The U.S. military was unable to carry out a plan to transfer about five dozen “high value” Islamic State detainees out of Kurdish-run wartime prisons before the Pentagon decided to move its forces out of northern Syria and pave the way for a Turkish-led invasion, according to two U.S. officials.
In the same area Sunday, hundreds of Islamic State sympathizers escaped from a low-security detention camp in the region, taking advantage of the chaos caused by the Turkish ground invasion and the accompanying strikes.
Both developments underscored the pandemonium unleashed by President Donald Trump’s sudden decision to order U.S. troops to evacuate part of the Syrian region bordering Turkey.
That allowed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to order an invasion of Syrian territory controlled by a Kurdish-led militia that was at the center of U.S.-led efforts to contain the Islamic State group over the past several years.
On Sunday, the militia was forced to seek the protection of the Syrian government.
The Turkish government sees the Kurdish military presence so close to its border as a serious security threat because the Kurdish forces have close ties with a guerrilla group that has waged a decadeslong insurgency inside Turkey itself.
Turkey’s invasion upended a fragile peace in northern Syria, and has already begun to unleash sectarian bloodshed.
It also risks enabling a resurgence of the Islamic State group. The extremist group no longer controls any territory in Syria, but it still has sleeper cells and supporters across parts of the country.
ISIS has already claimed responsibility for at least two attacks since the start of the invasion, including one car bomb in a border city, Qamishli, and another on an international military base outside Hasaka, a regional capital farther to the south.
Trump claimed last week that the United States had taken out the worst ISIS detainees to ensure they would not escape. But in fact the U.S. military was able to take custody of only two British detainees — half of a cell dubbed the Beatles that tortured and killed Western hostages — the officials said.
As the week progressed and Kurdish casualties mounted, the onetime U.S. ally known as the Syrian Democratic Forces grew increasingly angry at the United States. They cast Trump’s move as a betrayal.
The Kurds refused, the officials said, to cooperate in permitting the U.S. military to take out any more detainees from the constellation of ad hoc wartime detention sites for captive ISIS fighters. These range from former schoolhouses in towns like Ain Eissa and Kobani to a former Syrian government prison at Hasaka.
The prisons hold about 11,000 men, about 9,000 of them Syrian or Iraqi Arabs. About 2,000 come from some 50 other nations whose governments have refused to repatriate them.
Five captives escaped during a Turkish bombardment on a Kurdish-run prison in Qamishli on Friday, Kurdish officials said.
The Kurdish authorities also operate camps for families displaced by the conflict that hold tens of thousands of people, many of them non-Syrian wives and children of Islamic State fighters.
One major camp in Ain Eissa was left unguarded Sunday morning after a Turkish airstrike and as Turkish-backed troops advanced close to the town, according to an administrator at the camp, Jalal al-Iyaf.
In the mayhem that followed, more than 500 relatives of ISIS fighters housed in a secure part of the camp escaped, al-Iyaf said. A Kurdish official also said that the ISIS flag had been raised in the countryside between the camp and the Turkish border.
But determining the exact state of play on the ground proved difficult, as the advances by Turkish-backed Arab fighters scattered Kurdish officials who had previously been able to provide information.
The likelihood of an ISIS resurgence remains hard to gauge, since the Syrian Kurdish leadership may have exaggerated some incidents to catch the West’s attention.
The camp escape came hours before the U.S. military said it would relocate its remaining troops in northern Syria to other areas of the country in the coming weeks.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced in an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the United States found itself “likely caught between two opposing advancing armies” in northern Syria.
The reference was to the possibility of an impending clash between Turkish forces and the Syrian government and its Russian allies. Kurdish militias are now allying with them in the absence of support from their former U.S. allies
On Sunday evening, the Kurdish authorities announced a deal with the Syrian government to allow the Syrian army back into Kurdish-held areas, with regime troops due to enter the city of Kobani overnight.
“It has been agreed with the Syrian government, which has a duty to protect the country’s borders and preserve Syrian sovereignty, that the Syrian army can enter and deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border to support the SDF to repel this aggression and liberate the areas entered by the Turkish army and its mercenaries,” the Kurdish authorities said in a statement on Sunday night.
Trump took to Twitter to defend his decision last week to pull troops back from the border region, portraying himself as powerless to end a long-standing feud between Kurdish militants and a Turkish government that sees their quest as a threat to its sovereignty.
“The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years,” Trump wrote Sunday.
Trump also tried to assuage his critics, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who broke with the president over his Syria decision and is promising bipartisan legislation to slap economic sanctions on Turkey.
“Dealing with @LindseyGrahamSC and many members of Congress, including Democrats, about imposing powerful Sanctions on Turkey,” Trump wrote. “Treasury is ready to go, additional legislation may be sought.”
But his decision has already had devastating consequences for the Kurds.
They lost thousands of fighters in the battle against the extremists. Now they are now fighting a war on two fronts, with dozens of fighters killed since the new round of fighting began Wednesday.
The fighting has caused the deaths of dozens of civilians killed in airstrikes and has forced over 130,000 from their homes, according to the United Nations, and raised the specter of sectarian bloodshed.
Turkish-backed Syrian fighters killed a Kurdish politician and at least two other captives, one with his hands tied behind his back, in what could constitute a war crime. In a video of one of the killings, the fighters used a sectarian epithet to describe the victims.
The fighting has displaced people who have already been forced from their homes several times.
At the camp in Ain Eissa where around 500 ISIS sympathizers staged a breakout Sunday, the 13,000 other residents include refugees from Iraq who had sought safety in Syria because of war and insurgency at home. Scores of residents fled the camp in the aftermath of an airstrike Sunday, according to aid workers there.
“Everyone thought that the camp was internationally protected, but in the end there was nothing,” said al-Iyaf, the administrator at the camp. “It was not protected at all.”
By nightfall, the camp remained unguarded, with Turkish-led forces close to the outskirts of the city, al-Iyaf said.
After establishing a foothold on Saturday in Ras al-Ayn, a strategic town close to the Turkish border, Turkish troops and their Arab proxies made major progress on the ground Sunday. A Syrian Arab militia under Turkish command pushed deeper into Kurdish-held territory, blocking major roads, ambushing civilians and claiming the capture of a second strategic town in northern Syria, Tel Abyad, that lies adjacent to the border.
On Sunday afternoon, Erdogan announced that his forces now controlled nearly 70 square miles of territory in northern Syria.
They have also taken control of the important highway connecting the two flanks of Kurdish-held territory, the Turkish defense ministry said. This allows Turkish troops and their proxies to block supply lines between Kurdish forces — and cut an exit route to Iraq.
It also makes it harder for U.S. troops to leave Syria by road.
Erdogan suggested his campaign was now expanding. He announced that the Turkish force would attempt to capture Hasaka, a major Kurdish-run city that sits well beyond the territory that Erdogan initially said he had set out to capture.
Since the Syrian civil war began eight years ago, northern Syria has changed hands several times, as rebels, Islamists, extremist groups and Kurdish factions have vied with government forces for control.
After joining U.S. troops to drive out the Islamic State group, the Kurdish-led militia emerged as the dominant force across the area, taking control of former ISIS territory and guarding former ISIS fighters on behalf of the United States and other international allies.
But with Turkey making increasing noise in recent months about forcing the Kurdish militia away from its border, the U.S. military began making contingency plans to get about five dozen of the highest-priority detainees out of Syria.
The planning began last December, when Trump first announced that he would withdraw troops from the country before his administration slowed down that plan, one official said.
U.S. Special Operations forces moved first to get the two British detainees, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, out Wednesday, in part because there was a clear disposition plan for them already in place: The Justice Department is planning to bring them to Virginia for prosecution. They are now being held in Iraq.
But as the military then sought to take custody of additional detainees, the Kurds refused to cooperate, the two U.S. officials said. Privately, the Kurds — who announced a deal Sunday with Syrian President Bashar Assad — also threatened to call for the United States to leave Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria.
Now, with the Pentagon withdrawing U.S. forces, the ability to take any more detainees out — even if the Kurds were to start cooperating again — has essentially evaporated, they said.