The White House on Sunday night endorsed a “long-planned” Turkish incursion into northern Syria, paving the way for an occupation zone to stymie Kurdish ambitions and resettle Syrian refugees.
“The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and the United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate’ will no longer be in the immediate area,” the statement said.
The move appeared to have been decided during a phone call between US President Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“After our conversation yesterday evening, as Mr President [Trump] stated, the retreat has begun,” Erdogan said, according to Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu.
The Department of Defense on Monday issued a statement saying the United States did “not endorse” any Turkish incursion, asserting that President Trump had made this point clear on his call with President Erdogan.
Just 48 hours before, the US-led coalition said it was committed to assuaging Turkey’s security concerns in partnership with its Kurdish allies, who have in recent weeks been removing fortifications from the border as part of a security mechanism meant to prevent a Turkish incursion.
The removal of those fortifications appears to have now left America’s chief partner in the war against ISIS exposed to attack by Turkey and its proxies, and from within by thousands of jailed extremists.
Turkey-Syria Border: Air and ground patrols demonstrate our continued commitment to address Turkey's legitimate security concerns, while also allowing the @CJTFOIR and our SDF partners to focus on crushing ISIS remnants. #DefeatDaesh https://t.co/VgY8Ss2n2h
— OIR Spokesman Col. Myles B. Caggins III (@OIRSpox) October 5, 2019
The so-called “peace corridor” desired by Erdogan is expected to span the entire region east of the Euphrates River, stretching 460 kilometers, according to Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu. It will also go 32 kilometers deep into Syrian territory, putting Kurdish-held towns like Kobane – seized dramatically from ISIS in 2015 – under Turkish authority.
Most importantly it will physically separate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, from its sister militias the YPG and YPJ of Syria, breaking up a cross-border Kurdish autonomy project, and – in the same stroke – carving out a zone to resettle unwanted Syrian Arab refugees.
ISIS jailbreak warning
In his phone call with Trump, Erdogan appears to have pledged to take charge of the tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and their families currently being held by the Kurds in northern Syria.
“Turkey will now be responsible for all the ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years,” the White House said.
It is unclear, however, what Ankara will choose to do with those people.
Turkey for years served as the conduit for jihadists to cross into Syria, where they joined various Islamist opposition forces, including ISIS, in a bid to topple the Syrian government in Damascus.
For the Kurdish-led SDF, the prisoners have been a burden, but also a chip in negotiations – with home countries unwilling to repatriate them, and the international community failing to establish a tribunal or any other justice process.
The United States and other Western powers have preferred to back the Kurds in keeping this population corralled in no-man’s land, even as deteriorating humanitarian and security conditions have seen violent incidents on the rise.
Amarnath Amarasingam, a researcher on extremism fresh off a mission to the Kurdish-held enclave, says the situation in the camps is volatile and there is a high risk of a prison break during any Turkish incursion.
“The Kurds were pretty clear that if Turkey attacks, they will be forced to move soldiers away from camps and prisons to the new frontlines. Considering Hol [camp] is guarded by 400 SDF soldiers, and considering the almost daily violence there, this will have major consequences,” he said.
In mid-September, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio message calling on his supporters to break free from their detention centers.
“Within the camps, especially Hol, there is a cohort of hyper radical individuals who want to carry on the ISIS torch through this liminal period,” Amarasingam told Asia Times.
“ISIS supporters in the camps, posting on telegram, are already speculating that as the Kurds and the Turks fight each other, there is a possibility that they will be freed by sleeper cells in the area,” he added.
One week ago, a protest by women and children in the “Annex” section of Hol camp, where some 10,000 foreigners – neither Syrian nor Iraqi – are housed, was met with force, according to the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, and four women were treated for gunshot wounds.
The Kurdish forces on Monday issued fresh warnings over the threat posed by ISIS loyalists.
“ISIS cells will break their terrorist (sic) out of prisons,” the SDF warned in a tweet, calling the potential jailbreaks a threat to both regional and global security.
Trump, long in favor of pulling US troops out of the Middle East, appeared to lay the blame solely on European allies, namely France and Germany, for failing to take charge of their citizens languishing in the camps.
Foreigners are a minority in the detention camps, which are mainly populated by Iraqis and Syrians.
The S-400 in the room
Another factor at play between Trump and Erdogan is the controversial purchase by Turkey of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and the US president’s desire to salvage major arms partnerships with Ankara.
Washington had long urged Ankara against purchasing the rival to the Raytheon-manufactured Patriot system, with Congress warning that the decision would trigger sanctions, halt an impending F-35 delivery, and end Turkey’s role in the process of manufacturing the aircraft.
Currently, eight Turkish companies are part of the supply chain of American defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney to make parts for the F-35. Those companies are set to lose $12 billion in contracts should Turkey be removed from the F-35 program.
The US, Germany, and the Netherlands, which previously deployed the Patriot system in eastern Turkey, all pulled out their systems in 2015 despite the raging civil war next door in Syria. The move came after Russia began providing air support to the Syrian military against Turkish-backed rebel groups, driving up the risk of a NATO-Russia confrontation.
Ankara declined to buy the Patriot in previous years because the US reportedly refused to allow the transfer of the system’s missile technology in advance of the purchase.
Turkey’s defense minister has insisted the decision to purchase the S-400 in 2017 after failed negotiations over the Raytheon-manufactured Patriot system was “not a choice but a necessity,” given ballistic missile threats in the region.
Trump appeared to absorb the Turkish line after his meeting with his counterpart Erdogan at the G-20 in Tokyo last month, putting full blame on the Obama administration for the situation and expressing his desire to salvage cooperation.