Senior U.S. officials are going public with their concerns that Turkey will soon launch renewed military operations in northern Syria, warning such a move will endanger U.S. forces in the region and have disastrous consequences in the fight against Islamic State.
Turkey has been threatening to expand an existing 30-kilometer-deep security zone on the Syrian side of the Turkish border since late May, sparking concern among U.S. partners in Syria and a series of consultations between Washington and Ankara.
But those talks have failed to stop saber-rattling from Ankara, prompting multiple U.S. officials to publicly hammer home the message that no good will come from another Turkish incursion.
“We strongly oppose any Turkish operation into northern Syria and have made clear our objections to Turkey,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dana Stroul told a forum in Washington on Wednesday.
“ISIS is going to take advantage of that campaign,” she added, using an acronym for the terror group, also known as IS or Daesh.
Stroul and other U.S. officials said their concerns are amplified by a growing body of intelligence indicating IS is intent on launching operations to free 10,000 fighters held in makeshift prisons across northeastern Syria, guarded by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“ISIS views the detention facilities where its fighters are housed as the population to reconstitute its army,” Stroul said. “If there are military operations that would cause the SDF to focus on moving north to protect their communities from an air campaign or a ground campaign, there’s only so many SDF to go around.”
An attempt by IS in January to break 4,000 fighters out of the al-Sinaa prison in Hasakah failed, but only after the U.S.-backed SDF surged in 10,000 troops to quell the uprising, aided by U.S. jets, attack helicopters and ground forces.
Still, the escape of about a dozen hardened, experienced fighters gave the terror group hope that the tactic will pay off, especially if the SDF must shift its forces to fend off a Turkish operation.
Unlike the U.S., which views the SDF as an effective partner in the fight against IS, Turkey views the SDF as a “terror syndicate” — a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which both Ankara and Washington view as a terror organization.
Stroul said the U.S. recognizes Turkey has legitimate concerns about PKK activity in Syria and Iraq and pledged the Pentagon “will continue to work with Turkey to counter that activity.”
She warned, however, that a Turkish incursion would be a step too far.
“Such an operation puts at risk U.S. forces, the [global] coalition’s campaign against ISIS, and will introduce more violence into Syria,” Stroul said, warning of additional, catastrophic fallout.
“The SDF, if they are under that kind of pressure, they are going to be pushed in the hands of our adversaries,” she said, pointing to possible SDF collaboration with Syria, Russia or even Iran.
Speaking at the same forum earlier Wednesday, the State Department acting counterterrorism coordinator echoed Stroul’s concerns.
“Increased military activity in Syria is only going to increase the instability and the opportunities for ISIS,” Timothy Betts told an audience at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
The U.S. Agency for International Development likewise expressed concern that a Turkish incursion would exacerbate the humanitarian crises.
“There’s another 500,000 people who could be displaced,” said Andrew Plitt, USAID’s acting assistant administrator for the Middle East. “There's a lot of diplomatic activity ongoing certainly to try to temper any actions by the Turks in that direction with regards to how destabilizing it might be.”
VOA reached out to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, which has not yet responded to the U.S. criticisms.
The U.S. has about 900 troops in Syria, most of them in the northeast supporting the SDF as it targets IS cells in the region.
Intelligence estimates from the U.S. and other U.N. member states have put the size of IS’s forces in Syria and Iraq at anywhere from 6,000 to 16,000 fighters, most operating as small cells in remote areas.
U.S., SDF and Iraqi officials also believe the group’s core leadership has been weakened by a series of strikes targeting senior members, including a drone strike Tuesday that killed Maher al-Agal, the top IS official for its Syrian province.
However, there are signs that the IS core is at least trying to position itself for a comeback.
“It is trying to revive itself,” according to Joshua Geltzer, White House deputy homeland security adviser. “It is a group that at least in small pockets right now continues to exercise or at least attempt to exercise some territorial control.”
Geltzer said IS has taken credit for at least 350 attacks in Syria and Iraq already this year, and that there is also evidence IS leadership in Syria and Iraq is still able to exert influence over its affiliates around the world and share financial resources.
U.S. officials Wednesday announced a total of 39 American citizens have now been brought back from Iraq and Syria since 2016, an increase of 12 since the Justice Department last released figures in late 2020.
The State Department said the 39 repatriated individuals include 15 adults —11 of whom have been charged with crimes related to their support for IS — and 24 minors.
Justice Department officials previously said two of the repatriated adults were not charged because they were minors when their families took them to join IS.