Just when it looked as if the hard work of dismantling Islamic State was nearing some form of resolution, Turkey, with the blessing of Donald Trump, launched a cross-border offensive on Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been agitating to strike against the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for many months, but was prevented from doing so by the presence of Nato allies in the region, primarily British and American troops. These forces have been stationed in the north-east for almost three years, working to defeat Islamic State (IS) by training the very people Erdogan is moving against: the Kurds.
The various entanglements of the Syrian Civil War are inextricable from one another. It’s perhaps more accurate not to think of the Syrian crisis as one civil war but instead as a series of concurrent but separate wars involving regional and great powers and their proxies.
When the Turkish offensive finally came, the pace and scale of events that followed was astonishing. Videos quickly emerged of Turkish-backed groups and militias committing war crimes by executing Kurds on the roadside. These images evoked memories from some of the worst days of conflict, when summary executions by armed groups were routine.
One of the victims of the Turkish onslaught was Hevrin Khalaf, the secretary general of the Future Syria Party, which is campaigning for a pluralist, democratic Syria. Khalaf was shot along with her driver and another seven civilians. Videos circulated by activists show just how brutal the killings were.
At the same time, nearly 800 women and children are thought to have escaped from a detention centre close to Ain Issa. This is just south of the border town of Tell Abyad, which was captured by Turkish forces shortly after the invasion. Although not everyone in the facility is aligned to IS (internally displaced civilians are held within these camps too), many foreign recruits for the group are known to have been there. Among the escaped contingent associated with IS are three British women: Tooba Gondal, who was there with her two children; and sisters Reema and Zara Iqbal, who have five children between them. All three are missing, as is Lisa Smith, a former Irish soldier, along with her two-year-old child.
This is not the first time Turkey has encroached into Syrian territory. Its first direct intervention was in August 2016 when it launched Operation Euphrates Shield, seizing territory along the border in the northern countryside of Aleppo province. Back then Syrian rebels against the regime of Bashar al-Assad were losing control of Aleppo city, while Kurdish forces had begun working with American troops to push IS from the town of Manbij and, later, from Jarabulus, which sits to the west of the River Euphrates.
Erdogan became increasingly concerned by the westward drive of Kurdish forces along the southern Turkish border, which would have given them control of most of the border while also connecting them to Iraqi Kurds. Working with elements of the Syrian opposition that it supports, Turkey established a sphere of control across an area of approximately 2,000 square kilometres. Although the region is ostensibly administered by rebels calling themselves the “Syrian Interim Government”, their activity is limited to what Turkish patronage will allow. Ankara’s control is so strong that it has reportedly resulted in “Turkification”: local schools are teaching Turkish, the police force is being trained in Turkey and the Turkish postal service has started serving the area.
In 2018 this region was connected to Idlib province, the last Syrian rebel redoubt, after Turkey launched another offensive, Operation Olive Branch, against Kurdish forces operating in Afrin district – a small pocket nestled in north-western Syria that is also part of Aleppo province. A ferocious assault ensued involving heavy weapons, fighter jets and local proxies. Hundreds of thousands were displaced.
Ankara has long-standing fears about Kurdish separatism within its borders. Successive Turkish governments have battled against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (better known as the PKK), which has waged a low-intensity insurgency since 1984. More than 40,000 people are estimated to have died in the conflict. The PKK is designated as a terrorist organisation by the US, the UK and the European Union. Erdogan has argued that Kurdish groups operating in Syria and elsewhere are no different from the PKK and are connected to it. He has attacked his Western counterparts for allying themselves with what Ankara regards as terrorist movements. Now he has seized the moment to expand his sphere of influence east of the Euphrates.
Donald Trump’s decision to indulge Erdogan’s ambitions in Syria was characteristically whimsical and unilateral. The Pentagon and defence officials first learned of it from Twitter, as did American troops on the ground. This provoked a public backlash from otherwise restrained officials. Brett McGurk, formerly the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter Isil, published an emphatic series of tweets condemning Trump on 9 October, shortly after the US withdrawal was announced.
