Is Turkey smuggling ISIS detainees out of Syria?

Tens of thousands of ISIS members, including their families, ended up detained in eastern Syria in the last several years as the SDF and the US-led Coalition forces defeated ISIS.

ISIS MEMBERS flee Baghouz. Now it’s time to put them on trial (photo credit: REUTERS)
ISIS MEMBERS flee Baghouz. Now it’s time to put them on trial
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkey’s pro-government media is celebrating an operation by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization that “rescued” a Moldovan woman and her four children from “terrorists in northern Syria.”
In the language of Turkey’s pro-government media, what this actually means is Turkey’s intelligence service apparently smuggled a woman and children out of an area in eastern Syria that is under the control of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The entire story appeared to shed light on a larger issue. Tens of thousands of ISIS members, including their families, ended up detained in eastern Syria in the last several years as the SDF and the US-led coalition forces defeated ISIS.
Thousands of these detainees in eastern Syria are citizens of foreign countries. Because the SDF is not a state, but a non-state actor, most foreign ministries of countries prefer not to negotiate directly with it regarding ISIS detainees. This leaves the detainees in limbo.
The more than 70 countries that are partners of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition mostly don’t want their citizens back. For instance, last week, the case of Shamima Begum, a former British citizen who traveled to live under ISIS control as a teenager, has been in the spotlight. While the UK tried to rid itself of thousands of its citizens who joined ISIS, a court has now ruled that Begum can return to the UK to contest the attempt to strip her of citizenship.
But how will Begum return home? While some countries quietly repatriated citizens, and some took back children of ISIS members, most don’t want to take responsibility for their radicalized citizens. It has now been six years since thousands of European citizens joined ISIS. Since 2018, many of them have been detained in eastern Syria. This also includes tens of thousands of women and children.
Some of the women were radical pro-ISIS members accused of abusing and selling members of the Yazidi minority as slaves and also involved in crimes. Even within the camps they now reside in, they are accused of resurrecting their own form of ISIS female police who have even murdered other camp residents.
The UN has cut off aid to eastern Syria via the Yarubiyah crossing since January, and this has left the camp residents in al-Hol and other ISIS detention centers with less access to support. There are tens of thousands of these residents.
The SDF can’t hand them over to the Syrian government because most governments view the Syrian regime as a criminal regime. The SDF can’t hand these people over to Turkey because Turkey claims the SDF is a “terrorist” group that is linked to the PKK. While the SDF did return some Syrian and Iraqi camp residents, the rest are in limbo.
Bizarrely, this has enabled Turkey to step in to claim it is “helping” these camp residents, portraying them as innocent. Turkey has played a contradictory role when it comes to ISIS since 2014. Up to 50,000 people who joined ISIS did so via Turkey.
Turkey began sending back some of the European ISIS members in 2015 and built a border wall along the Syrian border. But Turkey’s main interest in Syria is fighting the Kurdish PKK. Turkey has attacked the SDF and also the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria.
Meanwhile, many ISIS members, including trafficked Yazidis kidnapped by ISIS, allegedly have fled to Turkey. High-level ISIS members have been found in Turkey, and it is alleged that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s family even transited through Turkey. Some of the ISIS members who fled the battle of Raqqa in 2017 said they wanted to make their way to Turkey.
This brings us to the story of Turkey helping to “rescue the stranded citizens” in eastern Syria. According to Ankara’s pro-government media, the Moldovan citizen and her children were in al-Hol camp since the beginning of 2019. That is when the last ISIS holdouts at Baghuz were defeated and tens of thousands of families of ISIS members were processed and moved to al-Hol.
The Moldovan government says it reached out to Turkey for “help” to get its citizens back. It is unclear why Moldova couldn’t bring her out via Iraq and work with the SDF. Apparently, this is because the Iraqi border with Syria is mostly closed, and there is a COVID-19 pandemic.
Turkey’s view of the SDF as “terrorists,” therefore, makes it impossible to actually have countries repatriate citizens peacefully from the SDF via Turkey, necessitating this largely unnecessary “rescue” operation.
