President Donald Trump shakes hands with Defense Secretary Mark Esper during a briefing with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House on Monday.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Defense Secretary Mark Esper during a briefing with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House on Monday. Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Syrian Decision Rekindles Fear of ISIS Prison Breaks

Pentagon and State Department officials have raised alarms for months about the makeshift prisons.

Senior U.S. national security officials are worried that ISIS will break thousands of its fighters out of makeshift prisons run by the Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria, following President Trump’s shocking late-Sunday announcement that he would withdraw U.S. troops to make way for a looming Turkish invasion.

“The real concern is if [Turkish forces] come in, the Kurds — the SDF, YPG, whatever term you want to use — will go and defend their territory, and that opens up the possibility of these prisoners getting out,” a U.S. official said Monday. “The problem is, nobody really knows how this works if the Kurds decide to abandon the prisons. I know we’re saying the Turks would be responsible, but what does that mean in terms of…how we maintain security.” 

On Sunday night, Trump appeared to offer a green light for a Turkish incursion after a phone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But by Monday, officials from across the administration — and Trump himself — were seeking to walk back the statement, which even close GOP allies of the president on Capitol Hill said was tantamount to willfully abandoning America’s Kurdish allies to slaughter by the Turks. 

In a White House statement issued late Sunday night, Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said, “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria” and that U.S. forces — about 50 special operators in that region, according to a senior administration official — “will no longer be in the immediate area.” Additionally, Turkey “will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years,” Grisham said.

“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their ‘neighborhood,’” Trump said in a Monday morning tweet.

Multiple Trump administration officials said Monday afternoon that Erdogan presented the invasion to Trump as a fait accompli, and although Trump said Washington would not support Turkey’s invasion, he decided not to leave U.S. troops in the safe zone if it was going to become a battlefield. 

“The decision basically came down to leaving our troops there and being caught in the middle of these two partners, or pulling them back from the two outposts up in [the safe zone],” one U.S. official said. 

Top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement that the U.S. does not “endorse” a Turkish operation in northern Syria and Pentagon leaders have “reiterated” the risks of such an operation to their counterparts in Ankara. Trump, awash in criticism, tweeted Monday afternoon that he would “destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey” if it did anything that he “in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits.”

For years, Washington has sought to ease tensions between NATO-allied Turkey and the mainly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, which the United States built and backed in the fight against ISIS, but which Ankara considers to be part of a terrorist group. U.S. commanders long have said they sympathize with Turkey’s security concerns, but have rejected Turkish demands — including a direct threat of attack from Erodgan — that  American troops stop supporting the SDF, stand aside, and allow Turkish forces to seize SDF-held territory. In recent months, the United States has labored to placate Turkey by creating a Turkish-American “security mechanism,” convincing its Syrian allies to pull back its defenses from a buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkey border and conducting joint patrols with the Turkish military. 

That initiative appears to have failed. A defense official said Monday that Turkey had been removed from the joint-tasking order that had governed the safe zone, effectively locking them out of U.S. intelligence and surveillance that they had been receiving through the security mechanism. 

Trump has complained about the cost of helping the SDF hold ISIS prisoners for months, threatening to “release” them into Europe if other nations didn’t repatriate their fighters. But his apparent Sunday night decision to wash U.S. hands of the prison problem presents a serious problem if Turkey does invade, the U.S. official and others said. The American-backed SDF is holding around 10,000 captured fighters in converted hospitals and school houses, and senior officials have been grappling with what to do with them for the better part of a year. Most are from either Iraq or Syria, but about 2,000 are so-called “foreign fighters” — the group that U.S. officials say present the biggest problem. The administration has had little luck pressing European allies to take back and try those fighters in their own courts.

“There is no specific plan B right now,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Mick Mulroy said on Wednesday. 

Pentagon and State Department officials have for months sounded alarms that the makeshift prisons posed a serious threat. Dozens of fighters are crammed in a single cell, security cameras don’t work or aren’t available, and cheap cement walls are crumbling, officials who have visited the prisons say. Although the United States has provided money to help pay for security upgrades and training, the SDF has pleaded for more support to help hold the fighters and put down an ongoing series of riots and escape attempts. 

“Breakouts have caused a lot of problems in the past and obviously that’s something we are very concerned about,” the Pentagon’s Mulroy said last Wednesday. “The SDF does everything they can to ensure that they’re adequately guarded and I think they are, but… if there is an incursion [from Turkey] they may do what they need to respond. It’s all connected.”

Multiple officials suggested that ceding responsibility for security at the SDF-run prisons would only happen if Turkey actually invades. “The only decision that was made [Sunday] was to pull back from two outposts,” the U.S. official said. 

“There’s certainly a concern that such an operation could result in ISIS fighters that were captured as a result of the U.S. defeat of the caliphate being at risk of escap[ing] or somehow gain[ing] their freedom from those camps that are within the safety zone,” the senior administration official later told reporters. “The president has made it very clear that the U.S. position is if Turkey does undertake an operation across the border, then it will become responsible for maintaining the captivity of ISIS fighters.”

Officials are concerned that hardened fighters who escape could pave the way for the resurgence of ISIS. “The bottom line is that these Kurdish soldiers are the first line of defense in maintaining the gains we have made against ISIS; if Turkey attacks these Kurdish soldiers, there is a grave risk that the ISIS fighters they guard will escape and return to the battlefield,” a group of Democratic lawmakers who returned from the region Monday morning said in a joint statement. 

Even before Trump’s shock announcement, there have been a number of break-outs and attempted break-outs from the prison camps. A recent report from the Institute for the Study of War documented dozens of escapes across 2018 and 2019, and in mid-September, the elusive ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ordered his followers to accelerate efforts to free fighters from the “camps of diaspora and prisons of humiliation.”

Equally concerning, officials say, are the tens of thousands of ISIS family members held in tent camps, which officials say are a staging ground for the regeneration of ISIS’s “caliphate” and the next generation of radicalized fighters. 

“Turkey has neither the intent, desire, nor capacity to manage 60k detainees in al Hol camp, which State and DoD IGs warn is the nucleus for a resurgent ISIS,” tweeted Brett McGurk, Trump’s former special envoy to defeat ISIS, who resigned in protest in December when Trump announced he had ordered a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from Syria in similarly unexpected fashion to this week’s announcement. “Believing otherwise is a reckless gamble with our national security.” 

Trump eventually walked back his December order for immediate withdrawal, and critics of Trump’s latest snap-decision questioned whether it will actually happen. By Monday afternoon, much appeared to depend on whether Turkey made good on its threats to enter Syria. Although Erdogan sees the Kurdish issue as a potent political tool to shore up his flagging domestic popularity, he is under tremendous pressure from the international community to stay within Turkey’s borders. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., urged the president to “prevent significant conflict between our NATO ally Turkey and our local Syrian counterterrorism partners.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a frequent ally of the president’s, threatened sanctions on Turkey if it invaded. 

Some Israeli and Turkish news outlets have reported that Turkish artillery attacks had already commenced, but a senior administration official told reporters late Monday afternoon that “we have not seen any operation taking place as of now.”

Current and former officials fear the damage from Trump’s decision to the U.S. relationship with the Kurdish group may be too much too repair.

“Even if we get the Turks not to come in, even if we can prevent that from happening, the big question here is how do we put this back together again with the Kurds? How do you manage to rebuild that trust again?” the U.S. official said.