market, which saw the Turkish lira relatively flat on Monday.
“Turkey has not put forth a plan for the international community to see how it would take responsibility for these ISIS prisoners,” Heras told CNBC. “Perhaps under pressure from the United States and other coalition nations, Turkey will demonstrate that it has a plan for the ISIS prisoners.”
“If neither Turkey nor the U.S.-led coalition can secure the ISIS prisoners,” Heras warned, “there is a great risk that they will be freed by ISIS, boosting the terrorist organization at a critical time in its plan to reemerge in Syria.”