FAYSH KHABUR, Iraq — The Iraqi-Syrian border is not visible to the naked eye on this moonless night, but the locals don’t see it as a perimeter anymore anyway. “It is no longer a border but a front line,” says an Iraqi-Kurdish fighter, Maj. Sardar Saleh, from the Peshmerga military forces.
Sitting in his office in northwestern Iraq, Saleh and his men are chain-smoking, their eyes locked on the TV news channels streaming images from neighboring Syria. Images of wounded Kurds and refugees have been dominating their screens since the beginning of the Turkish military offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces on October 9.
But Saleh does not fear the Turks. The chaos across the border has resurrected the specter of another enemy: the Islamic State. Thousands of jihadists are currently being detained in Kurdish Syria, and there are regular reports of prison breaks, with Kurdish authorities and Ankara accusing each other of being responsible for the escapes.
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Though Trump said Wednesday that "100%" of ISIS had been defeated, forces on the ground suggest otherwise. An August report by the Pentagon estimates that ISIS is “resurging” in Syria and has as many as 18,000 militants there and in Iraq. And although its threat had dissipated in recent times, it has not disappeared. On October 11, the group claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack on a popular restaurant in the Syrian-Kurdish city of Qamishli, which killed at least three civilians.
Some 8,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees have clandestinely crossed the border through rocky roads to find refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan since the start of the Turkish offensive, according to aid groups. Now on high alert, the Peshmerga fear ISIS members infiltrating through the same crossing points, or further south in Iraq’s Rabia region.
“We check each newcomer meticulously to make sure they’re not jihadists,” says Saleh, his answer briefly interrupted by a clap of thunder. He continues: “The situation is so complex right now. For sure, ISIS will take this opportunity to come back.”
Following the deal struck Tuesday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Syrian and Russian forces will deploy in northern Syria to remove Kurdish fighters from the border area with Turkey. Ankara, which obtained the “safe zone” it had long sought in Syria, said it would end its military offensive. The Trump administration, meanwhile, said that the Kurdish fighters — who made up most of the U.S.-backed ground force battling ISIS — had indeed retreated.
The crisis in northern Syria, Peshmerga fighters say, raises the prospect of an Islamic State resurgence in both countries. That view is seemingly mirrored by Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve against the terror organization. He tells Haaretz that “the coalition’s mission against ISIS has been undermined because of the [Turkish] incursion.” Although he adds that “our fight against ISIS continues,” those plans were thrown into confusion Tuesday when Iraq’s military said the 1,000 U.S. troops looking to gather in neighboring Western Iraq did not have permission to be stationed there.
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The Iraqi government had previously announced it had deployed its own troops to the Syrian border, fearful that ISIS militants could creep in amid the ongoing crisis. An Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman told a local TV channel last Tuesday that there are 13,000 ISIS members of various nationalities currently detained in Kurdish Syria, “many of them prominent leaders ... who are battle hardened and experienced, and they could pose a grave danger to Iraq.”
Iraq later said it had detained several ISIS militants trying to cross into Iraq after they had escaped from Kurdish-controlled detention centers in Syria. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi reportedly dispatched his national security adviser to Damascus on October 16 in a bid to strengthen border security cooperation.
Despite the obvious security concerns, an Iraqi security official speaking on condition of anonymity pinpoints a specific challenge: “I don’t see ISIS crossing into Iraq from Syria in large numbers,” he says. “Iraq will be fine, we are robust enough to keep them out. I am, however, much more worried about Syria.”
He continues: “This whole mess is a golden opportunity for the group. I don’t know why the Americans are abandoning Kurdish forces. ISIS is weak, so the opportunity to finish them off is right now. I hope the Syrian regime and Russia will take over the fight.”
However, many Western powers do not consider President Bashar Assad’s forces a reliable partner in the fight against the Islamic State. “It’s highly counterproductive. Analysts across the United States are scratching their heads. Leaving before the job is done is very much allowing for an ISIS resurgence,” says Colin P. Clarke, a senior fellow at The Soufan Center (a nonprofit that researches global security issues). “And while I don’t think they could ever establish a new caliphate, the impact will be felt in the long-term — and I am not talking years, I am talking decades,” adds Clarke, whose book “After the Caliphate: The Islamic State & The Future Terrorist Diaspora” was published earlier this year.
Experts and officials who spoke with Haaretz all agree that the U.S.’ withdrawal and Ankara’s invasion is likely to have a long-lasting impact on the region, giving the terrorist organization a new lease of life at a critical time.
