US officials and national security experts warned thousands of ISIS prisoners could escape as a result of a Turkish incursion into northern Syria.
Five days into Turkish military operations, those realities are coming to life as reports stream in that hundreds of ISIS prisoners held up in Syrian Democratic Forces’ makeshift prisons and refugee camps are taking advantage of the chaos and breaking free.
President Donald Trump’s latest decision Sunday to withdraw the remaining U.S. forces out of northern Syria is only adding fuel to the fire.
The New York Times reported that U.S. forces could not transfer about five dozen high-value ISIS detainees before the Pentagon’s decision to move U.S. forces out of the zone of Turkish military operations.
In one incident, nearly 700 ISIS families escaped a camp run by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, according to the New York Times.
Thousands of ISIS fighters returning to the battlefield could breathe new life into the jihadi group and erase five years of costly gains against the extremist organization.
SDF fighters lost nearly 11,000 soldiers as it liberated northeastern Syria from ISIS’ deadly grasp.
Before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s announcement Wednesday of the start of military operations against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, America’s partner force was struggling to secure nearly 11,000 ISIS detainees across roughly 30 detention facilities.
The al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria was estimated to hold nearly 70,000 people, including thousands of ISIS family members.
SDF forces warned that it could no longer prioritize guarding the prisons following the invasion by Turkey and its proxy forces. A video posted by SDF over the last several days have highlighted riots in the al-Hol camp.
The SDF also claimed five ISIS prisoners busted out of a detention facility in Qamishli on Friday.
Jennifer Cafarella, the research director for Institute for the Study of War, tweeted Saturday that ISIS fighters may be gearing up for an offensive to free thousands of ISIS prisoners following recent vehicle bomb attacks in Qamishli and Hasaka.
Sunday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria during an interview with CBS Sunday morning Face the Nation show.
Esper told CBS following a conversation with Trump Saturday that the president directed the start of a “deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.”
Before Sunday’s announcement of a withdrawal, there were roughly 1,000 U.S. troops in northern Syria.
Esper did not announce a full U.S. withdrawal, but where those troops will go next is unknown.
The U.S. has a handful of U.S. special operators housed at the Tanf garrison near the Syria-Iraq border. The American commandos at Tanf are tasked with training anti-ISIS fighters not affiliated with the SDF.
Some national security experts are seeing the withdrawal announcement as the end of U.S. anti-ISIS operations in the country.
“They are almost certainly leaving the country entirely. US forces depend on a ground supply line via Faysh Khabur in the far northeast, so we cannot withdraw southward into Deir ez Zour Province and sustain that presence,” Cafarella tweeted Sunday.
Logistics will be a key concern for U.S. forces. Turkey’s Ministry of Defense tweeted Sunday that its forces had taken control of the M-4 highway.
Turkey’s control of the strategic road could have isolated U.S. forces who rely on the transit route to move goods and supplies. The M-4 highway connects Qamishli and Manbij.
“A sustainable presence in Deir ez Zour would require a new logistics train from Iraq, probably by air. By land would require traversing lots of terrain that we can’t secure from Iran’s proxies,” Cafarella tweeted.
With U.S. forces withdrawing from northern Syria, America’s partner force has struck a deal with Syrian regime forces.
The self-administration of northern and eastern Syria, through the SDF, announced Sunday a deal with the Syrian regime allowing its forces to deploy along the Syria-Turkey border.
Syrian state owned media SANA reported that the Syrian army was moving north to confront Turkish forces.
While Syria may aid the Kurds with military assistance, what happens next with the refugee camps and ISIS detention facilities is unknown.
“The regime has extremely limited manpower and doesn’t prioritize ISIS,” Cafarella tweeted.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.