Turkish-Backed Forces Are Freeing Islamic State Prisoners
Ankara’s radical proxies are also apparently executing Kurdish prisoners and killing unarmed civilians, videos show.
As Turkey wages a violent campaign against Kurdish fighters and civilians across northeastern Syria, Turkish-backed proxy forces with ties to extremist groups are deliberately releasing detainees affiliated with the Islamic State from unguarded prisons, two U.S. officials confirmed to Foreign Policy.
The claim pours cold water on U.S. President Donald Trump’s suggestion on Twitter that the Syrian Kurdish fighters tasked with guarding the prisons released the detainees to grab U.S. attention after the Defense Department ordered all U.S. troops to evacuate the region.
Backed by Turkey, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a decentralized band of Syrian rebels that has been linked to extremist groups, has launched a bloody assault on northeastern Syria, executing Kurdish prisoners and killing scores of unarmed civilians and Kurdish fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Over the weekend, a group of Turkish-backed forces ambushed a female Kurdish politician driving on the M4, the main highway through Syria and Iraq, forced her from the car, and killed her.
The group even deliberately targeted U.S. troops in Kobani on Friday, two U.S. officials, speaking on background to discuss sensitive operations, said separately. On Oct. 11, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Brook DeWalt confirmed reports that U.S. troops there had come under artillery fire from Turkey, adding that they were unharmed.
“It is not a mistake,” one senior U.S. administration official said. “They are trying to push us out.”
The FSA, also known as the Turkey-supported opposition (TSO), began in 2011 as a loose rebel group composed mainly of Syrian army defectors who were dedicated to bringing down the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In 2013, FSA fighters reportedly began defecting to the Nusra Front, an Islamist organization with ties to al Qaeda that was also fighting Assad. At the time, news reports quoted anonymous senior military officials saying the Pentagon estimated that extreme Islamist groups constituted more than half of the FSA.
The CIA reportedly began recruiting FSA fighters to counter the Islamic State in 2014 when the militant group swept into Iraq and Syria. But the FSA was still entangled with the Nusra Front, and members began exhibiting extremist ideology, said Melissa Dalton, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The United States ultimately discontinued its relationship with the FSA because the group lacked organization and proved to be a less viable partner for fighting the Islamic State than the SDF, Dalton said.
During Turkey’s 2018 assault on Afrin, in northwestern Syria, Turkish-backed FSA proxies allegedly committed war crimes, including mutilating the bodies of Kurdish fighters and destroying places of worship.
Now the group appears to be employing similar tactics in northeastern Syria. In addition to killing unarmed civilians, as Turkey captures territory from the SDF, the TSO is deliberately releasing Islamic State detainees previously held by the Kurdish fighters, U.S. officials say.
The United States has evidence that the prisons the SDF said they could no longer guard because they were seized by Turkish-backed forces are the same ones where the prisoners are being released, the senior U.S. administration official said. This means the Turkish proxy forces released the prisoners, an SDC official confirmed.
But the Turkish government used video footage of an empty prison in the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad to claim—without evidence—that the SDF deliberately released the detainees before fleeing the Turkish assault.
“Turkish forces raided a prison in Tal Abyad earlier today, expecting to take custody of Daesh terrorists held there,” a senior government official told Turkish media, according to reports. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
“Before they got there, PKK/YPG terrorists set free the Daesh militants in an attempt to fuel chaos in the area,” the official said, claiming that no doors in the prison had been broken. Turkey considers the SDF to be an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Trump waded into the information war on Monday, tweeting that the “Kurds may be releasing some [Islamic State prisoners] to get us involved”—an accusation that U.S. officials said is baseless.
“That has enraged our forces in Syria,” the senior U.S. administration official said. “Kurds are still defending our bases. Incredibly reckless and dishonest thing to say.”
Another U.S. official said the SDF has not abandoned the prisons—in fact, the group has moved some detainees to facilities further south.
“Turkey/TSO are in a very active information war,” the official said.
Northeastern Syria, which had maintained a fragile peace under the leadership of the SDF and its political arm, the Syrian Democratic Council, has fallen into chaos since Trump appeared to give Turkey the green light to move in on Oct. 6. Five days into the incursion, more than 800 suspected Islamic State detainees escaped the Ain Issa camp in northern Syria, which holds Islamic State prisoners, internally displaced persons, and families of Islamic State fighters.
There are at least 10,000 detained Islamic State fighters in several prisons across northeastern Syria, including roughly 2,000 foreign fighters. In addition, there are more than 100,000 Islamic State family members and other displaced persons in camps in the region, including 70,000 in al-Hol refugee camp.
U.S. military officials have been warning for months that camps such as al-Hol are hotbeds for extremist ideology. The camps include tens of thousands of female Islamic State fighters and their children, Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander of the U.S.-led military coalition to defeat the Islamic State, told Foreign Policy recently.
“The real danger to me is it’s the next generation of ISIS that’s being programmed right there in those camps,” Grynkewich said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “I see this as the greatest long-term strategic risk to the overall global campaign against ISIS.”
Update, Oct. 14, 2019: This story has been updated to include background and analyst comment about the FSA.
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman