The escalating chaos in northern Syria as Turkey presses forward with its attack on the United States’ erstwhile Kurdish allies is raising fears about the fate of thousands of Islamic State detainees that the Kurds have been holding in makeshift wartime prisons.
When announcing that he had cleared the way for the Turkish military operation in northern Syria, US President Donald Trump insisted that Turkey must assume responsibility for the captured IS fighters and their families — then said the United States was taking custody of the most dangerous ones. But with the Pentagon preparing to withdraw American forces from northern Syria, it is far from clear that either aspiration will happen.
What is going on in northern Syria?
The situation is deeply complicated. Turkey has launched an invasion against Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who were the primary American ally in Syria against the Islamic State and who control northern Syria.
Turkey has been fighting separatist Kurds inside its borders and considers the Syrian Kurds terrorists.
The presence of American troops alongside the Kurds had helped to maintain a fragile peace. But after Mr Trump told Turkey that it could begin an operation into Syria and that the United States would pull its forces back from a zone along the border, Turkey and an Arab Syrian militia have killed many Kurds — and may have deliberately fired near American forces, too.
On Sunday, the Pentagon announced that Mr Trump had ordered American forces out of northern Syria.
Smoke is seen rising from the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain as fighting rages along the border. Source: AFP
Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, backed by Russia, controls the southern part of the country and wants to retake it all. On Sunday, the Kurds apparently struck a deal with the Syrian government, but its details — and what it would mean for detainees — were not yet clear.
Who are the IS detainees?
The Syrian Democratic Forces has operated an archipelago of about half a dozen ad hoc wartime detention sites for captive IS fighters, ranging from former schoolhouses in towns like Ain Issa and Kobani to a former Syrian government prison at Hasaka.
The prisons hold about 11,000 men, of whom about 9,000 are locals - Syrians or Iraqis - and about 2,000 come from 50 other nations whose home governments have been reluctant to repatriate them.
Scores of those men are Europeans, from countries like Belgium, Britain, France and Germany, but far more come from other nations that are part of the Muslim world, like Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.
Mourners attend a funeral for Kurdish political leader Hevrin Khalaf and others in the northeastern Syrian Kurdish town of Derik. Source: AFP
The Kurds also operate more than a dozen 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.
These include the giant Al Hol camp about 40 kilometres southeast of Hasaka, where some 70,000 people have been living in increasingly dire conditions, and a camp in Ain Issa.
Will IS members go free in the chaos?
One fear was that the Kurds are redeploying guards out of the prisons and camps to help fight the Turks, making it easier for IS members to break out. On Sunday, hundreds of IS women and children apparently were permitted to leave a section of the displaced-persons camp in Ain Issa where they had been detained, amid Turkish airstrikes that threatened their safety. It is not clear whether any male fighters have yet escaped the prisons.
The “worst-case scenario” is that the Kurds are so frustrated and angered by the United States’ action that “they decide to release wholesale some of the detainees,” said Christopher P. Costa, a former senior director for counterterrorism on Mr Trump’s National Security Council who now heads the International Spy Museum.
Might Turkey or the Assad government take custody of IS prisoners?
The White House said Turkey would “now be responsible for all IS fighters in the area captured over the past two years.” But Turkey has given no public sign that it has agreed to take over that headache.
“It’s hard to imagine Turkey has the capacity to handle securely and appropriately the detainees long held by the Syrian Kurds — and that’s if Turkey even genuinely intends to try,” said Joshua A. Geltzer, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
It is also possible that the Syrian government could end up taking over some of the prisons as a result of a deal between the Kurds and the Assad regime. But it was not clear whether there was any plan for a controlled transfer of authority and responsibility amid the fast-moving events.
Didn’t Trump say the United States had already gotten the very worst IS detainees out of Syria?
Yes, but that was largely untrue.
On Wednesday, as the chaos was intensifying in northern Syria, Mr Trump made reassuring remarks to reporters, disclosing that the United States was taking custody of the worst IS detainees to ensure that they would not escape.
A US military vehicle patrols a road near the town of Tal Baydar in the countryside of Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province. Source: AFP
“We are taking some of the most dangerous IS fighters out,” Mr Trump said.
“We’ve taken them out and we’re putting them in different locations where it’s secure. In addition, the Kurds are watching. And if the Kurds don’t watch, then Turkey is going to watch because they don’t want those people out any more than we do.”
He added: “But we have taken a certain number of IS fighters that are particularly bad. And we’ve wanted to make sure that nothing happened with them, with respect to getting out. And I think we’re doing a great job.”
But even though Mr Trump spoke in the past tense, as if that operation had been carried out, it was instead largely aspirational — and now appears increasingly unlikely.
What really happened?
The United States got only two high-value detainees out, far short of its goal.
The military had been making contingency plans to get a list of about five dozen of the highest-priority detainees from that group out of northern Syria since December, when Mr Trump first announced that he would withdraw troops from the country before his administration slowed down that plan, one official said.
After Mr Trump’s abrupt green light to Turkey, the military tried to carry out that aspiration. And special forces operators on Wednesday managed to take custody of two British men believed to be half of an IS cell that tortured and killed Western hostages, and who are now being held at an American base in Iraq.
Alexanda Kotey, left, and El Shafee Elsheikh, are the only two high-value ISIS detainees that the United States has transferred out of Kurdish custody. Source: AP
But after the Kurds acquiesced to those two transfers, they stopped cooperating with the United States in anger at what they saw as Mr Trump’s betrayal, according to American officials.
The Pentagon’s decision on Sunday to pull American forces out of northern Syria means the opportunity to take custody of additional IS prisoners — even if the Kurds were to decide to start cooperating again — is rapidly evaporating, the officials said.
Who are the two Britons the United States did manage to take custody of?
They are El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey — two of the so-called Beatles, a four-member cell of British IS members who abused Western hostages, including James Foley, the American journalist beheaded in August 2014 for an IS propaganda video.
Another cell member, who was later killed in a drone strike, is believed to have killed Mr Foley.
The Justice Department intends to eventually bring the two to the Eastern District of Virginia for trial, but a court fight in Britain has delayed that transfer.
The lawsuit is over whether the British government may share evidence with the United States without an assurance that American prosecutors will not seek the death penalty.
By Charlie Savage © 2019 The New York Times