WASHINGTON - Officials with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are expressing dismay after Turkish intelligence agents infiltrated a displaced persons camp to smuggle out a Moldovan woman and her four children.
The officials Friday confirmed the Turkish-engineered escape, first reported by Turkish media, with one source saying after an initial investigation that it appeared the family managed to sneak out by hiding in a modified water truck.
But they said it was unclear why such an operation was necessary.
“The global coalition asked the countries to get their citizens back [with] no response. Moldova did not ask for this woman,” Sinam Mohamad, the U.S. representative of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the SDF’s political wing, told VOA.
“I don’t know why Moldova did not ask to repatriate,” she added.
The SDF provides security for al-Hol, which is currently home to tens of thousands of women and children connected to the Islamic State terror group. The U.S.-backed force also runs a series of prisons across northeastern Syria that hold an estimated 10,000 IS fighters.
According to Turkish media reports, Turkey’s intelligence service carried out the operation at the request of Moldovan officials and Moldovan security forces assisted in the effort.
The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the woman, identified as Natalia Barkal, had been living with her children at the al-Hol camp since January 2019.
Moldovan President Igor Dodon tweeted about Barkal’s repatriation Thursday, showing the family’s arrival at Chisinau International Airport.
По моей инициативе была успешно проведена операция по репатриации из Сирии семьи граждан РМ.— Dodon Igor (@dodon_igor) July 16, 2020
Сегодня в аэропорту Кишинева я приветствовал Наталью Баркал и ее четверых детей, которые содержались в лагере «Аль-Холь» с начала 2019 года из-за военных столкновений в Сирии. pic.twitter.com/r4q2G15rrs
Dodon said the mission was carried out on his initiative and did not mention Turkey’s involvement.
According to Syrian Kurdish officials, Barkal came to the al-Hol camp along with thousands of other women and children affiliated with the Islamic State as the terror group’s self-declared caliphate in Syria began to collapse.
Turkish media, quoting unnamed security sources, said Barkal and her husband had been living in Moldova’s capital but traveled to Syria in 2013, settling in the city of Manbij, in the country’s Aleppo province.
Barkal’s husband, who was of Syrian descent, was reportedly killed during fighting in 2017.
Syrian Kurdish officials Friday said the Turkish-Moldovan operation was not only unnecessary but dangerous as well, arguing the operation to free Barkal had only emboldened other IS detainees as well as imprisoned IS fighters.
The U.S. State Department has been pushing for countries to repatriate IS foreign fighters and their families, but many have been reluctant to do so.
A State Department spokesperson referred questions about the Turkish operation to smuggle the Moldovan family out of al-Hol to the Turkish government.
Turkish officials have not responded to VOA requests for comment.
VOA's Turkish service contributed to this report.