Ankara/London: President Donald Trump has given Turkey the nod to begin its long-threatened occupation of a strip of northern Syria, but he’s also handed it a poisoned chalice: Responsibility for thousands of so-called Islamic State jihadists and their relatives detained by Kurdish forces.
Securing or perhaps even rehabilitating the IS recruits, many of them foreigners who joined the caliphate’s ranks during its rapid expansion from 2014, will become a Turkish problem once in Syrian territory, and it’s one Ankara may be ill-prepared to handle.
“Turkey’s facing the threat of becoming the guardian of thousands of jihadists that no one wants in the world,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a strategist at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara. “That is a serious responsibility and burden on Turkey’s military and economy, in addition to rolling back the gains of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters.”
Trump’s rapid about-turn on Syria will also reignite concerns among European leaders who have expressed concern that a U.S. departure would spark a resurgence of Islamic State, and perhaps the return of radicalized jihadists.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces — the foe Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is determined to drive from the border region — were blunt in warning of the consequences of Trump’s move.
A Turkish incursion would “reverse the successful effort to defeat” the Islamic State, the SDF said on Twitter. About 12,000 militants, and roughly 70,000 family members, currently in jails or camps may be freed by “ISIS cells,” it said.
Backed up by U.S.-led air power, the SDF were critical in helping defeat Islamic State, also known as Daesh, pushing them from town after town in years of grueling warfare during Syria’s larger civil conflict.
Erdogan, however, regards the YPG militia that forms the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces as a grave threat to his country’s sovereignty because of its ties to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey’s army has been battling for decades.
The SDF warning chimes with a Sept. 24 report prepared for the U.S. Congress, which highlighted the threats posed by a U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria. It concluded that while Islamic State no longer holds significant territory in Syria or Iraq, it is not defeated.
“The group has morphed into an insurgency with the will, capability, and resources to carry out attacks against the United States,” according to the report by the Syria Study Group. The detainee population hadn’t been properly addressed, and any release of hardened fighters could “form the core of a new iteration of ISIS or a similar group,” it said.
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London estimated as many as 41,490 people from 80 countries, a quarter of them women and children, are thought to have joined IS in Iraq and Syria between April 2013 and June 2018. It said that more than 7,000 had already returned to their country of departure.
The Washington Post reported Sept. 3 that about 20,000 women and 50,000 children who had lived under the caliphate were housed at the vast northeastern al-Hol camp alone, where the group’s hardline rule was being reinforced.
While White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said Trump acted to prevent the U.S. having to hold militants for “what could be many years” at great cost to the American taxpayer, one of the president’s leading allies was scathing.
“This is going to lead to the reemergence of ISIS, and the biggest winner of all this will be the Iranians, and that’s too bad,” Senator Lindsey Graham told Fox News. He said he’d sponsor a resolution urging Trump to reconsider this decision, calling it “shortsighted and irresponsible.”
Erdogan, speaking at the airport in Ankara on Monday before flying to Serbia, appeared to play down the difficulties he’d been handed.
The number of Islamic State suspects in jails, including foreigners from Germany and France, is “exaggerated,” he said, and a study was underway to determine steps to “speedily” process them. He didn’t elaborate.
Those comments might alarm several European leaders who pushed Trump to abandon an earlier pledge — again at Erdogan’s urging — to pull out of Syria and drop U.S. support for the YPG. French President Emmanuel Macron held multiple phone calls with top American defense aides encouraging a change of mind, while officials in Germany, the European country that took in the most Syrian refugees, have expressed concern of a new wave of migration.
Those concerns are now likely to multiply. But it’s Turkey that’s more immediately on the front line.
“These prisons and refugee camps are ticking time bombs,” said Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF’s media unit. “We don’t know when they will explode against us and the world.” – Bloomberg
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