“Turkey refused repeated and detailed requests to seal its side of the [Tal Abyad] border with US help and assistance,” McGurk wrote, accusing it of neglecting its duties to Nato allies in Europe that faced a serious terrorist threat from IS. “In June 2015, after no action from Turkey and the border still wide open, we enabled SDF fighters to clear Tal Abyad. After the battle, Turkey sealed the border (from the SDF not Isis) and built a wall.”
McGurk also rebuked Erdogan’s claims that the campaign was intrinsically linked to national security concerns. “This has nothing to do with Turkey’s security,” he wrote. “It is part of a plan to extend Turkey’s border 30km into Syria.”
His extraordinary outburst is an expression of the exasperation shared by many in America’s defence establishment over Trump’s inconsistency and erratic decision-making. The US alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces was described as “force multiplication”: a process where a limited number of American troops were deployed to work with local partners to prepare them for the bulk of the fighting. The strategy had been tried before, but with uneven success.
This time, Western military leaders have privately acknowledged that the partnership with the Syrian Kurds has been the most successful of its kind. They were considered to be trusted, reliable and (mostly) responsible. All of this is redundant now. The Kurds have been forced into making a strategic choice for survival between the brutal Syrian regime or Ankara’s onslaught. Kurdish officials have opted for the former and entered into pragmatic alliances with Assad.
Trump has effectively gifted Assad, whom he described on Twitter as “our enemy” on 14 October, control over the most stable part of Syria. The Syrian regime is now reoccupying areas that were previously beyond its reach, having been invited to do so by Kurdish forces keen to stop the Turkish advance. The implications of what has transpired are profound, given that approximately 11,000 Kurdish lives were lost in the American-led campaign to liberate these areas from IS.
There are now real fears that many of the gains made against Islamic State will unravel because of the Turkish intervention. When IS lost the entirety of its territorial caliphate tens of thousands of its members were detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces. But even on this point the Kurds have been betrayed. They have complained that they cannot hold captured IS fighters indefinitely and have urged Western countries to repatriate their citizens for prosecution at home.
Conditions within the camps are desperate. In April this year, scores of male detainees attempted to escape from Dayrik prison near the border with Iraq. The plan failed, but not before Kurdish guards were taken hostage and a long stand-off ensued. There have been similar tensions at al-Hawl, the sprawling tent city that holds more than 70,000 women and children. As many as 11,000 are foreigners, of whom 7,000 are children. The mortality rates are harrowing. In the nine months from December 2018, the International Rescue Committee recorded 339 child deaths in al-Hawl, an average of more than one a day. Whatever one thinks of the fate awaiting captured IS fighters, few would think their children are anything other than victims.
Islamic State was forged in conditions similar to those in which these detainees are being held in northern Syria. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US created Camp Bucca, a large detention facility in Umm Qasr, in southern Iraq close to the Kuwaiti border. At its peak, the camp housed more than 20,000 insurgents, many of them aligned with al-Qaeda or related groups. It proved a boon for the movement. Leaders and ordinary members who would never have otherwise met or who avoided congregating in large numbers because they feared drone strikes were brought together in a safe space. Together they plotted their revenge.
History is now repeating itself as farce. Western governments have stubbornly refused to take custody of their nationals who fought for IS, fearing that it might not be possible to secure convictions against them at home. This reluctance has enraged Trump. Britain has led the way in washing its hands of the crisis by simply stripping suspected IS members of their citizenship. The effect has been to offload the problem on to one of the most unstable and dangerous places on Earth: Syria. Now that Turkey has invaded the country, too, the fool-hardiness of this approach is obvious.
