Trump orders troops out of northern Syria; many escape Islamic State camps

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands on Thursday, July 18, 2019 at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
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By Nabih Bulos and Jennifer Haberkorn Los Angeles Times (TNS)

AMMAN, Jordan — As President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of the 1,000 remaining U.S. troops from northern Syria, hundreds of Islamic State family members Sunday escaped from a detention camp managed by Syrian Kurdish forces amid a Turkish barrage.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish militiamen, who had previously served as the lead fighting force on behalf of the U.S. in routing Islamic State extremists in Syria, said they had struck a deal with the Syrian government to stave off the Turkish onslaught.

The deal came as the Kurds suffered a swift collapse in their lines before a Turkish and Syrian opposition onslaught that followed Trump’s initial withdrawal of a much smaller group of American troops from the border area, which in effect served as a tacit blessing for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s invasion plans.

The Kurds, who had led an American-organized umbrella group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, announced the Russian-brokered deal with the Syrian government in a statement saying that, though their cadres had fought “bravely,” they were unable to stop the Turkish advance.

“To prevent and thwart this aggression, there has been an agreement with the Syrian government for the Syrian army to enter and deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border,” said the statement, “and assist the Syrian Democratic Forces in thwarting this aggression and liberating the areas entered by the Turkish army and its hired mercenaries.”

The deal followed a day of chaos in Syria and recriminations in Washington, with critics in both the Democratic and Republican parties accusing the Trump administration of both abandoning an ally and opening the way for resurgence of the Islamic State militias.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that the U.S. would withdraw the remaining troops just days after saying the U.S. was not “abandoning” its Kurdish allies in the region.

“We did not want to put American forces into harm’s way,” Esper said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” referring to the Turkish offensive against the Kurdish forces that began last week after Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the border area between Syria and Turkey. “We did not want to get involved in a conflict that dates back nearly 200 years between the Turks and the Kurds and get involved in another — yet another — war in the Middle East.”

But a wide-ranging host of critics said the White House actions amounted to an outright betrayal and a prescription for wholesale bloodshed.

“I can think of nothing more disgusting in all the years I’ve been in Congress than what this president is allowing to happen with the Kurds,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “They have been our loyal and faithful allies for so many years, and after this, who again would trust the United States to be an ally of them? Who would think it pays to align themselves with us? Nobody. This is going to make people flee from us, and it’s just absolutely disgraceful that the president of the United States is facilitating all of this.”

“ISIS will resurge,” former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis warned, also on “Meet the Press,” using an acronym for Islamic State. “It’s absolutely a given that they will come back.”

Syrian state media announced army units had mobilized toward the north to “confront the Turkish aggression on Syrian lands.” Activists reported they were deploying west of the Kurdish-held city of Manbij and would be heading toward Kobani, a city on the border with Turkey.

Yassin Aktay, an adviser to Erdogan, warned that if the Syrian army stood in the way of Turkey’s aims in northeast Syria, there could be clashes between the two armies. “The Syrian army… is preparing to fight the Turkish army,” he said in an interview with the Russian government-owned Sputnik agency on Sunday. “If it’s capable of doing so, let it go ahead.”

U.S. officials, for their part, described an imminent catastrophe in northern Syria, with intensifying fighting between Kurdish fighters and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, who have been carrying out assassinations and reprisals as they move south.

The incursion was moving beyond the 20-mile limit Turkey had first announced in launching its military operation against the Kurdish fighters. It was also beyond the scope of areas it said it aims to control along the 566-mile border it shares with Syria.

That would place the fighting in close vicinity to any remaining U.S. troops and raise the risk of a military confrontation if any of the Turkish units or their Syrian rebel allies inadvertently or intentionally fired on or threatened American positions.

“It’s a deteriorating situation that’s rapidly becoming untenable for U.S. forces, due to the increasing width and depth of the Turkish response,” said a senior U.S. official.

The expanding offensive is also threatening roughly 16 American bases and outposts in northern Syria, including the airfields it uses to supply troops.

U.S. forces would defend themselves if attacked but will have to withdraw as the fighting between Turkish troops and the Kurds intensifies, officials said.

