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ISIS breakouts, US troop withdrawals, Assad advances: the weekend in Syria news

The aftermath of Trump’s sudden Syria withdrawal decision has turned very violent — with the potential to get much worse.

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters rest in front of a truck.
Turkey-backed Syrian fighters gather on the northern outskirts of the Syrian city of Manbij near the Turkish border on October 14, 2019, as Turkey and its allies continue their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria.
Zein al Rifaiz/AFP via Getty Images

This past weekend was an unmitigated disaster for President Donald Trump’s policy in Syria and the fight against ISIS — not to mention America’s allies in the country and the Syrian people who hoped to see an end to war.

Nearly a thousand prisoners with suspected ISIS ties reportedly escaped a camp in northeastern Syria on Sunday. The prisoners were being guarded by the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is largely made up of local Kurdish fighters. But those Kurdish fighters’ attention was diverted when Turkish forces, apparently with Trump’s blessing, launched a massive military operation against them last week — which the ISIS prisoners quickly took advantage of.

Also on Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that Trump had ordered the remaining 1,000 US troops to withdraw from northeastern Syria, effectively leaving America’s Kurdish allies to fight Turkey on their own and potentially making it easier for ISIS to reconstitute in the area.

In response, the Kurds struck a deal just hours later with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government — which is backed by both Russia and Iran — allowing his forces to come into Kurdish-controlled towns and cities in order to help the Kurds fight off Turkey.

Then, on Monday, Trump announced “Big sanctions on Turkey coming!” to punish Ankara for its incursion into Syria, a move that’s unlikely to convince Turkey to stop its military operation but that will certainly cause further strain in the US’s relationship with its NATO ally.

That same day, the humanitarian aid group Mercy Corps announced it was suspending its operations in northeastern Syria. That follows the suspension of aid activities by other groups such as UNICEF, the International Rescue Committee, and CARE International.

If you missed any of this because you wanted to enjoy your long weekend, don’t worry. We got you covered.

ISIS affiliates have escaped prison, possibly refueling the terror group’s ranks

One of Trump’s top foreign policy promises on the campaign trail was to “bomb the shit out of” and thoroughly defeat ISIS. In March, the administration said it had relieved ISIS of 100 percent of its so-called caliphate, giving Trump a major victory while making the world a safer place.

But the president may have undone much of that work in just one week.

Beginning on Friday, news broke that detainees with ties to ISIS in makeshift prisons throughout northern Syria had tried to escape. They got the chance because the SDF had to turn its attention to fending off Turkey, which enabled those sympathetic to the terrorist group to take advantage of the chaos.

Institute for the Study of War.

One such place was at the al-Hol camp for displaced people near Syria’s northeast tip. Video circulating online shows prisoners rioting against guards and even razing tents in an effort to sow confusion, distract, and get away. As of now it doesn’t appear the breakout was successful.

But it’s all still very worrying. The camp, which the Pentagon says is a prime recruitment zone for the terrorist organization, houses about 60,000 women and children linked to ISIS as well as 10,000 displaced civilians.

Then on Sunday it turns out there actually was a breakout. Jelal Ayaf, a senior official at the Ain Issa camp for displaced person, told the Kurdish Rojava Information Center that 859 people — mostly ISIS-linked women and children — escaped from the area that houses foreign nationals shortly after Turkey shelled the area.

Some were recaptured, Ayaf said, but he noted the situation remained “very volatile” as some sleeper cells attacked remaining guards.

What this means is that ISIS’s ranks have already grown and could continue to do so in the near future. Before Turkey entered northern Syria last week, the Syrian Kurdish forces had been guarding approximately 11,000 detained ISIS terrorists, including about 2,000 who’d come from other countries. Should security dwindle in the roughly 30 areas where they reside, they could give the depleted terror group more strength.

That’s a serious concern. US officials have also sounded the alarm that ISIS is planning mass prison breaks, and a Turkish invasion might give ISIS fighters the exact cover they need to do so.

This, to put it bluntly, is a ticking time bomb.

Trump orders the withdrawal of the last 1,000 troops from northern Syria

When Trump announced that the US would be leaving Syria last week, he wasn’t telling the truth. What he did was remove 50 service members out of the country’s north to make way for Turkey’s incursion. But now that Turkey is all in and chaos is widespread, he’s taken a further step: removing all 1,000 US troops from the area.

That announcement, made Sunday by Pentagon chief Esper, came as a surprise to those watching Fox News Sunday and CBS’s Face the Nation.

“I spoke with the president last night and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria,” Esper told CBS’s Margaret Brennan. Asked how long it would take to do so, the secretary said, “It will be a deliberate withdrawal.”

Esper gave a little bit more detail in his conversation with Fox News’ Chris Wallace. “[W]hat we’re facing is US forces in a — trapped between a Syrian-Russian army moving north to take on the Turkish army that is moving south,” he said. “I spoke with the national security team yesterday. We all talked on the phone. I talked to the president, and he is concerned. And so, last night, he directed that we begin a deliberate withdraw of US forces from the northern part of Syria.”

