After President Trump ordered the withdrawal of 1,000 remaining U.S. troops from northern Syria, hundreds of Islamic State family members escaped from a detention camp managed by Syrian Kurdish forces amid a Turkish barrage Sunday.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that that the U.S. would withdraw the troops just days after saying the U.S. was not “abandoning” its Kurdish allies in the region, who had served as the lead fighting force on behalf of the U.S. in forcing out Islamic State militants in Syria.
“We did not want to put American forces into harm’s way,” Esper said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” referring to a Turkish offensive against the Kurdish forces that began last week after Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the border area between Syria and Turkey. “We did not want to get involved in a conflict that dates back nearly 200 years between the Turks and the Kurds and get involved in another — yet another — war in the Middle East.”
Critics in both parties have accused the administration of both abandoning an ally and of opening the way for the resurgence of the Islamic State militias that the Kurdish forces took the lead in combating.
“ISIS will resurge,” former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis warned on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” using an acronym for Islamic State. “It’s absolutely a given that they will come back.”
Rep. Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also on “Meet the Press,” said:
“I can think of nothing more disgusting in all the years I’ve been in Congress than what this president is allowing to happen with the Kurds. They have been our loyal and faithful allies for so many years, and after this, who again would trust the United States to be an ally of them? Who would think it pays to align themselves with us? Nobody. This is going to make people flee from us, and it’s just absolutely disgraceful that the president of the United States is facilitating all of this.”
For days, Kurdish fighters cautioned that the turmoil caused by a Turkish incursion would give the Islamist extremists held in Kurdish-run detention centers the chance to escape.
And on Sunday almost 800 relatives of Islamic State’s cadres fled an annex of a detention camp near the Kurdish-controlled city of Ain Aissa, after Turkish airstrikes and rocket fire hit nearby areas.
The camp’s Kurdish guards abandoned their posts to repel the incoming Turkish onslaught, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition Syrian war monitor.
According to the Save the Children aid group, 249 women and 700 children linked to Islamic State had been housed in the annex.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed militias that are led by the Kurdish fighters, confirmed the breakout, saying that some 785 had escaped.
In all, roughly 11,000 Islamic State militants, including about 2,000 foreign fighters, have been held in detention by Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The U.S. has moved approximately four dozen of them to secure facilities elsewhere.
Turkey launched its offensive, which it said was intended to rout the Kurdish-led fighters from a thin strip of territory along the 566-mile Syrian-Turkish border. It came after Trump said the U.S. was withdrawing its troops from Syria, effectively clearing the path for Turkey to begin its assault.
But the Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebel factions have blitzed through swaths of northern Syria, with chaos resulting. Since the operation began, 52 civilians have been killed along with more than a hundred Kurdish militia members, the Observatory said, with a number of them summarily executed by Syrian rebels.
Eighteen Turkish civilians living near the border have been killed by Kurdish cross-border mortar and rocket attacks, according to Turkish officials.
An estimated 130,000 people have abandoned their homes, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordination office said on Saturday. Attacks on critical infrastructure have affected 400,000 people.
Meanwhile, the Turkish defense ministry and Syrian rebel groups announced Sunday they had taken control of Tal Abyadh, a border city that was a primary objective of the operation’s first phase.
Turkish warplanes and artillery also battered Ras Al-Ain, another strategic border town, striking neighborhoods where Kurdish fighters were holding off Syrian rebels closing in. Activists later reported a number of them had surrendered.
The Turkish-backed militants also overran parts of the M4, an important east-west highway that was the spine of the Kurdish-held territories, splitting them in two and potentially cutting off the exit for those seeking to flee.
The collapse of the Kurdish militia prompted the withdrawal of remaining U.S. forces in northern Syria, Esper announced Sunday.
,Reacting to Republicans and Democrats in Congress excoriating the U.S. for the withdrawal, Esper said the U.S. “didn’t sign up to fight the Turks on” behalf of the Kurds.
Trump’s decision has spurred a cascade of criticism. Loyalists and adversaries alike have accused the administration of abandoning an ally and opening the way for Islamic State’s resurrection less than a year after Kurdish forces had destroyed the last of their territorial caliphate. (At its height, Islamic State controlled a third of both Iraq and Syria.)
Trump, however, stood by the troop pullout. On Twitter, he called it “very smart” to not be “involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change” and appeared to at least partially endorse the Turkish view that a leading Kurdish group, the PKK, which is allied with the Syrian Kurds, are “terrorists.”
“The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years. Turkey considers the PKK the worst terrorists of all. Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them! We are monitoring the situation closely. Endless Wars!” Trump tweeted.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) challenged that, expressing a widespread view in both parties on Capitol Hill. “The hell you unleashed — by double crossing an ally and restocking ISIS — will cost thousands of U.S. lives in the long run,” he wrote on Twitter.
Yet Trump, who has vacillated between defending the withdrawal and vowing to punish Turkey, also tweeted that he would support legislation to impose sanctions that has been drafted by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
“Treasury is ready to go, additional legislation may be sought,” he wrote. “There is great consensus on this.”
With the Kurds unable to rely on U.S. assistance, there were signs they were now “looking to cut a deal” with the Syrian government and Russia to carry out a counterattack, Esper said.
It was unclear, however, if Damascus was open to the overtures.
A government official, Jayez Moussa, speaking in the Syrian pro-government daily Al Watan, said there would be “no communication or understandings” with what he called “the separatist militias.”
The new fighting brings further instability to an area that has seen nearly constant warfare since Syria’s civil war began in 2011 and evolved into a multifront conflict with sectarian-tinged bloodletting.
The U.S. is reported to have had more than a dozen bases and observation posts dotting northern Syria. A U.S. official speaking on background, said troops would remain elsewhere in Syria.
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