This leads to questions about how it is possible that dozens of the most powerful countries, including EU and NATO ones, are all partners of the US-led coalition, which backs the SDF, but they couldn’t help Moldova get back this citizen. Instead, Moldova worked with Ankara, also a NATO member, to send intelligence agents into Syria to work with people in areas run by the SDF to smuggle out a person.
Couldn’t one NATO government have simply asked another to request the SDF to bring her to the border and move her across peacefully with her children? This shows a breakdown in the nature of the coalition’s mission.
The coalition doesn’t want responsibility for the ISIS detainees, even though it is fighting ISIS. The US, meanwhile, works with the SDF via the Department of Defense and CENTCOM to get the SDF to be a subcontractor, jailing the ISIS families and detainees. Then another part of the US government through the State Department works with Turkey against the SDF.
It is this scenario that means the wealthiest, most powerful countries in the world can’t coordinate their work with the SDF in Syria to move people back to a country like Moldova, instead necessitating smuggling operations in areas the coalition operates.
How did it happen on the ground? Turkish intelligence units and Moldovan security and intelligence services conducted a “joint operation,” Turkish media says. They “rescued” the citizens from under the control of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. Moldovan President Igor Dodon thanked the Turkish president for the help.
The Moldovan citizen apparently came to Syria in 2013 with her Syrian husband. They lived in Manbij, an area that came under the control of ISIS. Manbij was liberated in 2016 from ISIS by the SDF. The husband was killed in 2017 during “military clashes,” the report says. Which side was he on? It isn’t clear, and Turkish media chose to not say, likely to hide that he may have been linked to ISIS.
The Moldovan woman and her four children ended up in al-Hol in 2019, the same time ISIS was finally defeated in Syria. It turns out that Turkey helped Moldova repatriate another family in 2019 via Turkey. The Moldovan woman said she had been through difficult times in “captivity.” What captivity? The detention facilities the SDF runs at the behest of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition?
This is a propaganda victory for Turkey, claiming it “rescued” the women and children and gaining favor with Moldova. But it raises questions about why Turkey can’t simply ask the US to move these detainees from SDF control to Turkey with coordination from the US State Department and EUCOM, the European Command of the US military that works with Turkey?
Turkey’s president speaks regularly with US President Donald Trump. CENTCOM works on a daily basis with the SDF. Why did Turkey have to embark on an “intelligence operation” in Syria, under the nose of CENTCOM and the coalition’s SDF partners, to bring the women and children out?
The SDF and autonomous administration media in eastern Syria say Turkey has helped ISIS members “escape SDF detention” in the past. They argue that many of those linked to ISIS who seek to escape detention in eastern Syria have gone to Turkey.
This may be a war of words between Ankara and the SDF. But it is also indicative of the strange situation in which one NATO member uses intelligence agents to infiltrate an area of Syria in which the US, also a NATO member, is operating against ISIS sleeper cells, undermining the US-led coalition’s SDF partners.
All this could be handled by a phone call to Washington from Turkey and then from Washington to the SDF, rather than the elaborate “rescue” and smuggling. Since that wouldn’t fit Turkey’s agenda or enable the alleged ISIS-linked family members to be vetted, and since the coalition doesn’t deal with these political-type issues of repatriation, everything is left in limbo and at the mercy of intelligence services and nondiplomatic means.
The larger question is whether the same networks that smuggle women and children out of al-Hol also may work to bring out male ISIS members. This issue lacks clarity because there is no process in place by the coalition or the SDF to process all the ISIS members and create a clear future where they face trial. No one will extradite them, since the SDF is not a country, and the SDF is told not to release them or put them on trial.
In rare cases, some of the residents of al-Hol have gotten out by more normal means. Last November, Italian and Albanian authorities working with the Red Cross and Red Crescent found a young boy whose Kosovar father was in Italy and helped bring him out from al-Hol via Damascus. This illustrated that such repatriations are possible.
Almost 600 Tajik women and children went home from SDF-controlled Syria in 2019 as well.Russia and Kosovo also took back citizens. There are still some 2,000 foreign men alleged to be linked to ISIS and 11,000 women and children foreigners in al-Hol.