US forces leave ‘high-value’ Islamic State detainees behind in retreat from Syria

A Turkey-based Syrian fighter fired during clashes in the border town of Ras al-Ain on Oct. 13 as Turkey and its allies continued their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria.
A Turkey-based Syrian fighter fired during clashes in the border town of Ras al-Ain on Oct. 13 as Turkey and its allies continued their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria.AFP via Getty Images

AKCAKALE, Turkey — The US military was unable to carry out a plan to transfer about five dozen “high value” Islamic State detainees out of Kurdish-run wartime prisons before the Pentagon decided to move its forces out of northern Syria and pave the way for a Turkish-led invasion, according to two US officials.

In the same area Sunday, hundreds of Islamic State sympathizers escaped from a low-security detention camp in the region, taking advantage of the chaos caused by the Turkish ground invasion and the accompanying strikes.

Both developments underscored the pandemonium unleashed by President Trump’s sudden decision to order US troops to evacuate part of the Syrian region bordering Turkey.


That allowed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to order an invasion of Syrian territory controlled by a Kurdish-led militia that was at the center of US-led efforts to contain the Islamic State group over the past several years.

On Sunday, the militia was forced to seek the protection of the Syrian government.

The Turkish government sees the Kurdish military presence so close to its border as a serious security threat because the Kurdish forces have close ties with a guerrilla group that has waged a decadeslong insurgency inside Turkey.

Turkey’s invasion upended a fragile peace in northern Syria and has begun to unleash sectarian bloodshed.

It also risks enabling a resurgence of the Islamic State group. The extremist group no longer controls any territory in Syria, but it still has sleeper cells and supporters across parts of the country.

ISIS has already claimed responsibility for at least two attacks since the start of the invasion, including one car bomb in a border city, Qamishli.

Trump contended last week that the United States had taken out the worst ISIS detainees to ensure they would not escape. But the US military was able to take custody of only two British detainees — half of a cell dubbed the Beatles that tortured and killed Western hostages — the officials said.


As the week progressed and Kurdish casualties mounted, the onetime US ally known as the Syrian Democratic Forces grew increasingly angry at the United States. They cast Trump’s move as a betrayal.

The Kurds refused, the officials said, to cooperate in permitting the US military to take out any more detainees from the constellation of ad hoc wartime detention sites for captive ISIS fighters. These range from former schoolhouses in the towns of Ain Eissa and Kobani to a former Syrian government prison at Hasaka.

The prisons hold about 11,000 men, about 9,000 of them Syrian or Iraqi Arabs. About 2,000 come from some 50 other nations whose governments have refused to repatriate them. Five captives escaped during a Turkish bombardment on a Kurdish-run prison in Qamishli on Friday, Kurdish officials said.

The Kurdish authorities also operate camps for families displaced by the conflict that hold tens of thousands of people, many of them non-Syrian wives and children of Islamic State fighters. One major camp in Ain Eissa was left unguarded Sunday after a Turkish airstrike and as Turkish-backed troops advanced, according to an administrator at the camp, Jalal al-Iyaf.

In the mayhem that followed, more than 500 relatives of ISIS fighters housed in a secure part of the camp escaped, Iyaf said. A Kurdish official also said that the ISIS flag had been raised in the countryside between the camp and the Turkish border.


But determining the exact state of play on the ground was difficult, as the advances by Turkish-backed Arab fighters scattered Kurdish officials who had previously been able to provide information.

The likelihood of an ISIS resurgence remains hard to gauge, since the Syrian Kurdish leadership may have exaggerated some incidents to catch the West’s attention.

The camp escape came hours before the US military said it would relocate its remaining troops in northern Syria to other areas of the country in the coming weeks.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the United States found itself “likely caught between two opposing advancing armies” in northern Syria.

The reference was to the possibility of an impending clash between Turkish forces and the Syrian government and its Russian allies. Kurdish militias are now allying with them in the absence of support from their former US allies.

On Sunday evening, the Kurdish authorities announced a deal with the Syrian government to allow Bashar Assad’s army back into Kurdish-held areas, with regime troops due to enter Kobani overnight.

Trump took to Twitter to defend his decision last week to pull troops back from the border region, portraying himself as powerless to end a long-standing feud between Kurdish militants and a Turkish government that sees their quest as a threat to its sovereignty.

“The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years,” Trump wrote Sunday.


Trump also tried to assuage his critics, including Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who broke with the president over his Syria decision and is promising bipartisan legislation to slap economic sanctions on Turkey.

“Dealing with @LindseyGrahamSC and many members of Congress, including Democrats, about imposing powerful Sanctions on Turkey,” Trump wrote. “Treasury is ready to go, additional legislation may be sought.”

But his decision has already had devastating consequences for the Kurds.

They lost thousands of fighters in the battle against the extremists. Now they are now fighting a war on two fronts, with dozens of fighters killed since the new round of fighting began Wednesday.

The fighting has caused the deaths of dozens of civilians killed in airstrikes and has forced over 130,000 from their homes, according to the United Nations.

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters killed a Kurdish politician and at least two other captives, one with his hands tied behind his back, in what could constitute a war crime. In a video of one of the killings, the fighters used a sectarian epithet to describe the victims.

On Sunday afternoon, Erdogan said his forces now controlled nearly 70 square miles of territory in northern Syria.