The scramble for eastern Syria: ISIS prisoners, Russia, Assad, Turkey

Eastern Syria was plunged into chaos by the Trump decision, but attempts to make the ship a bit more stable have also been frustrated by how large and complex the area is.

Cars pass under a road sign that shows the direction to Manbij city, at the entrance of Manbij, Syria (photo credit: REUTERS/OMAR SANADIKI)
Cars pass under a road sign that shows the direction to Manbij city, at the entrance of Manbij, Syria
Manbij, a city in northern Syria, appeared to change hands on Tuesday from the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces to Syrian regime control. Maybe. Maybe not. The Syrian regime has been trying to get into Manbij for two days since it inked a confusing deal with leadership linked to the SDF, but the Americans were still there. In the scramble for eastern Syria, set in motion by US President Donald Trump’s October 6 decision to leave, troops on the ground are as clueless as their leaders about the road map ahead.
Eastern Syria was plunged into chaos by the Trump decision, but attempts to make the ship a bit more stable have also been frustrated by how large and complex the area is. With only around 1,000 soldiers, the US was able to support the SDF, which numbers around 100,000 US-trained fighters, to hold an area that is larger than the US state of West Virginia and a bit smaller than the Kingdom of Jordan. The US says it is withdrawing in an orderly manner. However, there is no timetable. Instead, the US opened the airspace to Turkish airstrikes and moved forces back bit-by-bit from the border so that Turkey could attack the US partners on the ground.
This has presented a challenge for the regime since October 13, when the regime and SDF came to an agreement. The text of that agreement is a bit unclear, but it appears to envision Syrian regime forces moving into Manbij and Kobane to create a buffer against further Turkish attacks. The regime will also expand from Qamishli, where it has a base, and Hasakah.
But the regime’s forces are weak. Video of them shows a token display of force and men holding a flag. The flag is symbolic, because it is the Syrian regime flag flying from areas it had been absent from since 2012.
Meanwhile, Turkey says that it won’t be stopped from expanding its operation and continuing to push along the M4 highway that runs inland from the northern border. It wants to grab Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, as well as some other towns and villages along the border, to show that its operation was successful. In the opening days of the war from October 9 to 13, Turkish forces had not advanced much, preferring to unleash a group of Syrian rebels formed into a Syrian National Army. Those groups spent most of their time looting and murdering prisoners they captured, rather than actually fighting. They ambushed an unarmed female politician named Hevrin Khalaf and gunned her down. Many of the Turkish-backed groups shout Jihadist and far-right extremist slogans. They hold swords and say they will kill the “kuffar” or “infidels” in eastern Syria. Ankara has preferred to have them sow chaos because that way Turkish troops are not in the line of fire. Ankara’s goal is to get its mostly Arab rebel units to fight the mostly Kurdish SDF, hoping to get Syrians distracted by throwing them against one another so Turkey can walk in after.
Meanwhile, Russia is also watching the SDF-regime agreement. Moscow has helped to shepherd similar agreements along before, such as in southern Syria, but so far, the Russian presence has not materialized. Russia has been having close discussions with Turkey about its deployment, and despite rumors of a Russian “no fly zone,” much remains unclear.
It is just as unclear for the US forces on the ground. Some US units in Manbij prevented the Syrian regime from grabbing the city on October 14. But the next day it appears some Syrian regime forces arrived. A Russian contractor in Syria filmed himself at an abandoned US base.
The scramble appears to continue as Syrian regime forces await orders as to where they should go and try to avoid fighting with Turkish or Turkish backed groups. But Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his forces will march onward. The goal of the SDF now seems to be to hang on to vital territory despite the Turkish offensive and the atrocities of Turkish-backed Syrian units arrayed against them. They had been careful the first few days of the war, pounded by more than 200 airstrikes. Now, with the agreement and the Syrian regime apparently backfilling some positions, the SDF can focus on a few strategic points, hoping the regime will arrive eventually.
Behind the lines, there is another problem. ISIS members are escaping. The US on October 6 said it was now Turkey’s responsibility to deal with ISIS detainees, but Turkey doesn’t want them. They have begun rioting and escaping in the fog of war. The SDF cannot secure the prisoners and also fight a war as the Americans leave.
The Syrian regime doesn’t want the ISIS members either. There are up to 2,000 hardcore ISIS members detained in eastern Syria and then another 40,000 or so members of their families. The families were in Al-Hol and other camps. On October 11, women tried to flee Al-Hol camp. On October 12, some ISIS militants fled Jirkin prison near Qamishli. ISIS members in Nafkuri prison near Hasakah also tried to flee. 785 foreign ISIS family members fled the Ayn Isa camp on October 13 near the Turkish border. Ayn Isa camp had up to 13,000 people in it, with 950 foreign ISIS members. In Tel Abyad, a prison for ISIS members was found empty when Turkish forces arrived on October 14.
All sides have accused each other of letting the prisoners run away. Turkish media claims the Kurdish YPG purposely let them flee. The SDF says Turkish shelling and the presence of Turkish-backed Syrian rebel extremist groups enabled the ISIS members to run away.
Human Rights Watch and others are calling for ISIS members to be repatriated. But how can that happen when it is unclear who runs eastern Syria? The US is leaving, the Syrian regime hasn’t arrived and foreign governments won’t speak to the SDF directly. Yet, there are some 70,000 people in Al-Hol camp, of which some 35,000 are Iraqis who are women and children, some of them ISIS supporters.
Iraq is concerned and sealing its border. It fears the ISIS members who could escape from detention facilities and camps. The Popular Mobilization Forces along the border warned on October 15 that the US had moved foreign wives of ISIS fighters from Al-Hol camp to Shaddadi. Although the US doesn’t want responsibility for the thousands of ISIS supporters captured earlier this year, it has sought to secure the most high profile.
As the scramble continues for eastern Syria, the problem of securing ISIS prisoners and where the Syrian regime will deploy is reaching a crescendo. The US has now sought to punish Turkey for its offensive – the same one the US opened the door to. It now appears Trump might prefer the Syrian regime return to aid the Kurdish forces, but the US has not been transparent or shown leadership on what comes next.