Is the Turkish campaign began on 9 October, American troops operating in north-eastern Syria attempted to take “several dozen” high-profile IS fighters into custody, according to the New York Times. The Guardian has since reported that the Kurds only allowed the Americans to leave with two men: El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey. Both from London, they are believed to have been members of the so-called Beatles, the jailers who sadistically tortured Western hostages – among them Alan Henning, a taxi driver from Eccles in Greater Manchester who was captured while delivering aid in Syria; and David Haines, from Holderness, East Yorkshire, another aid worker. Along with several Americans, including the journalist James Foley, they were beheaded by Mohammed Emwazi (otherwise known as Jihadi John). Another captured journalist, John Cantlie, who is British, has never been found.
President Trump has styled his administration as one that secures American interests before all else. When asked what he thought of Islamic State detainees potentially escaping, he said: “Well they’re going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go, they want to go back to their homes.” Britain’s approach of steadfastly refusing to charge its IS fighters has strained relations with the Trump administration. “I have been disappointed, frankly, that the British are not willing to try the cases,” then attorney general Jeff Sessions told the US Senate last year.
There are now plans to transfer Kotey to Virginia for trial, and perhaps Elshiekh as well. The fate of other IS members is even less clear. One such case is Nero Saraiva, a Portuguese national who later became a permanent resident in the UK. He was one of six Portuguese men who had moved to London, and was hoping to become a professional footballer. He lived with his friends in Leyton, east London, where they all converted to Islam.
Saraiva travelled to Syria in 2012 (before IS had formally entered the conflict) and opened the way for his five friends to join him in 2013. They were later killed, while Saraiva was eventually caught during IS’s last stand in the town of Baghouz in eastern Syria. He is thought to have been badly wounded.
Saraiva climbed the ranks of IS and enjoyed access to privileged information. On 10 July 2014, he published a tweet that suggested he had foreknowledge of James Foley’s murder. “Message to America, the Islamic State is making a new movie,” he wrote. “Thank u for the actors.” More than five weeks later, IS released footage of Foley’s beheading.
Another fighter in Kurdish custody is Aseel Muthana, a British citizen who left his home in Cardiff in 2014. He followed his brother, Nasser Muthana, and their friend, Reyaad Khan, who had travelled to Syria in late 2013, although both are now dead. Khan was reportedly the first British citizen to be killed by an RAF drone strike.
Like many IS recruits, Aseel Muthana revelled in its barbarism. When asked about what he thought about the beheading of Western aid workers, Muthana replied, “Lol” (“laughing out loud”).
Islamic State fighters relished the prospect of taking on the Americans, believing they were destined to win. “If they [the Americans] fight us on the ground it’s glad tidings for us,” Muthana wrote on a social media platform called ask.fm. “We know that they can’t afford this and it’s their last option cuz nothing else is working. And like we did before (by Allah’s permission) we will send them to their families in coffins.” Like almost everyone at the time, Muthana declared: “I never plan to return to the UK.”
Although these men were once the foot soldiers and middle-managers of Islamic State, their knowledge of the group’s plans or internal structures are now of little relevance. What matters is if they – and many others like them – escape from the camps in northern Syria and regroup. So far, that has not happened. The facilities holding IS fighters are more secure than those such as the camp near Ain Issa, where the women escaped. Yet IS has vowed to recover both its men and women, and has launched limited attacks in order to free them. If freed, many would not just want to avenge their detention but would also seek to capitalise on the chaos in north-eastern Syria. Kurdish forces have stated that holding IS fighters is now a secondary concern as they counter the Turkish offensive. “Isis is surely preparing to reconstitute in the maelstrom,” McGurk has warned.
Herein lies the cost of President Trump’s whimsical calculation. He rushed to downscale American forces in Syria because he wants to cast himself as a commander-in-chief capable of securing quick and decisive victories ahead of next year’s presidential election. The consequences of his decision will, in the first instance at least, reverberate within the region. But there will be a reckoning. Trump’s actions represent the collapse of American diplomacy and the ruination of its reputation among some of Washington’s most loyal allies in the Middle East. It is difficult to see how America – and the West – can recover from the resulting loss of trust.
Shiraz Maher is director at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London and a New Statesman contributing writer