US President Donald Trump suggested Monday that Kurdish fighters may be releasing imprisoned Islamic State jihadists to force the United States to remain involved in northeastern Syria.
“Europe had a chance to get their ISIS prisoners, but didn’t want the cost. ‘Let the USA pay,’ they said…” Trump tweeted, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State extremist group.
“Kurds may be releasing some to get us involved. Easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly.”
Also Monday, Turkey’s defense minister accused Syrian Kurdish fighters of “emptying” a prison in northeast Syria holding IS militants before Turkish troops arrived in the area.
Hulusi Akar said the prison was the only one holding IS jihadists located in the border strip east of the Euphrates River targeted in Turkey’s military offensive.
Hundreds of Islamic State families and supporters escaped from a holding camp in Syria amid the fighting between Turkish forces and the Kurds. It was not immediately clear if Akar was referring to that camp.
Turkey’s cross-border incursion, now into its sixth day, has raised the specter of an IS resurgence.
Turkey says it is determined to fight the IS group in addition to the Syrian Kurdish forces that it considers a threat because of their links to outlawed Kurdish rebels in Turkey.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier hit out at “disinformation” reports that Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish forces had allowed jihadists to escape.
“This is actually disinformation aimed at provoking America or the West,” he said, quoted by the Hurriyet daily.
Kurdish authorities said Sunday that 800 IS family members being held in a camp at Ain Issa had fled due to Turkish bombing.
But relatives back in France told AFP that Kurdish guards had forced the women and children to leave the camp.
“The Kurdish guards opened the doors to the foreign women and asked them to leave the camp,” said the mother of a 24-year-old woman, who had been kept at the camp with her infant son for the past 18 months.
“They didn’t escape. [The Kurdish forces] didn’t want them. They were expecting to be taken over by Syrian or Turkish forces, but they were kicked out. For several days, the bombs were falling closer and closer to the camp, where there were no more NGOs, no more help,” she added.
Erdogan on Monday welcomed the announcement by Washington that it was pulling 1,000 troops out of northern Syria.
“This is a positive approach,” Erdogan told reporters, when asked about Sunday’s statement from US Pentagon chief Mark Esper.
Turkey says it has seized control of two key towns, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, although fighting was reported as ongoing in the latter.
Erdogan said he expected Kurdish forces to withdraw from other key towns such as Manbij.
When Manbij is evacuated, we will not go in there as Turkey. Our Arab brothers, who are the real owners, the tribes… will return there. Our approach is to ensure their return and security there,” he said.
He also said Russia — a decisive actor in the multi-faceted Syria conflict as a key backer of Damascus — was not putting obstacles in the way of an offensive on another key town, Kobani.
“There is a lot of gossip now, but it seems… there won’t be any problem in Kobani with Russia’s positive approach as of now,” Erdogan said.
The Turkish president again criticized Western allies who have come out strongly against the operation. France, Germany and Italy are among those who have suspended arms shipments to Turkey over the issue.
“Who will you side with? With your NATO ally or terrorists? They cannot answer. It is not possible to understand the goal and reason of what they are doing,” he said.
“I am thinking — is it because Turkey is the only country in NATO whose people are Muslim?”
Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin tweeted: “Those who remained silent while Mosul, Raqa, and Dier al-Zor were being torn down and thousands of civilians were killed are making ‘Stop the operation’ calls… and threatening Turkey with sanctions. There is no stop until we achieve our targets.”
The Syrian regime sent troops towards the Turkish border on Monday to contain Ankara’s deadly offensive.
Outgunned and without US protection, the autonomous Kurds in northeastern Syria had few other options to stop the rapid advance of Turkish troops and their Syrian proxies.
Turkey wants to create a roughly 30-kilometer (20-mile) buffer zone along its border to keep Kurdish forces at bay and also to send back some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it hosts.
After Trump made it clear he wanted to end US military presence, Moscow — already the top broker in Syria — wasted no time to fill the void, clinching a deal between the Kurds and Damascus, whose ties had been icy since the minority threw its lot with Washington and unilaterally declared self-rule.
By Monday morning, Syrian government forces were already moving to within several kilometers of the border, AFP correspondents on the ground said.
Residents around the town of Tall Tamr welcomed regime forces with cheers and Syrian state television showed some of them waving national flags and portraits of President Bashar Assad.
Kurdish officials and residents alike in northeastern Syria have expressed outrage at what they call a US betrayal that shortchanges the sacrifices made in the fight against IS.
Since 2014, the SDF have been the US-led anti-IS coalition’s main partner on the ground in Syria, spearheading some key battles on the way to eliminating the jihadists’ self-proclaimed “caliphate” earlier this year.
Trump already said last year he intended to pull US troops of Syria out but on Sunday the Pentagon announced he had ordered the withdrawal of 1,000 troops — almost the entire ground force — from the country’s north.
“The United States has lost its defeat mechanism against the Islamic State,” the Institute for the Study of War wrote in a brief.
“It took years for the US to realize that the SDF were the only capable partners. They will not partner with us again,” it said.