Istanbul, Turkey – President Donald Trump‘s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria‘s border with Turkey, making way for the launch of a long-threatened Turkish operation into the region, has raised questions about the fate of thousands of suspected ISIL fighters detained in makeshift jails in the Kurdish-controlled area.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Washington’s main ally in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) group, have denounced the United States‘s move as a “stab in the back” and pledged to defend the area from a Turkish assault “at all costs”.
On Tuesday, the Turkish defence ministry said it was ready to launch its operation aimed at creating a “safe zone” to create the conditions needed for the return of Syrian refugees and drive the Kurdish fighters, who it considers “terrorists”, away from the border area.
This came as SDF Commander Mazlum Abdi told NBC News that his forces tasked with securing the ISIL prisoners were leaving for the border to prepare for a battle against the Turkish army.
Watching over ISIL captives – estimated at at least 10,000 – was “a second priority”, he told the US-based network.
Trump’s move was widely criticised in the US, with a group of bipartisan legislators calling it a “misguided and catastrophic blow to our national interests”.
“These Kurdish soldiers are the first line of defence in maintaining the gains we have made against ISIS; if Turkey attacks these Kurdish soldiers, there is a grave risk that the ISIS fighters they guard will escape and return to the battlefield,” the group said in a statement.
The SDF has long called for the international community to take the prisoners, who include 2,000 foreign fighters, off its hands, saying it does not have the capacity to prosecute the captives or hold them in prison long term.
SDF officials say there are 10 such detention facilities spread across the vast region the groups controls east of the Euphrates River. Described by some as “pop-up prisons”, the facilities are housed in former schools and old government buildings, including in Raqqa, Deir Az Zor and Hasakah provinces. Up to 70,000 women and children, relatives of ISIL fighters, are also being held at the sprawling al-Hol camp, according to the United Nations.
Mutlu Civiroglu, an analyst based in Washington, DC, said there was “no doubt” ISIL would take advantage of the situation created by a Turkish operation.
While the US says the ISIL captives are now Turkey’s responsibility, Civiroglu said Ankara may not be equipped to deal with the armed group’s prisoners in SDF prisons or a resurgence in attacks.
“It’s a huge burden for Turkey,” he said. “More or less the ISIS detainees are under control [right now], but it’s going to be very hard [for Turkey] to control these people. Turkey does not have the advantage of the Kurds and the local groups … because it’s unfamiliar territory for them.”
Brett McGurk, a former US presidential envoy to the anti-ISIL coalition, echoed the same sentiment in a Twitter post. “Turkey has neither the intent, desire nor capacity to manage the 60k [60,000] detainees in al-Hol camp,” he said.
But Umit Yalcin, Turkish ambassador to the UK, told Sky News on Tuesday Turkey “can deal with” ISIL captives.
“We will handle this issue with our allies in cooperation … We have that capacity and capability,” he said.
The SDF has warned that ISIL remains a threat in the region. The Kurdish YPG-led forces warned on Monday a possible Turkish attack would “reverse the successful effort to defeat ISIS”. In a Twitter post, it also said that such a development would lead to the “return of ISIS leaders who are hidden in the desert” and attempts at freeing the prisoners.
On Sunday, the SDF announced capturing an ISIL commander, while an August report by the US Department of Defense Inspector General Glenn Fine said the armed group “has activated resurgent cells in areas controlled by the SDF” to conduct attacks.
“They (ISIL) thrive on the management of chaos and so for them, it’s going to be quite a gift,” said Robert Wesley, president of the Terrorism Research Initiative, referring to a potential confrontation between Turkey and SDF.
“Especially if you have a movement by the Assad regime north of the river, especially into some of the oil areas,” he said, referring to the likelihood Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s forces may use a Turkish offensive to reclaim the oil-rich Deir Az Zor province from the SDF.
It is unclear how many of the ISIL prisons are located in the region Turkey intends to create its “safe zone”, Wesley said. Turkish officials have said the area would stretch 30km from the country’s border into Syria.
But Wesley said Turkey may extend that zone if it wants to push back the Kurdish forces.
“Turkey will have to go deeper into the area to inflict a heavier defeat, or otherwise have to content themselves with a smaller zone of control,” he said.
Wesley went on to urge European countries to take action on the European ISIL prisoners, which according to the SDF number around 1,000. European countries have refused to do so previously, and some have passed laws stripping citizenship from ISIL fighters who are dual nationals.
“This is a big threat … nothing has changed, Europeans have decided they’d rather pass the buck onto the US and the SDF and we’re in the same position we were before,” Wesley said.
“It’s a good opportunity for them, [to say to] Turkey and the US, ‘if you stay in the game here, if you maintain stability in the north we’re going to provide some additional assistance with the detention facilities there, and become more actively involved’.”
Yalcin, the Turkish ambassador, meanwhile urged countries to repatriate suspected ISIL fighters for trial at home. He told Sky News “the ideal situation” would be for states “to take those people back to their own countries and they can bring them justice, take them to court or rehabilitate them”.
For his part, Trump, who has also been pressing European countries to take back suspected fighters, said the US would not take in any ISIL fighters.
“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their ‘neighborhood’,” he said on Twitter.
“They all hate ISIS, have been enemies for years. We are 7,000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!”