Turkey’s Syria Assault Halts the Fight Against ISIS

The Trump administration’s abrupt decision to pull out of Syria has, as expected, led to a pause in the fight against the Islamic State.

By Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain.
Smoke billows following a Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakah province along the Turkish border on October 9. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Operations dedicated to fighting the Islamic State militant group have halted in Syria after Turkey launched a military assault across the border, U.S. and Syrian officials tell Foreign Policy.

“We are all hunkered down and not moving,” a senior U.S. administration official said, noting that all intelligence and surveillance missions previously directed at monitoring the terrorist group are now “focused on force protection.”

The Syrian Democratic Council’s (SDC) envoy to the United States, Bassam Saker, confirmed that counterterrorism operations have stopped as Kurdish fighters moved north in significant numbers to meet the Turkish advance. The SDC is the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the mostly Kurdish group that has done the bulk of the fighting on the ground in Syria, culminating in the defeat of the group’s so-called caliphate earlier this year.

“We will do our best to fight against all the enemies,” said an SDF official.

The pause in operations against the Islamic State came as Turkish ground forces on Wednesday crossed the border into Syria, while Turkish jets and artillery began pounded Kurdish positions including border towns and locations as far as 25 miles inside northeast Syria. The town of Ain Issa, where the headquarters of the SDF and the Syrian Democratic Council are located, has been hit, officials confirmed.

The Turkish advance came after a weekend phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after which Trump abruptly announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the region, essentially giving Turkey a green light to launch an attack on what it has long considered a terrorist group ensconced in northern Syria.

The decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the border region, paving the way for Turkey to launch a catastrophic assault on the Kurds, is “the worst foreign policy decision since the Iraq war,” the senior administration official said.

Senior Pentagon leaders are “doing everything they can” to prevent Trump from following through on his decision to move all U.S. troops out of Syria, the official said, a plan the president doubled down on repeatedly this week.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State is taking advantage of the Turkish invasion to attack SDF outposts. The group on Tuesday conducted multiple suicide bombings on SDF positions in the city of Raqqa, according to the SDF.

The Islamic State is not the only group taking advantage. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army is moving in on the northern Syrian city of Manbij and on Idlib province in the northwest, officials said.

The Pentagon is particularly concerned that by pivoting to meet a fresh threat from the north, the SDF will leave prisons that are overflowing with Islamic State fighters insufficiently guarded.

“We are very worried about the prisons,” the senior official said. “Prison breaks will be likely the longer and farther the Turks advance in Syria.”

The White House has said that Turkey will take control of the prisons and Islamic State prisoners, which contain fighters from all over the world who traveled to Syria to join the militant group. But experts express doubt that Turkey is up to the job.

Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkey’s parliament now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted that many of the detention facilities are deep in Syrian territory, beyond where the Turkish military plans to move in the first stages of the operation.

“Can Turkey, and Turkey’s Syrian proxies, take over these key Islamic State detention centers in Syria? That would be a mission impossible,” he said. “This is a recipe for disaster, as we will continue to see greater numbers of Islamic State militants fleeing, escaping from these detention centers, and regrouping.”

Meanwhile, the United Nations is convening an emergency Security Council meeting on Syria, at the request of Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, and the United Kingdom.

Trump, in a new statement released on Wednesday afternoon, called Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria “a bad idea” but reiterated his push to extricate the few remaining U.S. troops there from “endless, senseless wars” in the Middle East. Trump said Turkey committed to protecting civilians and minority groups and the United States “will hold them to this commitment.”

He also said Turkey “is now responsible for ensuring all ISIS fighters being held captive remain in prison and that ISIS does not reconstitute in any way, shape, or form.”

Later in the day, Trump doubled down on the decision, saying the Kurds did not support the United States in World War II. “Now the Kurds are fighting for their land, just so you understand … they didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy, for example,” he said.

“For me, the overall sentiment is one of disappointment,” said Joseph Votel, who before retiring in March was the head of U.S. Central Command, at an event at a think tank in Washington.

“Disappointment that we’re letting down our partners, perhaps adding to the humanitarian disaster in this region, and that we may be ceding a hard-won strategic advantage to play a role in what is admittedly turning into a lengthy and difficult process to bringing a political solution to this troubled area,” he added.

Trump’s withdrawal immediately drew fierce backlash from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who vowed to punish Turkey with sanctions.

Democratic Sen. Chris van Hollen and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham announced a sweeping sanctions bill that would target the U.S. assets of top Turkish leaders, including Erdogan, sanctions against the Turkish energy sector, a prohibition on U.S. military assistance, and additional sanctions under a 2017 law that targeted Russia, Iran, and North Korea. “These sanctions will have immediate, far-reaching consequences for Erdogan and his military,” Van Hollen said on Twitter.

Graham, a staunch political ally of Trump, pulled no punches in his criticism.

“Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration. This move ensures the reemergence of ISIS,” he tweeted on Wednesday.

Update, Oct. 9, 2019: This article was updated to include new comments from Trump and developments on proposed U.S. sanctions against Turkey.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer