ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Five Islamic State (ISIS) militants have escaped the prison where they were detained in northern Syria amid Turkish shelling, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced Friday evening, a day after America’s defense chief told Turkey to stop its incursion.
“5 ISIS detained militants flee Jirkin prison in Qamishli, as a result of Turkish shelling,” the SDF tweeted.
The SDF are holding an estimated 2,000 foreign ISIS fighters, 8,000 local ISIS militants, and 70,000 women and children affiliated with the group in various detention centres and camps in northern Syria.
At Al-Hol camp, a group of nearly 100 ISIS women tried to escape on Friday by attacking guards, but “none made it,” Sheikhmus Ahmed, head of the internal displaced persons (IDP) and refugee office for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), told Rudaw English.
“They tried to escape the camp and join Turkish forces,” he said. “But we did not let anyone escape.”
There have been 274 escape attempts in the last 30 days, Ahmed said, but they have so far had the necessary forces to keep the camp under control. That could change if Turkey’s attack on northern Syria intensifies, he warned. “In such a situation, the number of those trying to escape could reach a thousand,” he said.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he has told Turkey to “stop” its offensive when discussing the incursion with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar during a phone call on Thursday. Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley said that in their phone calls with their Turkish counterparts, they saw “no indication” that Turkey is going to stop their offensive against the SDF.
Turkey considers the Kurdish-led forces a terror organization. The SDF has been a key Western ally in the war against ISIS in Syria. Turkey launched its Operation Peace Spring on Wednesday, shelling towns and villages along the Syrian side of the border in order to rout the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after appearing to get a greenlight from US President Donald Trump who pulled American troops back from the border.
European allies and American politicians of all stripes condemned the abandonment of their Kurdish allies and warned that ISIS could take advantage of the chaos to stage a comeback.
Esper denied the US greenlighted the offensive. “We have not abandoned the Kurds,” he said. “To be clear, we are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces and US troops remain with them in other parts of Syria.”
Rudaw’s reporter saw a convoy of four US military vehicles on Friday 30 kilometres south of Tal Abyad (Gire Spi). Rangin Sharo, reporting from between Tal Abyad and Ain Issa, said that a number of US forces were patrolling in the area for several hours.
The United Nations estimates some 100,000 people have been displaced so far, most heading towards Hasakah and Til Temir.
The civilian infrastructure in that area is under threat. A water station in Hasakah is out of service and technical teams cannot carry out repairs because of ongoing fighting, according to the UN’s humanitarian office.
On Friday afternoon, Turkey bombed a dam, putting at risk the clean water source for 1.5 million people, SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali tweeted. Alouk dam was “largely damaged. People in Hasakah, Til Temir, Til Baydar and Shadadi will not be able to access clean water soon,” he said.
Rights monitors are warning that the military offensive could risk yet another humanitarian catastrophe for Syria’s war-weary population.
“Hostilities will impact and restrict access to humanitarian aid pushing the civilian population, which has already suffered years of violence and displacement, to the brink,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Europe director.
She called on Turkey to “minimize the impact of their military operations on civilian populations” and ensure people are able to access safe areas.
Human Rights Watch echoed the concern. “Turkey and its allies have previously unlawfully killed, arbitrarily arrested, and wrongfully displaced civilians. This military operation risks repeating these abuses unless they take steps now,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director at the watchdog. Turkey and its allied Syrian militias have previously conducted military operations in Afrin where they are accused of committing human rights violations against the civilian Kurdish population.
Turkey’s Deputy President Fuat Oktay said on Friday evening that their forces have progressed eight kilometres on the Gire Spi (Tal Abyad) front and four kilometres into Sari Kani (Ras al-Ain), Turkish media reported.