“Security instability due to the U.S. withdrawal is, among other things, jeopardizing humanitarian and stabilization operations,” warns Charles Thépaut, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The risk, in short, is a return to square one; a deteriorating situation that undermines all the work done since 2015 and risks recreating the conditions that initially led to the emergence of ISIS in the first place — with, for example, a political deadlock, marginalization of local populations, both Arab and Kurdish, and economic grievances.”
An additional problem is the return of the Syrian regime to Kurdish areas, “whose authoritarian practices have contributed to the group’s expansion,” Thépaut adds.
Since the Turkish incursion into northern Syria earlier this month, there have been multiple reports of jailbreaks from the Kurdish-run detention facilities, as the Kurds are forced to either flee the area or reallocate security resources elsewhere.
Packing their bags
The case of foreign ISIS militants being held in Syria was always something of a headache for the international community. However, since the launch of the Turkish military operation, it has become a nightmare.
“We woke up a little late,” admits a European military official active in the Middle East. “We have to find a solution, it’s no longer tenable. We talk a lot, but the politicians are afraid.”
He adds, though, that the prisons in northeastern Syria “are not yet empty and Al-Hawl” — the largest detention camp for families with links to ISIS — “is still secured by the Kurds. For the moment.”
Up to 3,000 male foreign fighters, including 800 Europeans (without including the thousands of wives and children with foreign citizenship), are believed to be detained in northeastern Syria since the terror group’s caliphate finally fell in March with the recapture of Baghouz.
The conundrum created by the presence of Western jihadists in Syria is mainly due to the categorical refusal of their respective governments to repatriate them. Officials fear that a repatriated ISIS fighter will only be sentenced to a few years in prison — for lack of concrete evidence — and pose a security threat in their homelands once released.
Contacted by Haaretz via telephone, some of the female jihadists in the detention camps sound jubilant while others are more concerned. ISIS recently claimed to have recovered some of its female and young members after about 800 women and children reportedly escaped from Ain Issa camp (following Turkish shelling in the area). Several European female jihadists at Roj camp, near the city of Hasakah, northeastern Syria, and Al-Hawl say they are now “packing” their bags.
Most of these women are fully aware of the opposition in their homelands to their possible repatriation to face trial. But the advance of Turkey and its affiliates gives them hope. There are several detention camps inside the 30-kilometer-deep (nearly 20 mile) “safe zone” along the Syrian side of the border that Ankara aims to clear of Kurdish fighters. Turkish officials have suggested they could eventually return the detained ISIS fighters to their native countries, a move welcomed by the jihadists with whom Haaretz spoke.
“We want the Turks to take us because we know that once we are [in Turkey], we can be sent back with our children to our country of origin,” explains a Belgian jihadist by text message. “Here at Roj camp, everyone is waiting for Turkey,” adds a French jihadist. “There are girls here who even dream of prison in France.”
They all express concern about the return of the Assad regime, which, under the agreement reached with the Kurdish authorities on October 13, has begun to redeploy troops to Kurdish areas in order to counter the Turkish offensive.
“I would rather run away or die than fall into Bashar’s hands,” they say in unison — and for good reason: Rape, acts of torture and summary executions have been widely reported in detention centers run by the Syrian regime.
The prospect of their citizens falling into Damascus’ hands is also making Western diplomats nervous. They fear that Assad may use them as political leverage, even though most European governments view his regime as an illegitimate power following Syria’s bloody, eight-year civil war.
There are also concerns that the regime may “weaponize” the most radical elements, either by releasing prisoners — like when Assad reportedly granted an amnesty to jailed radical elements in 2011 — or by sending jihadists to fight its enemies, as in the early days of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Back then, fighters transited through Syria, with the blessing of Damascus, before leaving for Iraq to wage what they saw as a holy war against Western forces.
“It is up to politicians to make their risk assessment: Is it more dangerous to repatriate their citizens, or perhaps to see them fall into the hands of the Syrian regime?” a senior European official told Haaretz over the summer.
Back at the Iraqi-Syrian border, the relocation of people is very much ongoing. A phone call sends Maj. Saleh and his Peshmerga forces rushing to their vehicles: more Kurdish refugees are crossing into Iraq. The troops are accompanied by medical staff in ambulances, in case the fleeing civilians are in need of assistance.
“The United States may be gone, but ISIS is not,” says the Kurdish fighter as he vanishes into the stormy night, the bolts of lightning moving ever closer.
Inès Daif contributed reporting to this story from Erbil, Iraq.