WASHINGTON - U.S. special forces in Syria are on alert, worried Turkey’s military campaign against the Kurds in northeastern Syria will give fighters loyal to the Islamic State terror group the chance they need to ignite a more intense and deadly insurgency.
The U.S. forces, pulled back from the Syrian-Turkish border at the direction of U.S. President Donald Trump, are not thought to be in danger as a result of Ankara’s offensive, which is focusing for now on Kurdish fighters, many of whom partnered with the U.S. in the fight against IS under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“We remain vigilant against potential attacks from ISIS,” according to a U.S. official, using an acronym for the terror group.
Concerns about IS
The official, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive situation on the ground, warned that U.S. forces are concerned IS will try to exploit the current fighting and might even put Americans in the crosshairs now that they are no longer working with their former Kurdish allies.
“Our troops in Syria are focused on force protection,” the official added.
Such fears have long been bubbling in the background but have become increasingly prominent since the White House announced late Sunday it was pulling U.S. forces from the border region, essentially allowing Turkey to move ahead with plans for an incursion.
“Any unilateral action in northeastern Syria was of grave concern,” a U.S. defense official said Thursday. “One of the reasons is that it could create scenes that ISIS could exploit.”
Of particular concern are about 11,000 IS prisoners held in more than 30 makeshift prisons across northeastern Syria, guarded by forces loyal to the SDF.
Another 73,000 IS family members are being held in displaced persons camps also under SDF protection, like al Hol, which have seen periodic violence and attempted escapes.
Officials with the Kurdish-led autonomous government in the northeast have warned it may be a matter of time before it has to pull the guards and let prisoners and their relatives go free.
“Either we have to guard the camps or we have to defend ourselves and go to the border. We don’t have any option,” Sinam Mohamad, the Syrian Democratic Council’s U.S. representative said during a news conference Thursday in Washington.
Some prison guards removed
Mohamad said that already some of the SDF troops guarding the prisons and camps have been moved to the border in an effort to repel Turkish forces.
Other Kurdish officials say the situation has become even more dangerous, alleging Turkish forces have targeted SDF forces assigned to guard IS prisoners.
“One of the prisons in which the ISIS prisoners are kept, under the control of SDF forces, was bombed by Turkish war planes,” Syrian Democratic Council Executive Co-chair Ilham Ahmed told members of the European Parliament in Brussels Thursday. “And probably some of the ISIS members have escaped.”
A social media post by SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali late Wednesday, identified the target as the al-Chirkin prison, calling it, “The place where the most dangerous jihadists are held.”
Vicinity of al-Chirkin prison hosting Daesh prisoners was shelled by Turkish army. The place where the most dangerous jihadists are held in.— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) October 9, 2019
U.S. officials Thursday could not confirm any jailbreaks and said SDF troops charged with keeping the IS fighters behind bars had stayed at their posts.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also rejected the need for any concerns.
IS “will not be able to establish a presence in the region,” he said Thursday. “We will keep in prison those who need to be kept in prison and we will send back those who are accepted by the countries of which they are citizens.”
Senior U.S. officials say few, if any, of the SDF-run prisons are in areas in which Turkey has said it will operate, impacting about 1,300 to 1,500 IS detainees, at most.
“We have received high level commitments from the Turks that if they take over an area where there are such detention facilities, they will assume responsibility,” a senior State Department official said late Thursday. But when asked how that would work, the official cautioned, “There have not been detailed discussions.”
To help minimize any potential problems, U.S. forces have coordinated with Turkey on its air campaign, trying to make sure the SDF-run prisons, as well as the displaced person camps, are not targeted, a second U.S. defense official told VOA.
The official emphasized, though, that Turkey has been cut off from air-based intelligence and is not permitted to fly with U.S. aircraft operating in the area.
Still, Washington remains wary that the fallout from the Turkish incursion, and the benefit to IS, could still be substantial.
For months, U.S. and Western intelligence officials have warned an IS resurgence in Syria, thanks to well-positioned sleeper cells and the terror group’s substantial resources, was near.
Now there are fears Turkey’s military incursion will hasten the process.
“The Kurds have very little interest in expending resources on keeping ISIS fighters in camps when they’re being attacked by Turkey,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a project manager with the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.
“I think that we’re going to see a surge of recruits back into the Islamic State and a quick spike back into an active insurgency inside of eastern Syria,” she said.