We warned two weeks ago about the danger of abandoning America’s Kurdish-led partner force in Syria, even as thousands of suspected ISIS fighters remain in detention and ISIS attacks steadily increase. This week, with a U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria well under way, and after days of a Turkish assault on the region that’s now supposedly paused despite reports of serious cease-fire violations, we’re facing a new set of problems. Today, though, the U.S. has far less control over what happens—and the continued fighting and uncertainty will benefit ISIS and ISIS alone.
So what now? The U.S. still needs to keep ISIS from threatening U.S. interests, even as it manages the departure of American troops and tries to help create a path forward through the new dynamics on the ground. But what can the U.S. do to mitigate any potential for ISIS resurgence or escape? And what pressure can the U.S. bring to truly halt the Turkish offensive and promote a peaceful dialogue?
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been maintaining a network of prisons in northern Syria that keep suspected ISIS fighters off the battlefield. Since the Turkish incursion against Kurdish forces, though, incredibly alarming media reports say dozens of ISIS detainees and family members have escaped from these facilities in the chaos, and the potential for an ISIS resurgence or insurgency—in areas only recently liberated from the group’s control—is the top threat facing the U.S. and its coalition partners.
The No. 1 U.S. priority in Syria is to maintain the detention facilities and encampments and keep pressure on ISIS. This will be difficult, given the Turkish assault as well as the deal the SDF has struck with the Syrian regime since the U.S. withdrawal announcement. There is only so much America can do with no troop presence as other powers rush in to fill the void.
Indeed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the coming days, likely further solidifying their own spheres of influence in Syria, without the United States. For the part it can control, the U.S.-led coalition should work with Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq to reinforce their borders and ensure that no escaped ISIS fighters or family members are able to cross. With the small presence remaining at Syria’s al-Tanf Garrison as well as other bases in the region, the U.S. can still use its intelligence assets along the Iraq-Syria, Jordan-Syria, and Turkey-Syria borders to monitor ISIS movements. The U.S. will also need to maintain its battlefield communications channel with Russia, the Syrian government’s ally, to ensure that, when necessary, it has the ability to strike ISIS or extremist targets from Syrian airspace.
President Donald Trump has made clear that Turkey and other countries now bear the responsibility for the detention of ISIS fighters, but with the regime likely coming into the greater northeast at large—not just towns affected by the offensive—it is probable that a mixture of SDF and regime security forces will continue the security of camps and prison facilities. Both will need to keep dangerous ISIS fighters off the battlefield, as well as work to facilitate aid access into encampments—something that will remain difficult as many aid groups are often unwilling to enter regime territory.
It’s still unclear what sort of punishment the Assad regime will impose on the SDF for partnering with the U.S., and whether any such repercussions will affect the SDF’s ability to maintain the camps and detention facilities and continue pressuring ISIS. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has reportedly been known to release jihadists to stir chaos when his regime wants to have reason to clamp down on unrest. We also know from our 2003–11 experience, when extremist forces crossed into Syria from Iraq and set up what ultimately became ISIS, that the regime often turns a blind eye to foreign fighters operating in its territory. To ensure the success of the SDF and whatever elements of the regime end up managing this problem, the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS may need to open a limited window of rapprochement with the Syrian regime or the Russians, who will surely use the detention issue as leverage against the West.
Meanwhile, despite a “cease-fire” declared for five days after Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Ankara on Thursday, it appears the Turkish offensive continues. Last week, President Trump announced a number of sanctions against current and former officials of Turkey, while others in the international community have ended arms sales to Turkey and strongly condemned the attack. These measures are both necessary and warranted, given that there are already reports of Turkey and Turkish-backed groups committing heinous war crimes, indiscriminately targeting civilians, and even releasing ISIS detainees. The international community, with the U.S. at its helm, should come together to strongly condemn this behavior, halt the offensive permanently, and encourage Turkey to pursue dialogue to mitigate any threats it has identified along its border. If the U.S. was unable to stop a Turkish offensive with its own troops in the way, it will require significant international pressure to halt it now.
One solution to ensure mutual security for Turkey and the SDF might come about through Turkish dialogue with Kurdish groups that already enjoy good relations with Ankara, such as other Syrian or Iraqi Kurdish groups. The U.S. can support, as well as facilitate, such discussions—building off efforts that the British and French were already undertaking prior to the Turkish incursion. General Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the SDF, has made it clear that he is open to talking with the Turkish government. Turkey might not be so open, given that it considers the Kurdish elements of the SDF a terrorist group because of their ties to guerrillas in Turkey. But other Kurdish groups enjoy trust and diplomatic relationships with Turkey; those groups could help resolve intra-Kurdish tensions while laying a foundation of confidence-building measures that could eventually lead to direct talks between the SDF and the Turks.
U.S. options in Syria are more limited than they were before, but Washington still has opportunities to address U.S. strategic interests and national security. To do that, the U.S. must call for an immediate—and true—freeze of the Turkish invasion; refocus on mitigating the fallout of escaping ISIS fighters to ensure that they cannot cross into Turkey, Iraq, or Jordan, which may necessitate a back channel with the regime or the Russians; and promote confidence-building measures for Turkey to pursue a dialogue with the SDF. With a full withdrawal order in effect, and only a small presence of U.S. soldiers in At Tanf Garrison in southern Syria, the U.S. should now focus on what elements it can influence—ensuring that ISIS cannot resurge and once again threaten America and its allies.