U.S. allies in northeastern Syria are increasingly worried about Turkey’s pledge to launch a new round of military operations in the region, warning it could embolden and even strengthen the Islamic State terror group.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the new round of operations earlier this week Monday, pledging to expand existing 30-kilometer-deep security zones on the Syrian side of the Turkish border.
But despite assurances from Turkey’s National Security Council that any military actions will “not target our neighbors’ territorial integrity and sovereignty in any way," officials with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and the SDF’s political wing tell VOA a Turkish incursion could spell disaster.
“Any attempt of invasion will shift the focus of the SDF to fight it since it’s a much higher priority to [defend] your lands than fighting ISIS in non-Kurdish areas,” a source close to SDF leadership said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the source was not authorized to speak to the media.
“Any Turkish aggression will derail guarding thousands of ISIS captives and the ongoing weekly operations against the terror group in the region,” the source said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. “The ISIS prisons and camps will be much more vulnerable to jail breaks than now.”
Other Kurdish officials are also voicing concern about the security of the dozen or so prisons across northeastern Syria, currently housing about 10,000 IS fighters, some of which could be in areas that would be targeted by Turkish forces.
"That task (of securing prisons) is not a small one,” Sinam Mohamad, U.S. representative for the SDF’s political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), told VOA through a spokesperson.
Should Turkey launch military operations in northeastern Syria, “ISIS fighters will be in a more favorable position to be successful in any operations to free those ISIS fighters who have been in prison," Mohamad said.
Other SDC officials warn that IS has been getting stronger, adding it has been just four months since the terror group carried out a week-long attack on the al-Sina’a prison in Hasakah, a makeshift detention facility that housed an estimated 4,000 IS fighters.
Already, the SDF has raised concerns about increased drone attacks and shelling by Turkish-backed forces in northern Syria.
And SDC officials say they have been in touch with the United States to express their fears about the potential Turkish incursion, a message that has resonated in Washington.
“We’re obviously very concerned about the Turks announcement that they intend to increase their military activity in northern Syria,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Thursday. “It could draw off potential SDF personnel to move away from the counter-ISIS fight, which is obviously what we're focused on in northern Syria.
Kirby said the Pentagon has been in daily contact with its SDF partners, who echoed that IS remains “a viable threat.”
U.S. diplomatic officials say they have also been in contact with Turkey, both through the State Department and from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, to get a better sense of what Turkey is planning.
But State Department spokesman Ned Price earlier this week warned Turkey against launching a new round of military operations in northern Syria.
“We condemn any escalation. We support maintenance of the current ceasefire lines,” Price said. “Any new offensive would further undermine regional stability and put at risk U.S. forces in the coalition’s campaign against ISIS.”
The U.S. has an estimated 900 troops in Syria to support anti-IS operations.
U.S. assessments of Turkey’s previous incursion into northern Syria, in 2019, concluded that the offensive allowed a couple of hundred IS prisoners to escape and likely gave the terror group “time and space” to strengthen and grow.
Information from Reuters was used in this report.