But some military officials said an assertion by Trump administration officials that U.S. troops would move south but remain in Syria were not realistic. Without Kurdish fighters to provide security, the U.S. would be exposed to potential attacks from a resurgent Islamic State. Nor could the U.S. troops be easily supplied in new locations.

On Sunday, activists posted images depicting U.S. Army mine-resistant vehicles rumbling down a highway away from an outpost in the Kurdish-held city of Ain Aissa. Activists reported similar withdrawals near Manbij.

Even before the Turkish offensive, Kurdish fighters cautioned that the turmoil caused by a Turkish incursion would give the Islamist extremists held in Kurdish-run detention centers the chance to escape.

And on Sunday almost 800 relatives of Islamic State’s cadres fled an annex of a detention camp near the Kurdish-controlled city of Ain Aissa, after Turkish airstrikes and rocket fire hit nearby areas.

The camp’s Kurdish guards abandoned their posts to repel the incoming Turkish onslaught, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition Syrian war monitor.

According to the Save the Children aid group, 249 women and 700 children linked to Islamic State had been housed in the annex.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed militias that are led by the Kurdish fighters, confirmed the breakout, saying that some 785 had escaped.

In all, roughly 11,000 Islamic State militants, including about 2,000 foreign fighters, have been held in detention by Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The U.S. has moved approximately four dozen of them to secure facilities elsewhere. An Iraqi official, speaking to the Russian news agency Sputnik, said 50 Islamic State “commanders” had been transferred to prisons in Iraq.

U.S. officials described as “credible” reports that Islamic State prisoners have escaped.

Since the Turkish operation began, 52 civilians have been killed along with more than a hundred Kurdish militia members, the Observatory said, with a number of them summarily executed by Syrian rebels.

Eighteen Turkish civilians living near the border have been killed by Kurdish cross-border mortar and rocket attacks, according to Turkish officials.

An estimated 130,000 people have abandoned their homes, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordination office said on Saturday. Attacks on critical infrastructure have affected 400,000 people.

Meanwhile, the Turkish defense ministry and Syrian rebel groups announced Sunday they had taken control of Tal Abyadh, a border city that was a primary objective of the operation’s first phase.

Turkish warplanes and artillery also battered Ras Al-Ain, another strategic border town, striking neighborhoods where Kurdish fighters were holding off Syrian rebels closing in. Activists later reported a number of them had surrendered.

The Turkish-backed militants also overran parts of the M4, an important east-west highway that was the spine of the Kurdish-held territories, splitting them in two and potentially cutting off the exit for those seeking to flee.

The Kurds’ deal with Damascus means the end of a semi-autonomous mini-state they had forged in northeast Syria since 2015. Undergirded by support from the U.S., they had created a government bureaucracy meant to serve as an alternative to the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But their project infuriated Turkey, which considered the Kurdish fighters inextricably linked to Kurdish separatist guerrillas it has fought for decades at home. The United States’ largesse to the Kurds, which involved money, materiel, not to mention protection, soured relations between Ankara and Washington.

The rout of Kurdish militiamen since the initial U.S. withdrawal at the border, Esper said, prompted the withdrawal of remaining U.S. forces in northern Syria.

Reacting to Republicans and Democrats in Congress excoriating the U.S. for the withdrawal, Esper said the U.S. “didn’t sign up to fight the Turks on” behalf of the Kurds.

Trump himself has given a vigorous — albeit mercurial — defense of the pullout. On Twitter, he called it “very smart” to not be “involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change” and appeared to at least partially endorse the Turkish view that a leading Kurdish group, the PKK, which is allied with the Syrian Kurds, are “terrorists.”

“The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years. Turkey considers the PKK the worst terrorists of all. Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them! We are monitoring the situation closely. Endless Wars!” Trump tweeted.

He also has threatened to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it oversteps its limits, and had prepared a raft of sanctions on Ankara.

On Sunday, he tweeted that he would support legislation to impose sanctions that has been drafted by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

“Treasury is ready to go, additional legislation may be sought,” he tweeted. “There is great consensus on this.”

However, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., expressed a view that appears prevalent in both parties on Capitol Hill.

“The hell you unleashed — by double crossing an ally and restocking ISIS — will cost thousands of U.S. lives in the long run,” he tweeted.

(Times staff writer David S. Cloud in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.)
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