In the days and weeks leading up to Turkey’s military offensive in Syria, the Kurdish militia set to be at the receiving end of the operation issued a stark warning to the international community: If we are attacked, Isis will return.
Not only would Isis take advantage of the security vacuum caused by Kurdish fighters leaving their posts to do battle with Turkey, they argued, but makeshift prisons holding thousands of Isis detainees would also be vulnerable to breakouts.
“We have more work to do to keep Isis from coming back,” Mustafa Bali, the spokesperson for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), tweeted the day before the offensive began. “If America leaves, all will be erased.”
Now that the battle is underway, those fears have come closer to being realised.
The day after Turkey began its offensive in Syria, the SDF announced that it had halted anti-Isis operations entirely to defend the region from the incursion. US officials have also indicated that its resources in the country are being diverted away from operations against Isis and are instead being focused on “force protection”. In the meantime, the SDF said it had fought off a number of attacks by Isis sleeper cells, and expect to see many more.
Some analysts have suggested that the Turkish incursion could already be helping Isis regroup. Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security think and former outside adviser to the US military, called the Turkish campaign a “boon to Isis”.
“Isis has been under intense pressure from the SDF, which focused on breaking up Isis sleeper cells. Counter-Isis operations require significant amounts of intelligence and focus, which Turkey’s campaign is disrupting,” he told The Independent.
But the threat of sleeper cells is less of a concern than the possibility of a mass breakout by Isis from the SDF’s makeshift jails. Kurdish officials have repeatedly sounded the alarm about the danger of such an event, and did so again on Thursday.
“This attack will definitely reduce and weaken the guarding system for those Daesh [Isis] militants in the prisons,” said Badran Jia Kurd, an adviser to the SDF-affiliated civil authority in northeast Syria.
“This could lead to their escape or to behaviours that may get out of the control of the security forces. The number of forces guarding the prisons is reduced the more the battles intensify. This poses a grave danger,” he told Reuters.
The SDF is currently holding some 12,000 captured Isis fighters, of whom around 1,000 are from European countries. Most were captured in the dying days of the Isis caliphate, the last remnants of which were destroyed by the SDF with US backing.
The question of what to do with such a large number of hardened fighters has troubled the international community in the months since the defeat of the Isis caliphate. European countries do not want their citizens to return, fearing they would be difficult to convict and might later carry out attacks. The SDF lacks a functioning justice system to try the rest.
European inaction on the issue has angered Donald Trump. In announcing his tacit support for the Turkish offensive into Syria, the US president suggested that Turkey would take custody of the Isis prisoners. But in the chaos of a conflict between the two sides, it is unclear how the transfer of prisoners would work.
Turkey has vowed to handle any Isis prisoners it inherits and battle any fighters it confronts. But analysts have suggested this is a cynical evasion. Turkey’s main goal is to establish a buffer zone between itself and the Kurdish self-rule experiment and cut off the YPG from direct contact with its own Kurdish population.
Selim Sazak, of Brown University, US, said Turkey likely hopes to avoid any contact with Isis.
“Turks are already spinning this,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘We will be fully responsible for any Isis in the territories that come under control.’ Of course, there are none. Maybe just that camp at Hasaka, but that’s all.”
The threat of a mass prison break was heightened following the release of an audio message from Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last month.
“As for the worst and most important matter — the prisons, the prisons, oh soldiers of the caliphate,” Baghdadi said. “Your brothers and sisters, do your utmost to free them and tear down the walls restricting them.
Mr Heras said that a prolonged Turkish offensive risks leaving the prisons open to attack.
“Isis, in its previous life as al-Qaeda in Iraq, relied on prison breaks freeing its operatives to replenish its ranks. That would be the same playbook Isis would want to follow in Syria, and Turkey could help Isis a lot to enact its playbook,” he said.
When asked on Wednesday about the possibility of a breakout amid the fighting, Mr Trump appeared unconcerned.
“Well they’re going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go, they want to go back to their homes. But Europe didn’t want them from us. We could have given it to them, they could have trials, they could have done whatever they wanted,” he said.
Despite the president’s flippant remarks, the US appeared to be was concerned enough about security to take action. On Wednesday, US officials took dozens of high-value Isis detainees from SDF prisons into their custody at a more secure location. Among those moved were El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, two British Isis members suspected of involvement in the executions of numerous hostages.
The transfer was taken as a sign that at least some within the Trump administration were concerned about the security of the installation.
“The US decision to move some of the most hardened Isis prisoners out of Syria underscores just how volatile this situation has become,” says Shiraz Maher, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London.
“The leader of Isis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recently called on his supporters to free these very prisoners. As the Kurds now relocate forces to counter a Turkish invasion in the north, these detention facilities will inevitably become even more vulnerable and exposed.”
But it isn’t just the prisons holding captured Isis fighters that have worried US and Kurdish forces. Even before the threat of a Turkish incursion was apparent, the SDF warned that it was struggling to maintain control over the al-Hol camp, a facility holding some 70,000 Isis family members – most of them women and children, and many of them still loyal to the group.
The camp residents have been increasingly volatile in recent weeks. Camp authorities have reported a number of attacks against guards, rioting and even the murder of a young man who reportedly fell foul of a group of hardcore Isis sympathisers.
On Thursday, the al-Hol military council – made up of fighters from the town where the camp is located, who would likely be called upon to defend it in the face of an attack – announced they would be deploying their forces to the border to repel the Turkish attack.
The SDF recently described the camp as a “ticking time bomb”, adding that guns and other weapons had been smuggled inside the camp.
There are thought to be at least 19 British women currently at Hol, and camps Roj and Ain Issa, together with at least 30 of their children. Shamima Begum had previously stayed at the camp before being moved.
Although al-Hol has been relatively calm in the past few days, camp officials are reportedly prepared for more trouble. The next time riots break out, however, they may have less hands to deal with it.
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