WASHINGTON - Fears that Turkey’s offensive in northeastern Syria allowed untold numbers of captured Islamic State terror group fighters to escape may be overblown, according to U.S. officials.
Since Turkish-backed forces crossed the border and began clashing with Kurdish fighters aligned with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), there have been reports of SDF-run prisons coming under attack and of IS fighters running free.
But Wednesday, the U.S. insisted almost all of the estimated 12,000 captured IS fighters, including about 2,000 fighters from outside Syria and Iraq, were still behind bars.
“The SDF continues to hold the vast majority of the ISIS fighters who were being detained,” a senior administration official said.
“We have assets in the region and good relations with the parties on the ground and so we’re keeping a very close eye on the situation,” the official added, saying that both the SDF and Turkey had given “very strong commitments” that any escaped IS prisoners “will be hunted down and recaptured.”
Estimates for how many IS fighters are on the run have varied greatly in recent weeks, prompted in part by threats from SDF leaders that they might have no choice but to pull prison guards in order to turn back the Turkish offensive.
SDF officials told VOA they never made good on their threats, and earlier this week insisted they even took steps to ensure captured IS fighters would not be able to escape.
“There aren’t any prisons in areas that Turkish forces recently have occupied,” SDF Commander, General Mazloum Abdi said Monday. “We have evacuated all prisoners in those areas and moved them to prisons under our control.”
Still, Turkey claimed last week that about 750 fighters had escaped, most of them freed by the SDF, saying about 200 had been recaptured. On Tuesday, Russia’s defense minister alleged that up to 500 IS prisoners had broken out.
“We’d say that the number is now over 100,” the U.S. Special Representative for Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey, told U.S. lawmakers Wednesday, just one day after testifying at a separate hearing that the number was likely in the dozens.
The whereabouts of those escaped IS fighters remains unknown, Jeffrey added, though he was contradicted less than an hour later by U.S. President Donald Trump.
“There were a few that got out,” Trump said during a speech at the White House touting the success of a U.S.-brokered ceasefire between Turkey and the SDF.
“They’ve been largely recaptured,” Trump said. “We also expect Turkey to abide by its commitment regarding ISIS, as a backup to the Kurds watching over them. Should something happen, Turkey is there to grab them.”
A Syrian Kurdish official told lawmakers that including family members, such as wives and children who were being kept separately at displaced persons camps, about 600 IS loyalists were on the loose.
President of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council Ilham Ahmed said that figure included two fighters from Belgium, six fighters from France and 10 IS fighters whose nationalities have not been determined.
White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara, Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this report.