Updated at 3:19 p.m. ET.
The prisoners were an emergency waiting to happen. For months, thousands of suspected Islamic State fighters from some 50 countries languished in makeshift jails in northeastern Syria; sometimes, a few broke out. But U.S.-backed Kurdish forces were, for the most part, keeping them locked up.
Then President Donald Trump ordered U.S. forces to withdraw from outposts in the area, clearing the way for the Turkish assault on America’s Kurdish partners in the fight on ISIS, and destroying the tenuous balance that has helped keep the Islamic State contained. Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement of a five-day pause in the fighting today—meant to give Kurdish forces time to leave territory within 20 miles of the Turkish border—also included the promise that Turkey would cooperate with the U.S. to guard prisoners. But it left unresolved the question of how those prisoners would be transferred from the custody of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Meanwhile, in the chaos of the days leading up to Tuesday’s withdrawal announcement from Trump, and with many Kurdish forces suddenly consumed with defending themselves, more suspected fighters reportedly broke out. Trump ventured yesterday that the number was probably fewer than 100, though as Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reported, no one really knew. U.S. forces in the region were busy relocating to avoid the fighting. A Defense Department spokesman told me Kurdish forces were still manning the prisons, for now. But the U.S. has no plan to keep all those ISIS fighters off the battlefield if the Kurds leave the prisons. And just like that, what was once a festering but contained problem threatened to become a disaster, and no one could even say how bad.