Again asked how long a withdrawal would take, Esper responded by saying, “I can’t give you a timeline because it changes hourly.”

Trump campaigned on removing the US from wars in the Middle East and has been open about wanting US forces out of Syria. But the news will also please Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who want more control of the country and America out. And of course, if the Kurds felt abandoned by Trump already, they certainly will now.

In fact ...

The SDF cuts a deal with Assad

Before the White House announced on October 6 that some US troops would be leaving northern Syria, the Kurds in the SDF were close American allies. But just over a week later, the entire landscape has changed following an announcement Monday by the SDF.

“An agreement has been reached with the Syrian government — whose duty it is to protect the country’s borders and preserve Syrian sovereignty — for the Syrian Army to enter and deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border to help the SDF stop this aggression” by Turkey, the SDF said.

This was expected, as Esper even said on Fox News Sunday that “we’ve learned in the last 24 hours that it looks like the SDF is cutting a deal with the Syrians and Russians.” But that doesn’t make the move any less stunning — or potentially dangerous.

Syria’s Kurds have worked for years to control a section of the northeast they call Rojava, meant to be a Kurdish-run quasi-democracy within the country’s borders. They had the space to do that after seizing the territory from ISIS and because Assad’s forces stayed south.

That’s all about to change. Syrian government troops are already in northern towns to confront Turkey, putting them in territory they had not been for seven of the eight-years-long war. That may give Assad even more control of territory he lost should his forces succeed in pushing back Ankara’s troops.

This means two specific things. First, the war in Syria is about to heat up, as you effectively have two countries directly going to war. With Turkey as a NATO ally, some might say the US and others are treaty bound to back Ankara in its fight against Syrian regime forces.

Second, though, it shows that the US has lost its main partner in the fight against ISIS and in Syria writ large. America didn’t have many troops or real skin in the game, to be sure, but now it has none.

Trump got what he wanted: The US is effectively no longer involved in Syria.

Trump says he will sanction Turkey

Partly to stave off criticism for his October 6 decision to withdraw US troops from Syria’s north, Trump promised the next day he’d “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if Ankara did anything he “consider[ed] to be off limits.”

That’s something Trump had no problem doing before. He sanctioned Turkey over its detention of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, hurting the NATO ally’s economy. It’s clear now that Trump has no problem doing it again, tweeting on Monday that “Big sanctions on Turkey coming!”

That message is consistent with what the administration has been saying all along. On Sunday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told ABC News’ This Week that “the president has authorized me to effectively shut down the entire Turkey economy and we can do that at a moment’s notice on his command.” It’s unclear whether the US can actually halt all of Turkey’s economy, but the message is obvious: Don’t test America.

Based on the president’s own statements, it looks like he’d follow a Senate plan led by Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).

The two-page proposal is broken up into eight sections of punishments but it really targets three main entities.

First, it goes after Turkey’s top political leaders, from the president to the minister of energy and natural resources. Basically, if you’re a key member of Erdoğan’s staff, you’re getting sanctioned.

Second, a lot of the penalties target Turkey’s military, which is a bold move considering the country is a NATO ally. Countries that sell weapons to Turkey or offer any assistance will face US sanctions, per the bill, and that could make it harder for Ankara to rearm.

Third, Turkey’s energy sector would take a hit. According to the bill outline, it would target “any foreign person or entity who supplies goods, services, technology, information, or other support that maintains or supports Turkey’s domestic petroleum production and natural gas production for the used by its armed forces.”

There’s also a section about restricting travel for Turkish leaders to the US and filing reports, as well as a part on how humanitarian aid, medical assistance, election help, and intelligence sharing would be exempted. Still, if passed in Congress and signed by the president, the legislation would be a major hit on a NATO ally.

The sanctions could come off Turkey if the US certifies that it’s not unilaterally operating in Syria, meaning it either left the area or worked in tandem with the US. The administration has to make a determination on that every 90 days and report to Congress.

Even though many say Turkey deserves a reprimand for its actions, there’s no question that the passage of this measure would sink US-Turkey relations to an even lower place than where they are now.

Then again, bad outcomes are to be expected the way Trump’s Syria policy is going right now.

Aid organizations pull out of northeastern Syria

There are millions of people who need assistance in Syria, many of which are in the country’s northeast. But some will not receive the aid they need because vital groups have had to withdraw their presence due to mounting violence.

“This is our nightmare scenario. There are tens of thousands of people on the run and we have no way of getting to them,” Made Ferguson, Mercy Corps’s deputy country director for Syria, said in a statement Monday. “We’ve had to pull our international staff out of northeast Syria. We just cannot effectively operate with the heavy shelling, roads closing, and the various and constantly changing armed actors in the areas where we are working.

“The humanitarian crisis is worsening by the day, and now aid workers are cut off from providing lifesaving assistance to the most vulnerable,” Ferguson added.

That’s horrifying, as Mercy Corps has operated in Syria since 2014. What makes it worse is that other aid groups — including some affiliated with the United Nations — have had to suspend their operations, too.

Which means if conditions in Syria are bad now — and they are — there’s a decent chance it could all get so much worse.