Syrian government troops have began advancing north following a deal struck with Kurdish-led forces to hold off Turkey’s military offensive, as Kurdish authorities reported the escape of hundreds of people with links to ISIS from a detention camp in the area.
The reported deal comes as US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw all remaining American forces out of northern Syria. The development has paralyzed the fight against ISIS and ceded US and Kurdish battlefield gains to Syrian government forces that are allied with Russia.
There are also growing concerns over the safety of civilians as hundreds of thousands of families flee the Turkish offensive, with Kurdish-controlled towns coming under heavy fire. Turkey said it has taken control of two key border towns inside Syria. Pro-Turkish forces have also cut off the main road between the east and west of Syrian Kurdish territory, effectively cutting off the main city of Kobani.
As Turkey pushed ahead with its offensive, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces say a prominent Kurdish politician, her driver, members of Kurdish security forces and several civilians were killed by Turkish-backed militants, after videos circulating online appeared to show the execution style killings.
The Free Syrian Army or FSA (also called the Syrian National Army), have denied those claims. CNN cannot independently verify the videos.
It comes days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched the incursion into Syria to drive Kurdish forces away from the border and to use the area to resettle around two million Syrian refugees.
The SDF who operate in the area are led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Assad’s soldiers helping Kurdish forces
On Sunday, the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and Eastern Syria said it reached an agreement with the Syrian government to deploy troops along the entirety of Syrian-Turkish border.
Units from the Syrian Army were moving towards the north Sunday night to “oppose the Turkish aggression” on Syrian territory, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.
The new agreement between the Kurds and Damascus represents a new chapter in the eight-year Syrian war, and one that is throwing up changing alliances in an area already saturated with infighting.
The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and Eastern Syria said Sunday that the Syrian government had the duty of protecting its borders and sovereignty.
“This agreement offers an opportunity to liberate the rest of the Syrian territories and cities occupied by the Turkish army as Afrin and other Syrian cities and towns,” the statement said.
The deal means that Kurdish forces, who were considered vital US allies in the fight against ISIS, would be fighting alongside allies of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which the US opposes.
The Syrian government has not commented on such an agreement.
Russia will likely welcome a full US troop withdrawal. As allies of the Assad regime, Moscow could gain greater leverage in the region.
ISIS families escape from camp
But the offensive threatens gains made against ISIS.
Kurdish authorities claim Turkey’s offensive has led to the escape of “785 people affiliated with foreign ISIS fighters” from the Ain Issa camp. The camp mainly houses internally displaced people and some ISIS family members.
According to a statement posted on the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria Facebook page, “ISIS elements attacked the camp guards, opened the gates and escaped.” CNN is unable to verify the claims.
Erdogan called the reports of an escape “disinformation” in order to “provoke the US and Europe,” Turkish news agency Anadolu reports.
Trump has railed against European countries for not taking back their nationals who left to join the extremist group. “The US has the worst of the ISIS prisoners. Turkey and the Kurds must not let them escape. Europe should have taken them back after numerous requests. They should do it now.” Trump tweeted Sunday.
Trump has also dismissed the overall threat of ISIS escapees, saying last week, “Well, they’re going to be escaping to Europe.”
A European intelligence official questioned the Syrian regime and Russia’s readiness and willingness to take foreign ISIS fighters into custody.
“There is a high chance fighters or their families could attempt to come back to Europe. They could also try and retake the land of the caliphate, disappear back into ungoverned territory to regroup or a combination of all of that. Dealing with the last two would be a major challenge without a committed ground force as you can’t just use air power,” the official said.
The official added that it was unlikely the SDF would trust the West again.
An American official, expressing anger over the recent developments, told CNN that in his opinion US policy had “failed,” and that the nation and its allies “are now facing new threats at home and abroad.”
“ISIS has a second life and our geo-political allies are the ones who have the advantage,” said the official, speaking candidly in a personal capacity about the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. “Russia and (the Syrian) regime will take back all of the territory and Iran has freedom of movement across the region.”
More than 150,000 people have been displaced from border areas around Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
As roads flood with families trying to escape the offensive, criticism has been leveled at Trump for pulling troops out of the area thereby helping to provide a de facto go ahead for the Turkish attack.
Retired US four-star Marine Gen. John Allen on Sunday said, “There is blood on Trump’s hands for abandoning our Kurdish allies.”
The former commander of American forces in Afghanistan and former special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS under the Obama administration, told CNN the unfolding crisis in Syria was “completely foreseeable” and “the US green lighted it.”
“There was no chance Erdogan would keep his promise, and full blown ethnic cleansing is underway by Turkish supported militias,” he said. “This is what happens when Trump follows his instincts and because of his alignment with autocrats.”
The Trump administration has insisted Turkey would have proceeded with their offensive regardless of whether US troops had remained and that the US has not deserted the Syrian Kurds.